In 1869, the Grand Army of the Republic proposed the formation of and began to construct the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home to provide for children orphaned when their father died during the American Civil War. The State of Ohio assumed control of the institution in 1870 and eventually permitted children orphaned as a result of any military conflict to reside at the home.
During the American Civil War, Ohio contributed approximately 330,000 men for military service with the United States of America. During the conflict, 11,237 Ohio men died from wounds received on the battlefield, while another 13,354 soldiers perished from disease. In essence nearly 7.5% of Ohio’s soldiers died in the Civil War.
Following the Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for Union veterans, sought to create an orphans’ home for the children of Ohio’s veterans. In many cases, the children were truly orphans, most commonly having lost their fathers during the Civil War and their mothers either during or soon after the conflict. In other cases, mothers sought to turn their children over to this institution due to the mothers’ inability to financially care for all or some of their children.
On June 21, 1869, representatives from the Grand Army of the Republic met in Xenia, Ohio to develop a plan to finance and to build the home. A second meeting occurred on July 13, 1869, with Ohio Governor Rutherford Birchard Hayes in attendance. At the meeting, organizers announced that subscribers had pledged 16,500 dollars to aid in the construction of the home, with Lester Arnold, J.C. McMillen, and Eli Millen pledging one thousand dollars apiece.
With substantial funds now available, the Grand Army of the Republic proceeded to appoint a board of commissioners to oversee construction. The board included General George B. Wright, Major M.S. Gunckel, Colonel H.G. Armstrong, Eli Millen, Judge White, Mrs. Lucretia Hayes, wife of Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, Mrs. H.L. Monroe, and Mrs. Ann E. McMeans. The inclusion of women on the board might be surprising, as late nineteenth-century Ohio was a male-dominated society. Still, many women played an active role outside of their own homes by participating in various aid and reform movements. It is also important to realize that the purpose of the board was to assist orphaned children, and most men believed that women should be the primary caretakers of children.
The board first met on October 11, 1869. Residents of Xenia donated one hundred acres of land to the Grand Army of the Republic to construct the home. The property was located on the outskirts of the city. The board accepted the property at this meeting and also ordered the construction of four cottages to house children. Children soon began arriving, even before construction was completed. The Grand Army of the Republic rented a building on Main Street in Xenia to house the children temporarily. In January 1870, the board appointed Mrs. A. McMeans as superintendent, but she soon resigned, with Major M.S. Gunckel replacing her. The board also hired a Mrs. Edington of Chicago, Illinois as the home’s matron, as well as four other women to serve as teachers and as teacher assistants. With nearly one hundred children currently residing in the building on Main Street and dozens of additional applicants seeking spots in the institution, the board voted on January 23, 1870 to construct five more cottages and a “large frame building” to serve as both a dormitory and as a cafeteria. Fortunately for the Grand Army of the Republic and for the board, private citizens and institutions across Ohio donated bedding, clothes, and other items to help meet the children’s needs.
On February 28, 1870, representatives from the Ohio General Assembly came to Xenia to meet with local residents, with the board members, and with the children housed in the temporary facility. At a public meeting held that day, Howard E. Gilkey, an orphaned child from Cleveland, Ohio, gave an impassioned speech, asking the State of Ohio to assume control of and to increase financing for the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home.
Upon returning to the state capitol at Columbus, the representatives introduced legislation to “establish Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Homes.” This legislation dictated that each home would be controlled by a board of managers, which would consist of seven citizens appointed by the Ohio governor. Any child under sixteen years of age of “deceased, indigent and permanently disabled soldiers and sailors who served during the rebellion,” were eligible for admittance to the created homes. The legislation directed that the first home be constructed at White Sulphur Springs in Delaware County, Ohio, unless the area proved to be unsuitable per the board of managers. This location was also home to Ohio’s Industrial School for Girls. Per the bill, any site selected for the initial home should be able to provide housing and care for 250 children. Finally, the legislation authorized thirteen thousand dollars for the home’s construction.
The Ohio legislature approved the bill on April 14, 1870. The governor appointed R.P. Buckland of Fremont, Ohio, James Barnett of Cleveland, Ohio, J. Warren Keifer of Springfield, Ohio, Benjamin F. Coate of Portsmouth, Ohio, J.S. Jones of Delaware, Ohio, and M.F. Force and H.G. Armstrong of Cincinnati, Ohio to the board of managers. The managers met in Delaware, Ohio on May 13, 1870 and determined that the land adjacent to the Industrial School for Girls was unsuitable for the Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home. The board called on Ohio communities to donate lands and buildings for the home, and on May 25, 1870, the managers accepted General George B. Wright’s, Major M.S. Gunckel’s, and Colonel H.G. Armstrong’s offer to turn over the Grand Army of the Republic’s home at Xenia effective June 1, 1870.
