Quilt memorializes orphan train rider

From 1854 to 1929, an estimated 250,000 children rode trains from New York and other overpopulated areas of the United States to the Midwest to find a new home.

From 1854 to 1929, an estimated 250,000 children rode trains from New York and other overpopulated areas of the United States to the Midwest to find a new home.

Some of the children were orphans; others were abandoned, while others were put on trains by their parents, hoping they would have a better life.

The locomotives came to be known as orphan trains.

When Ann Zemke's grandmother died at 93, Zemke discovered Marjorie Peterson had been a passenger on one of the trains.

"My Autobiography, My Life - Marjorie Peterson," was unearthed shortly after she died in 1991.


"We knew she wrote everything down," Zemke said of 40 years' of journals. The "consummate volunteer" loved to be out and about, socializing in her hometown of Long Prairie. At day's end, she'd note the temperature, with whom she'd chatted and a report on the ham and buns she'd served at a funeral.

But the family didn't know the orphan train rider had penned memories from her childhood, likely written in her 60s.

Zemke, who resides in Blaine, recently shared her grandmother's story with a Park Rapids audience - via quilt and her recently published book, "They Named Me Marjorie."

Orphan train riders, she explained, meet for reunions each year in Little Falls. In 2001, her mother volunteered to share her grandmother's story the next summer. One person is spotlighted each year.

Zemke toyed with a PowerPoint presentation, but determined a quilt would become her medium.

"When I began reading, I'd found it unbelievable," she said of her grandmother's memoirs. I decided this needs to go on."

"My birthday was May 17, 1898. I changed it to June 13, 1898," was the first line in the small book.

"And the first question I'd ask - if I could, is why?" Zemke said.


Zemke learned her grandmother, initially known as Mary Sutton, was adopted in 1898 from a church home in St. Paul and went to live on a farm near Owatonna. She'd been abandoned as an infant, left on a church porch. Mary was subsequently sent to an orphanage in 1906, after the death of her adopted mother.

"A very poignant time," Lemke said.

"One day, the matron told me I was going on the train to a new home," Mary wrote. "I didn't like that too well as I was having fun with the other children. So the day came: I got a new blue dress, new shoes, coat, whatever else I needed and was taken by a lady with four other children to the depot in Owatonna. This day, how well I remember. It was Nov. 20, 1906."

Mary, who was to become known as Marjorie, was bound for indentured service until she headed out on her own in 1917.

"If what happened to my grandmother happened to someone today, they would be in therapy for the rest of their lives," Zemke said. "But in those days, everyone was poor, had fallen on hard times."

The quilt shop owner now travels across the US to share her grandmother's story - and the quilt she created as a gift for her mother. The quilt is an artistic reflection of her grandmother's life - from Cottage 5 at the orphanage, to the train depot where she was "adopted" to an award as Todd County's Outstanding Senior Citizen.

She urges her audience - often senior citizens - to pen their memoirs as a gift to their family.

"Grandma had a choice, to be bitter or better," Zemke said. "The world's better because of her."


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