Dorothy Langerman tells her orphan train story

Joe’s original 1912 sailor suit in Arkansas
Dorothy Langerman tells
her orphan train story

 

By Rich Holm
Contributing Writer
(Final part of a two-part story)

 

Nobody is alive today who remembers the orphan train arriving in Fayette 101 years ago. Nine children found new homes in the surrounding area, and now the descendants of Joe Langerman are learning more and more about their father, grandfather, and great-granddad who stepped off that locomotive train car when he was 5.

Joseph Fischer was born June 13, 1906, in New York City. He was the son of Anna and Josef Fischer. Joe’s dad was a painter and died when his son was 4, so Anna put her son the train, thinking a better life was waiting for him in Iowa. Anna worked at a laundry and made $4 a week.

Fayette farmer John Langerman and his wife took Joseph into their home. Young Joe would follow in his new foster father’s footsteps and would become a successful farmer, too. John died in 1923, and Joe’s foster mom died in 1953.

After his mother’s death, Joewould meet a girl named Orpha, who also knew what it was like to lose a parent. Born in Nebraska, she came to Iowa as an orphan at age 9 months and was raised by Ed Page and his wife between Arlington and Wadena. Joe was 21 and Orpha was 15 when they married in 1927.

Joe very seldom talked about the orphan train. He and Orpha would have eight children, who are just beginning to realize the impact the orphan train had on thousands of families in Iowa, including their own. Lowell, Willard, Arthur, Phillip, Larry, Lois Jean, Judy, and JoEllen are direct descendants. The five boys were all born at home while the girls were delivered in the hospital.

Lois is now Lois Jean Samek. Judy married Leon Grutzmacher of Westgate.

All the Langerman kids graduated from Fayette High School. Six earned degrees at Upper Iowa University and another at Iowa State University. Phillip earned his Ph.D. and became dean of students at Drake University.  Arthur had a Ph.D., too, and became a superintendent of schools.

All of the children would leave their marks on society in different ways, but the one common thread they all had was that their father came here on the orphan train.

Joe Langerman was well-liked. He was asked to play basketball for the Fayette team and travel to West Union to play basketball against the touring Harlem Globetrotters. The game was played in the old hospital (now the Fayette County Historical Center) in 1929.

Being chosen for the game was a proud moment for Joe, but his proudest moment was on June 19, 1977, when he and Orpha celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with an open house at First United Methodist Church Fayette.

Less than five months later Joe died of a heart attack and any untold stories of the orphan train went with him to the grave overlooking the site where the Fayette Depot once stood.

Members of the Langerman family are now uncovering stories about the orphan train daily as they research what has become an important part of American history; the mass migration of 300,000 displaced children rode the rails west looking for a home.

The former Dorothy Bentley of Alpha married one of Joe’s sons, Willard. They married on Oct. 12, 1949. Dorothy and Willy became the proud parents of two sons, Dennis and Douglas. They are among the 26 grandchildren and more than 26 great-grandkids who now realize that if it weren’t for the orphan train, they would not exist.

When Dorothy realized her father-in-law came here on the orphan train, she began to do research on that moment in time. The other Langerman siblings followed suit as books began to be published about the orphan train.

And now the community of Fayette may be thinking of forever preserving May 3, 1912 in its city history. Few artifacts remain of those nine children being presented at the Fayette Opera House. Little Joe wore a sailor suit and was pretty spiffy as the Langermans adopted him into their home.

That sailor suit and official papers were saved by the Langermans. Joe’s daughter Lois Jean (Samek), upon a request by the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc., mailed her father’s sailor suit and papers to Springfield, Ark., where they are now museum pieces. Some people in Fayette now believe they should make a request to return those items to Fayette, where they can be displayed.

Twenty-three years ago Dorothy and Willy traveled to Springfield to see further information on Joe. They met Mary Ellen Johnson, who was an orphan train rider herself and was a curator of letters written by orphan train riders. She showed them Joe Langerman’s little sailor suit, and they had their photo taken with it but were never given a copy of the print.

But the 100th anniversary of the orphan train coming to Fayette has shed more light on the event that has resulted in books and documentaries. And Fayette has found a sudden interest in the orphan train, thanks to family members.

Dorothy Langerman recently wrote New York seeking information. She was sent a poor copy of the original ad that was run in the Fayette newspaper, telling readers about the train and when it would arrive.

All the Langermans today are thankful that train indeed arrived. Willy Langerman died on Sept. 3, 1992, but Dorothy Bentley Langerman isn’t about to let any memories about the orphan train be forgotten.

The orphan train became part of her family’s life, when she and Willy married in 1949. Little did she know that 64 years later, she would rekindle the memory of the orphan train’s arrival with not only all the Langerman descendants, but with the descendants of those eight other children, as well as the community of Fayette.

 

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