The actual transfer from the Grand Army of the Republic to the State of Ohio of the Xenia home did not occur until August 16, 1870, upon completion of three cottages and a dining hall. Dr. I.D. Griswold became the first superintendent of the Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home, with the doctor’s wife serving as the institution’s first matron. The 123 children residing in the Grand Army of the Republic’s temporary quarters gained immediate admission to the home, and the board of managers authorized a grand total of 250 children to be admitted to the institution. At this time, approximately eight hundred children qualified for admission, and nearly 350 of those orphans had already applied for admission. In May 1871, the board of managers authorized the construction of additional cottages to meet the demand.
The dining hall building served as a cafeteria as well as the main classroom building. Male and female residents lived in separate cottages based upon gender. When not in class, the boys worked the home’s farm, including additional acreage that the board of managers purchased in 1872, while the girls primarily cared for the cottages, the classrooms, and performed laundry and cooking services. In 1873, the Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home added fruit orchards, for which the boys cared. In 1874, the superintendent added an industrial component to the education, with students now able to learn “printing, telegraphing, dressmaking, knitting, carpentering, blacksmithing, shoemaking, and tinning.” Male teachers—the first at the home—oversaw each department.
By 1874, approximately six hundred children resided at the Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home. The large number of children caused several health outbreaks to occur during this time period, including “watery eyes” (pink eye), measles, and scarlet fever. The institution’s doctor, C.B. Jones, realized that the eye issue resulted from the children using the same water as other students to wash their hands and faces. Once authorities installed running water, pink eye cases declined dramatically. The doctor also determined that the measles and scarlet fever outbreaks occurred due to children using dirty blankets. Each spring, the matron and her aides placed the winter blankets in storage. They did not wash the blankets, allowing for the various pathogens to thrive. The outbreaks usually occurred in late autumn, once the blankets were returned to the beds. Thorough cleaning of the blankets reduced the measles and scarlet fever outbreaks.
On February 16, 1879, a fire destroyed the administration and domestic-training buildings, structures added to the Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home following 1872. The total financial loss to the State of Ohio from the fire equaled almost seventy-five thousand dollars, but the Ohio General Assembly quickly authorized funds to replace the structures. Five years later, on April 27, 1884, a tornado struck the Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home. The storm tore of the roofs of the laundry, the hospital, and several additional buildings. The tornado completely destroyed the institution’s barn, the wagon shed, and the toolshed. Of the nearly 750 children and employees present at the time of the tornado, only two employees suffered minor injuries. Ohio Governor George Hoadly and Judge John Little donated respectively from their personal funds $5,152.50 and $508.75 to help offset the 7,500 dollar repair bill.
On November 15, 1887, 668 children lived at the Ohio Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphans' Home. Of the students, girls accounted for 242 of the pupils, approximately one-third of the orphans enrolled at the institution. At this time, Major Noah Thomas served as the orphanage’s superintendent, while his wife, Alice Thomas, was the institution’s matron. The Ohio Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphans' Home employed seventeen teachers, twenty matrons—one in each student cottage—and one additional matron in the hospital. The institution also employed a financial officer, a school principal, and a physician. Approximately thirty-four children lived in each of the twenty cottages at the orphanage. The boys lived in thirteen cottages, while the girls resided in seven of these buildings.
In 1888, students could learn “domestic economy, stenography, shoemaking, farming, carpentering, painting, girls’ sewing, printing, tinning, gardening, engineering, baking, tailoring, dressmaking, blacksmithing, cutting, and fitting dressmaking.” In addition to this occupational education, boys also received military training, prompting several of the young men, upon leaving the Ohio Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphans' Home, to join the military. The average age of the children was eleven years in 1888, approximately two years older than the average age of the original residents in 1870. Support for each orphan equaled approximately 140 dollars per year in 1888, the same cost for children in other institutions that the State of Ohio operated at this time. In 1901, approximately nine hundred orphans resided at the Ohio Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphans' Home. At this time, the institution was the largest orphanage in the entire world.
During the twentieth century, the State of Ohio opened the Ohio Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphans' Home to orphaned children of any Ohio soldier from any military conflict. The institution changed its name to the Ohio Veterans’ Children’s Home in 1978, and nineteen years later, the orphanage ended operations due to a lack of children needing services and because other charitable institutions helping to fulfill orphans’ needs.
The State of Ohio sold the Ohio Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphans' Home’s land and buildings to Legacy Ministries International in 1998. This organization rents space to various businesses and institutions, including a Christian-based school. The site also serves as the headquarters of Athletes-in-Action. In addition to these various businesses and organizations, the Association of Ex-Pupils, an organization of orphans that once lived at the Ohio Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphans' Home or at the Ohio Veterans’ Children’s Home, operates a museum at the former orphanage and also hosts a yearly reunion on the institution’s grounds.
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"Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home," Ohio Civil War Central, 2021, Ohio Civil War Central. 19 Sep 2021 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1054>
"Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home." (2021) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved September 19, 2021, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1054