Last updated: March 19. 2014 3:26PM - 2547 Views
By - pspeelman@civitasmedia.com

Sheep graze on the lawn of the newly constructed Shelby County Children's Home in the mid-1890s.
Sheep graze on the lawn of the newly constructed Shelby County Children's Home in the mid-1890s.
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Editor’s note: The Shelby County Children’s Home will be demolished March 24. This week, the Sidney Daily News publishes a series of stories about the historic structure and how it influenced the lives of people who lived, worked and played there.

Today - The early years

Wednesday - Growing up at the home

Thursday - The last houseparents

Friday - Children’s Services offices

Saturday - Sock & Buskin years

March 24 - Campaign to save it

March 26 - Demolition photos

There’s no one alive today who remembers when the stately building on the hill south of Sidney was not there.

The Shelby County Children’s Home has overlooked the Big Four Bridge, Graceland Cemetery, and the city since 1897. Long vacant and now decrepit, when it opened at the end of the 19th century, it was a showplace, among the most beautiful of children’s homes in Ohio.

The need for a home for indigent and orphaned children grew out of the devastation of the Civil War. As reported in the Sidney Daily News by local historian Rich Wallace in 1995, “After the guns of the Civil War fell silent, 300 Shelby County families were feeling the effects of the loss of loved ones. The war, combined with short life expectancies caused by diseases such as cholera and smallpox made children orphans at an early age.”

Those orphans were kept at the Shelby County Infirmary, a home for aged and insane adults, until the early 1890s, when the state legislature decreed that such housing was illegal.

Shelby County children were then moved to the Logan County Children’s Home. It seemed that Shelby Countians were in no hurry to care for children without parents locally. In June 1893, the Shelby County commissioners were told that they must construct a local home as a top priority, Wallace wrote. But political wrangling between Democrats and Republicans prevented plans from moving forward very quickly.

An incident involving a toddler, however, changed people’s attitudes and got the building process started.

Three-year-old Evelyn Wyford had not been moved to Logan County. She had remained in the infirmary, where her mother lived in the ward for the insane.

“After some thought, Superintendent Guthrie decided to advertise beautiful, blond-haired Evelyn for adoption,” Wallace wrote. “Mr. and Mrs. Albert Strickland of Middletown applied and the adoption was completed … One can hardly imagine the shock and revulsion of those who picked up the July 21, 1893, edition of the Shelby County Democrat and read what had become of little Evelyn. Word had just been received from the Cincinnati Enquirer that city officials had entered the Strickland home upon complaint of neighbors who heard the anguished cries of a child in pain.

“The Democrat reported that ‘The poor little thing had apparently been the target of insane rage, for its tender body was marked … most horribly from head to foot, and around its throat were the prints of strangling fingers.’”

Apparently the shame that story brought to Sidney spurred local residents to pass a levy to fund construction of a children’s home and to select and acquire a site, a farm owned by the Duncan family south of town.

Bids for construction were opened on Dec. 7, 1894, the same day that officials received word that a Shelby County child at the Logan County home had died in August. They were outraged that nothing had been said about it for several months.

The cornerstone of the Shelby County Children’s Home was laid May 31, 1895.

“On the minds of those present must have been Evelyn Wyford and Frederick Woodruff,” Wallace wrote. It cost $30,000 to purchase the land and construct the main building and its two “wings.” When the home was ready to open in October 1897, 35 children were transferred back to Shelby County from Bellefontaine. Dr. and Mrs. W.N. Shaw were the first of dozens of couples who served as superintendents and matrons of the home during its 79 years of operation.

Eventually, as many as 70 youngsters were housed there at a time.

They lived in an institution sporting carved wooden mantlepieces over fireplaces in each room, gracefully curved staircases, gleaming woodwork and brightly polished hardwood floors. Once county officials had made the decision to establish a children’s home here, they wanted it to be the best of the best. A tower atop the main building held a bell that was rung to start the day. The bell tower was removed during World War II.

The site remained a working farm and the children had responsibility for much of the farming. A school building was on the grounds and teachers were engaged to educate the kids through the eighth grade.

In 1924, Ethel M. Boyer was hired as a seamstress at the home. She remained on the staff for 50 years, until just before the home closed in 1976, when she told the Daily News, “The first boy went on to high school in about 1925.” The school, she said, had two rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs. Rachel McVay was the first teacher. After the school closed in the 1940s, the home’s residents went to elementary school in Orange Township and to middle and high school in Sidney.

Farming allowed the institution to be almost completely self-supplied with food. There were dairy cows, hogs, chickens, sheep and vegetable gardens. The original barn burned to the ground early in the 20th century. Boys playing with matches were blamed.

Girls lived in the “cottage” at one side of the main building and boys lived in the other. Boyer was responsible for making and mending all of their clothes, as well as bed linens and drapes.

The remaining staff comprised a governess in each cottage, a laundress, a farm hand, an engineer, a cook, a server, and a housekeeper. Boyer substituted at the girls’ cottage as a governess every other weekend, to give the regular governess some time off.

The kitchen and dining room were in the basement of the center structure. Children moved through “breezeway” type corridors from the dormitories to eat. Those corridors were originally built of wood, but were reconstructed of block during World War II. In the early years, the staff had a separate dining room, but eventually, staffers joined residents and everyone took meals in the dining hall.

For more historical photos of the Children’s Home, see Page 14.

Tomorrow: Residents’ memories

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