Christmas not the same without orphan train matriarch

orphan hospital orphan baby orphan Joan Prochaska orphan mug Helen orphan painting orphan indentured

Joan Prochaska says she wonders what Christmas will be like this year for her family without her mother, Helen (Perkins) Koscianski, who grew up as an indentured child, brought to Minnesota at age two on what was known as the orphan train.

Prochaska and her husband Gerald live on the shore of Blue Lake in the Princeton-Zimmerman area, where Joan recently recalled what her mother had gone through after being delivered to her childhood home in Winona by the orphan train.

The  orphan train, also known as the baby train, operated between 1853 and 1929, bringing an estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children from East Coast cities such as New York and Boston, to homes farther west.

Helen Koscianski’s life began as an orphan named Helen Perkins at the New York Foundling Hospital, where her biological mother (also named Helen Perkins) had taken the child as an infant.

Joan Prochaska has records showing that little Helen was brought twice to the Foundling, the first time as an infant, and then when Helen was age two.

Prochaska said that she thinks Helen had been sent to a “wet nurse” to stay during the approximately two years in between the times she was brought to New York Foundling.

It was not long after the second time that Helen was brought to New York Foundling, that she was put on an orphan train to be delivered to a couple in Winona named John and Helen Klonowski. Helen arrived by train in Winona in June 1916, to begin her new life with the Klonowski family, which also had a daughter and son.

Prochaska notes that the Klonowskis never did adopt Helen, even though, Prochaska says, records show that social workers had urged the Klonowski couple to do so. Helen’s actual status, Prochaska says, was that her mother was an indentured child to the Klonowskis. As such, she did not have the benefits that an adopted child might have, Prochaska said. Also, from stories that Helen opened up to telling later in life, the Klonowskis did not treat Helen as well as their own children. The Klonowski couple and their children are now deceased, Prochaska says.


Helen’s life

Helen Perkins, who died May 12 this year at Lake Winona Manor, at age 98, was born on Feb. 6, 1914, in Tomkinsville, N.Y.

After growing up in the Klonowski household, she left home and later married Erwin Koscianski, who died Dec. 12, 1996.

Prochaska had contacted the New York Foundling Foundation, starting in January 2004, to begin researching her mother’s history, and as a result received records on microfilm.

Among the forms that Prochaska found was an application from the Klonowskis to Foundling to seek an age two female with black hair and brown eyes. The application, according to Prochaska, states that the Klonowskis “agreed to send their child (that they would receive from Foundling) to church and school and to legally adopt the child if it proves satisfactory.”

Little Helen was given the identification number A17206 as it appeared on a letterhead from the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, located in New York.

Prochaska also notes a document showing the receipt for child form no. A17206 which reads: “We beg to acknowledge receipt of the little orphan as numbered above and promise faithfully to raise said child in the Roman Catholic faith and to send her to school and give her all the advantages that we would give to a child of our own, and report to Sisters of Charity as to health and general conditions when requested, notifying them of any change of address.” The form was signed by John and Helen Klonowski on June 15, 1916.

Another document is a letter from Helen Klonowski to Sister Teresa Vincent, dated June 25, 1916, stating that they had received the orphan Helen in “good health and is doing nicely. We are satisfied with our child except it came with an awful cold, but she is improving…”

An indenture form with no. A17206, dated July 29, 1916, was sent to the Klonowskis stating that Helen Perkins has arrived at the Klonowski household in Winona “at a suitable age for the said Corporation (Foundling Hospital) to indenture.”

It also states that if Helen was not legally adopted by the age of 18, then the Klonowskis shall be deemed to have elected to “keep, treat and maintain said child as if it were their own natural and legitimate child.”

A year after Helen’s arrival at the Klonowski household, Mrs. Klonowski wrote a letter stating that “Helen is a very good child, is learning to talk and understand quick. Helen is well and healthy as far as growing fast and is a fat little girl.”

The letter went on to talk about the indentured Helen attending the Catholic Church regularly with the Klonowskis and playing with the Klonowskis’ daughter Jennie Josephia. “The two little sisters love each other dearly,” the letter states. “We are very pleased with our child.”

A report states that when Helen was 15 she had completed her eighth grade. But at that point she had never been informed that she was a foster child, though Mrs. Klonowski thought Helen had been given the information from neighborhood children, the report explains. “The other two children think that she is their sister and Mrs. K. is anxious that they should be brought up thinking of Helen as their real sister,” the report states.

The records note that Helen took piano lessons for five years and that Mrs. Klonowski was teaching her sewing and cooking in the home when Helen was of high school age.

As far as the discussion of the Klonowskis ever adopting Helen, Prochaska says the records show that the Klonowskis didn’t feel they could afford to pay the $50 legal fees to adopt Helen.

Prochaska adds that her mother never was told by the Klonowskis that she was adopted or was a foster child, indentured, or had come to Minnesota on an orphan train. Prochaska said that when her mother began to open up about her growing up in the Klonowski home, she said that the Klonowskis had cut off further piano lessons for her. That was even though the piano instructor said Helen could come for the lessons for free and would only charge for the piano music.

“This was one of mom’s biggest disappointments, along with not being able to attend high school,” Prochaska said. Prochaska added that her mother became very interested in books in her seventh or eighth grade but when she asked Mrs. Klonowski for a book for Christmas, she received just a nursery rhyme book.

Prochaska, in drawing these stories, says she found a pattern of Mrs. Klonowski favoring her biological children over Helen, and how Mrs. Klonowski wanted to restrict Helen’s freedom more than Helen felt she should.

When Prochaska’s mother married at age 23, Mrs. Klonowski stopped talking to Helen for seven years.


Orphan train history

Organizations have developed over the years dedicated to the history of the orphan train and one is the Orphan Train Riders of New York.

An orphan train group exists in Minnesota and it has a website found at www.orphantrainridersofMinnesota. This midwest group has members from Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota and it has a reunion each October. But the three orphan train survivors that were at the 2011 reunion, which included Prochaska’s mother, all died in 2012, prior to the October gathering.

There is also a National Orphan Train Museum and Research Center in Concordia, Kan.

Prochaska notes that there was a man who was an orphan train rider, who once lived in rural Princeton, but died about five years ago. “A lot who were orphan train riders didn’t talk about it,” Prochaska said.

Helen attended her first orphan train riders reunion in 2000, after seeing an ad about it. During the reunion, she met an orphan train rider named Justina and the two felt so close that mother talked about Justina being the “sister she never had,” Prochaska said.

Prochaska noted that among her mother’s interest were reading and doing oil paintings. The last painting she did was of the Winona train station that she had arrived at as an orphan on the train.

As Prochaska paused to think about this time of year and having lost her mother in May, she said this Christmas just won’t be the same.