Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Wartburg Orphanage

Postcard of the Wartburg Orphanage, around 1914

A few weeks ago I read a crushing article, “The Lost Children of Tuam,” in the New York Times. 

The story concerns hundreds of unmarried Irish Catholic mothers who, during the mid-twentieth century, were exiled to the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in County Galway. Inside the stone fortress, as one survivor described the home, the nuns subjected the mothers and their children to neglect and degradation.      

Then, after a year of abuse, the mothers were forced out into the world leaving their children behind.  Many of those children eventually died and were buried under gruesome circumstances, although some made it through.

When the neighborhood kids encountered the St. Mary’s children at the local school, they taunted them and called them “home babies.”

Although the circumstances are vastly different, the story reminded me of the Wartburg Orphanage in the city where I grew up, and how the students who lived there were known as the “Wartburg kids.”  That’s what we called them.  The teachers said it, too.  If pressed, a child might state in a very low voice, “I live at the Wartburg.”

 Late nineteenth-century view of the Wartburg Orphanage

We never visited the Wartburg.  Therefore, we didn’t know anything about what life was like there.  No one enlightened us, either, which made it even easier to imagine something unpleasant.  

There was an impassable line between the students who lived at the Wartburg and everyone else who attended our predominantly white elementary school.  Our city had a very strict social order most evident in the railroad cut that separated the South Side – largely black – and the North Side – largely white.  The Wartburg fit into that hierarchy. 

The founder of the orphanage, Rev. William Passavant, called it the Wartburg Orphan’s Farm School.  He started it after the Civil War for the children of dead soldiers.  For a while, elderly people lived there, too.  The reverend went on to establish several other orphan’s homes and spread the word of evangelical Lutheranism.   

He named the school after the medieval Wartburg Castle, located on a mountaintop in Thuringia in central Germany.

Passavant asked a businessman named Peter Moller to purchase 121 acres in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and to provide an endowment.  Moller, who liked to refer to himself as a Hanoverian immigrant (as opposed to German), was the eldest of several brothers who went into the sugar refining business in the 1850s.  He made his fortune as president of the American Sugar Refining Company.  Eventually he got embroiled in price-fixing but that was long after he gave Passavant the money.

George Charles Holls, first director of the
Wartburg Orphanage

To head the Wartburg, Passavant called on George Charles Holls, a German immigrant who had risen quickly in the ministry after he founded the first Lutheran orphan asylum in the U. S., in a Pennsylvania town that bore the inimitable name, Zelienople.   

After Holls retired in 1889, along came Gottlieb Cleopas Berkemeier, who presided over the Wartburg until his death in 1924. During World War I, Berkemeier became active in Friends of Peace, a pro-German group that lobbied against American involvement in the war, especially the prospect of a military alliance between the U.S. and the U.K.

The first American orphanages sprang up during the early 1800s in response to industrialization, which robbed children of their parents’ care.  Some orphanages were created to wrest control of children from their parents; this occurred especially among the families of Irish immigrants.

A social reformer named Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in New York City in 1854, working initially with newsboys.  Reverend Brace also created the Orphans Train, which transported city children to the Midwest, Plains, and New England where they joined new families, mostly on farms.  Astonishingly, the Orphans Train relocated nearly 400,000 children.

Orphanages proliferated in the U. S. during the last third of the nineteenth century.  Some historians believe this reflected society’s deepening concern for the welfare of the needy, young and old.  All institutions were privately funded, and religious and ethnic groups looked out for their own.  

My great-grandmother, for example, lost her husband soon after emigrating from Russia to the U. S. with two young children.  She placed them in a Hebrew Asylum for one year until she got back on her feet.

There were a few orphanages for African-American children.  The Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City operated between 1836 and 1946. By and large, however, black children without parents were sent to jail or reform school.

As progressivism surged into the twentieth century, Americans became disenchanted with orphanages, which were thought to keep children dependent and in lock-step (not to mention concerns about abuse).  In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt convened a White House conference to address the care of dependent children.  Subsequently, the Federal Government created the Children’s Bureau, which had considerable latitude in overseeing foster homes, institutions, and medical care.   

