NEWTON — Don Schroeder had quite a story to tell this week at Newton Public Library, one he told in front of a standing-room-only crowd.
His father, John A. Lingenfelter, was one of five children who were treated at Bethel Deaconess Hospital in May of 1919. Those five children, four girls and one boy, came to Newton on an “Orphan Train.”
“These are stories I have heard all of my life,” Schroeder said. “They were destitute, living in the hill country of Pennsylvania.”
Lingenfelter’s birth parents died within a day of each other as the result of influenza.
“One day John A. Lingenfelter was at the hospital and he saw a hearse go by the window. He asked the nurse, 'Is that my momma?’ She did not reply. The next day he saw another hearse go by the window. He asked, ‘Is that my daddy?’ Again, no reply,” Schroeder said. “Several days later the children were taken to the cemetery and shown the graves of their mother and father.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.
The youngest Lingenfelter was taken to an uncle's home, the rest to their grandparents. There, John Lingenfelter was once punished for wanting a drink of water. After a short time, he went to live with a young couple who twice locked him in a closet with a blanket when they wanted to go dancing.
"That bugged him the rest of his life," Don Schroeder said. "He decided he was done living with them. After telling what happened (to his uncle), he said, 'I am not staying with them. I am running away.' "
He was taken back to his grandfather's home. At the time, there was a Mennonite General Conference meeting in Pennsylvania with the Red Cross and H.P. Krehbiel, from Newton. Krehbiel was asked if he would take care of five orphan children from the same home.
"Young Lingenfelter did not know what was happening when he and his siblings were taken to the train depot," Don Schroeder said. "He made a run for it but was caught and put on the train under the supervision of (a missionary). 'I'll be back,' he vowed."
The first Kansas-bound orphan train arrived in the state in 1867 and the last in 1930, the same year the Orphan Train movement officially ceased operations. During that time, it is estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 children were placed in Kansas homes.
In all, there were six Lingenfelter orphans — five made the trip to Newton on the same train.
The Bethel Deaconess Board, using grant funds, helped bring them to Newton. Four of the children were school age but had never attended school. They were poor, lacking shoes. They were short, small and malnourished.
They were kept in the Bethel Deaconess Sisters Home under the eye of Frieda Kauffman. One of those children received a free operation from Arthur Hertzler, of Halstead Hospital fame, to correct a problem with the child's neck. All were adopted when they got here.
The oldest Lingenfelter to make the trip was 13, the youngest 6.
On May 26, John Lingenfelter was adopted by the Schroeder family. It was a day that he never forgot and a story he told his children often.
"One day (Kauffman) said, 'Someone is coming to get a look at you and you might get a home,' " Don Schroeder said. "After washing in a hurry, he slid down the stair railing to get there first. He remembered that, and told that story the rest of his life."