Pueblo County, Colorado
Stanley Cornell

Contributed by Karen Mitchell

Puebloan recalls trips on 'Orphan Train' 

The Pueblo Chieftain 

Young Stanley Cornell could only shake his head yes when a potential father asked if he liked horses, cows, chickens and dogs.

Stanley Cornell talks about his experiences on the Orphan Train.
Coming from a crowded New York City orphanage, the 6-year-old never had seen farm animals. All he'd known was a brief family life led by a war-scarred father and a mother who died giving birth to his sister; a brutal 2 years in the care of the Children's Aid Society, when he often was cold and hungry and often was mistreated; and two cross-country rides on the "Orphan Train" with only a blanket to call his own.

Stanley shook his head yes that day in December 1927 in the lobby of the Wellington Hotel in a Texas town of the same name, and he clutched the hand of his younger brother, Victor. He wouldn't let go.

The father prospect was J.L. Deger, who was persuaded to take both boys, and who bundled them up against the pre-Christmas cold, gave them a big bag of jelly beans to share, and took them home as a surprise for his wife and two daughters.

So began the next, happier phase of Cornell's life.

Now 80 years old, a retired jeweler and the owner of two local restaurants with his sons, Dennis and Dana, Cornell is preparing to ride the Orphan Train again - at least in his memory. He plans to attend a Colorado reunion for Orphan Train riders April 28-30 in Lakewood. At this point, he's one of four known train riders in the state.

"About 200 of us kids were put on a train heading due west," Cornell said. "We stopped at the small villages and farming towns and stood outside the coaches while people would come by and look and talk to us - much like farmers would do at an animal auction.

"If they wanted one, two or three, all they had to do was sign a piece of paper that had our names on it, which stated they'd raise us until we became of legal age . . ."

The paper also stated that the foster parents could return the children during a one-year trial period, which is what happened to Stanley and Victor the first time they rode the train. After three months with a family at Coffeyville, Kan., the boys were sent back to New York City "where bad feelings - sadness and feeling unwanted - haunted us for another six months," Cornell said.

Their second Orphan Train ride took them and approximately 300 other children down the East Coast, across Mississippi and Louisiana and up into Texas. At Wellington, 100 miles southeast of Amarillo, something about the two Cornell boys touched Deger's heart, and he took them home to his family and their farm.

"They picked us up and carried us in the house and warmed us by the pot-bellied stove and talked us to shreds," Cornell said.

"We were so lucky to have a loving family, and also to have a full tummy and nice clothes and a warm place to sleep.

"Nine kids were taken by different families that day, and after a year's time, we were the only ones left. It was a good home."

Deger and his wife, Ethel, raised the boys, who in turn used their last name. But Stanley found out when he was ready to enlist in the Army that he and his brother never actually had been adopted and their real name still was Cornell.

While in the service, Cornell was able to locate his father and younger sister - his father lived in Buffalo, N.Y., and she lived in Cleveland - but meeting them in person had to wait until 1945, after he had spent three years overseas in World War II.

"He (Floyd Cornell, the father) was a pretty sick man. He was in World War I and served in Europe until he was sent home in 1918 because he was shell-shocked, gassed and wounded. He could only work part time at a General Motors assembly plant, and about every two months would have to go to the veterans' hospital to recuperate.

"Mom (Lottie Cornell) died when my baby sister was born. I can remember standing by Mom's bed as she was dying. She was talking to us and I can still hear her crying. I was 40 when she died. "It really hurt him to let us go, but he had no choice," Cornell said of his father. "When the lady from the Children's Aid Society came out to check on us, she said, 'I'll have to take the children.' "She put us in the back of a big black limousine car. As I looked out the back window, Daddy Floyd was standing there on the porch holding a handkerchief; he was crying."

The baby girl, Elouise, was adopted by an aunt who already had five children of her own. She also had cancer. "It all worked out in the end," Cornell said.

Victor lives in Moscow, Idaho, and the brothers keep in touch through letters.

The Orphan Train program ran from 1853 through 1929, and placed more than 150,000 children, many of them in the West. Approximately 500 riders still are alive, according to organizers of the upcoming Colorado reunion.

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© Karen Mitchell