In 1911, Illinois became the first state to authorize mother’s pensions for families without male breadwinners.  It was thought that the pensions would minimize the need for orphanages.  By 1919, 39 states had followed suit.  Eventually the program was folded into the New Deal, along with much of the work of the Children’s Bureau.

Through two world wars and the Depression, orphanages were filled to capacity.  During those years, the Wartburg drew widespread praise as a model institution. 

In 1964, its board decided that the children should attend the local public schools.  I’m certain that at least a few public school parents and administrators objected. After all, these were “Wartburg kids.” 

This still, from a 1938 documentary about the Wartburg Orphanage,
oddly evokes "The Sound of Music" thunderstorm scene. 

*In 1979, the Wartburg closed its doors.

See posts November 2, 2015; December 21, 2015; May 18, 2016.


  1. I’m quite ashamed of how we viewed those kids. Suspiciously, as if they had done something wrong.

  2. I see your note that the Wartburg closed in ‘79. They are still in business today, as an elder care facility. Some of the original buildings still remain.

  3. I lived at the Wartburg for a few years back in 1957 and 1958. My parents were both WWII disabled vets. They were quite destitute and no longer had the means to take care of my brother and me. I have nothing but fond memories of living there except after my dad had visited me while living there. I remember him leaving and me completely upset and crying that he had to go. But other than that I suppose my few years there were quite positive. I was well taken care of and loved. What a shame our government made it impossible to keep the place open. Far better than the broken foster care system we have today. Kids need stability in their formative lives. But yet they're treated like furniture moving from one foster home to another. But our benevolent caretakers in Washington know what's best for us, far better than what we ourselves know what is best for us. The bureaucrats and their accomplisses on the Left wish only to run our lives for us. We're too incapable of making the right decisions and doing the right things for ourselves. God forbid they give up their power and let families, churches, and communities decide what's best. The reason the Warburg closed was due to liberals in the state of New York wanting to wrest control of children away from parents and churches and use government run foster care instead. The Wartburg was a model institution that took good care of children, yet there were those in government who had "better ideas" of taking care of the young. They forced upon the Wartburg unattainable regulations such as the size of rooms, square feet of living space for each child, stairs that had to conform to government code, specific educational requirements, etc, which is how government usually does things to end programs and ideas that conflict with the state's agenda. It took way too much money for the Lutheran church to continue operating the Wartburg Orphanage, given these unattainable regulations. Prior to liberals hijacking the country in the 60's, our country had institutions for those with mental/drug problems, but those institutions were closed as well and now we have homelessness all over the country. Our government doing what it does best. In any event, my parents eventually could take care of me and I returned home after two years at the Wartburg. How much damage did it do to me by living at the Wartburg? I went on to go to college, enrolled in USAF ROTC, graduated in 1974, got married, went to pilot training, flew airplanes on missions that were briefed in the White House Situation Room, had two kids which we home schooled through high school given the sad state of education in our country, went to work at American Airlines as a pilot for them, retired in 2011 and am now happily retired with my wife of 44 years. So much for how horrible orphanages were. For those of you old enough to remember, the first "Rocket Man" who flew around Shea Stadium with a jetpack strapped to his back in the 60's, had also lived at the Wartburg! We need to get the state out of the business of running our lives and have families, neighborhoods, and churches take back what rightfully belongs to them. It would be a far better world. What a coincidence that our culture began collapsing around the same time that government began implementing their ideas.

    1. I remember two friends who lived there in the late 1950s through 1969. I don't remember if I ever visited. I was always intrigued. It's so great to hear your wonderful story.

  4. I believe I went to school with some of these children. Which elementary, Jr. High, and High school do you/they attend?

    1. My family moved out of Connecticut in 1960 and relocated in the NW suburbs of Chicago where my mom had been raised. My parents thought they'd have more support living near where my mom's sister and husband lived as well as my mom's mother whose husband had died in 1957 or so. I attended St Peters Lutheran School in the fourth grade, Ridge Elementary in Elk Grove Vlg, Grove Jr High and Elk Grove HS. It would be astonishing if I ever connected with any of the boys who were there with me back in the mid 50's. I've got a number of pictures from my time at The Wartburg. Wish I knew how I could post them somewhere on this site. Bill

    2. My parents moved away from Connecticut and relocated in the suburbs of Chicago in 1959 where my mom's sister and her husband lived. They thought there'd be more support for them there. I attended 5th grade, Jr high and high school in Elk Grove Vlg, a town on the west side of O'Hare airport.

