It was about a mile, down a hill, across Shawnee Creek and up a winding road. A shrill whistle would ring through the oaks and maples several times a day reminding you it was “that” close.
The Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home stood at the top of that winding road. It was stoic and majestic and mysterious all at the same time. Growing up so close to the Home was a blessing and a curse. It was like the haunted house you just passed by on Halloween. You always wanted to go up that hill but everyone had a story why you shouldn’t. You know, like the kid who went in but never came out. He was supposedly buried out back.
Nearby stores and gas stations all had signs on their doors stating no more than two Home kids were allowed inside at a time. Rumor had it that several kids had killed their parents, some were thieves, the rest were just plain bad kids.
All those years growing up and that air whistle just kept blowing. All those stories kept multiplying. Home kids had their life up on their hill, we had ours on the east side of that little creek.
In high school I was part of a group of athletes, dressed in our blue Varsity X jackets, who went to the Home to speak to kids about the dangers of smoking. I guess the Home was having a problem with kids smoking and thought hearing from a group of athletes would help convince them to stop.
Inside the Home for once I met the murderers, thieves and bad kids face to face. Of course they were nothing like we had heard. They were pretty normal kids really. They traded baseball cards, chased kites and worked with farm animals. If they had an axe murder in the mix they must have kept him locked away.
I started to wonder if all those stories were spread to keep us away because we were the bad influences? Some of these kids were orphans, others were just from troubled homes. All of them shared a bond that was extremely tight.
After that a group of us from the high school organized a canoe trip for some of the younger Home kids. We got to know them a little better and brought them all back safely. I wonder if anyone would trust a group of high schoolers with a bunch of little orphan kids like that today?
In 1978 I spent a couple of days at the Home with my camera trying to show what life was like for the kids. By now the fear from the bogus stories was gone. These kids were not criminals. They were just kids growing up in a place and time I bet many people wish we could have today. They had rules and chores and military discipline. The farm animals all had names. They played games, went to school and stood up for each other
Later that year the Home changed it’s name to the Ohio Veterans’ Childrens’ Home, leaving the orphan legacy to history.
In 1865 President Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, poetically stated “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
A few months later Lincoln was assassinated but his dream that Civil War orphans be taken care of lived on. Homes like the one in Xenia rose up to fill the need for children from that war and others to follow. The home in Xenia opened in 1870 and closed in 1997.
That air whistle.
About 10 years after I shot the photos you see here, I moved to a small town east of Indianapolis. While moving in I heard a shrill whistle ring through the air. It was an eerie sound and so familiar. I asked a neighbor what it was from. He was a milkman and knew everything and everyone in Knightstown.
“That’s the old orphans’ Home steam whistle,” he said.
Turns out the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home was just down the hill, across the Big Blue River and at the top of a winding road.
I grew to love that whistle…
All Photos are Copyright 2017 Mike Fender Photography