    3. My parents moved to Illinois shortly after we left the orphanage. I did attend 2nd grade near Riverside CT and 3rd grade in Danbury, prior to their moving to Illinois.

  5. I found as I was going through my Ancestry that relatives of my mother's Uncle's wife, spent time at this place as children. Their father was from Germany and became a US soldier. Their mother was from Ireland. I haven't figured out why they were there.

  6. For a variety of reasons children were placed in the orphanage. I lived there b cause both my parents were disabled vets from WWII. They were financially poor and couldn’t take care of us. My mother sold Tupperware while my dad was in a VA hospital for a long period of time after my brother and I were born. So my mother couldn’t take care of us if she was out selling Tupperware. We were living in very bad public housing at the time in Stamford. My mom told me I had been bitten by rats during the time they lived there. Some kids had no parents, others had maybe one. I do remember one kid’s dad coming to see him a few times. But we were all taken very good care of and loved by our 2 “house mothers”, Miss Grossman and Margaret.

    1. Was it ever a Jewish home? The friends I knew who lived there were Jewish.

  7. How do I get a record of a relative who was imprisoned here as a baby. For all we know she died there. I find her there during through the 1920's and I would like to know what happened to her, as she was my grandmothers sister she was never allowed to know about.

  8. The Wartburg is still there, as a senior center. They may still have records. The address:One Wartburg Place

    Mount Vernon, NY 10552



  9. Mike Burdi, Wed, Aug. 19, 2020
    I do remember four kids from The Wartburg Home attending Traphagen JHS. There were two boys and two girls, the only name I can recall was Arnold. Memory suggests they were quiet, pleasent, nice kids. I do remember playing with the guys once in awhile after school. This had to be circa 1958 or 59. Thank you for awakening some very old memories. So enjoy your writings. Post note: I do remember the kids were either Austrian or German.

  10. I remember four students who lived at Wartburg and attended Traphagen JHS. There were two boys and two girls, the only name I can recall is Arnold. Memory suggests they were pleasant, quiet nice kids. This was approx. 1958 or 59, I do remember playing with the boys after school. I believe they were either Austrian or German.

  11. I grew up in Mt. Vernon in the 1960s. Around 1964, Janie Bealer, who was the daughter of the reverend in charge of Wartburg, was my after school babysitter. She was the best babysitter I ever had. She was kind, fun and sensitive to the needs of children. She and her family lived in a house on the Wartburg campus that looked a lot like the administration building in the photo posted above. She would often take me to her home and the campus. I really liked those times. The campus had lots of facilities for after school activities and I played with some of the children who lived there. They were very nice kids. I had a positive impression of the school. I attended Traphagen Elementary School and don’t remember identifying any of the other children as being from Wartburg.

  12. I knew Janie Bealer I used to live there i knew her bother and parents

  13. We lived on Lafayette Avenue around the block from the Wartburg. We would travel through the grounds to go to Traphagen sometimes. My brother occasionally played softball with the kids there. There was an annual festival, probably to raise money that we would attend. I remember a small, old fashioned bowling alley in the basement of one of the buildings.

  14. I grew up in one of the two Wartburg Cottages on Reeback Drive in Valhalla. My grandparents purchased the home after Wartburg closed. They called it a cottage but it was a 3 story brick home wuth marble staircases and 2 toilets in the bathroom with marble stalls. It was an amazing place to live. My family sold it in 2004 for $675,000 but it is estimated worth 1.3 milliin now. Its wonderful learning the history of a place I loved so much.

  15. I played touch football there in the middle 1950s. We would walk in from Hanover Place. Many of the participants were kids from the neighborhoods. One fellow John Knox (AB Davis 1960) said that we should play the Catholics vs the Protestants. As I was Jewish, I asked what side I should be on? He said the Protestants. Richard J. Garfunkel


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