Twenty years ago I joined the Conneaut Lake Area Historical Society, having been persuaded by a friend to give it a try as the group was organized.
I told her I wasn't that interested in history but finally after she persuaded my sister to go, I agreed to go with her.
I told her I would join, but I wasn't interested in history; "I just want to have fun."
It has been fun, but it also has taught me a lot about history I never knew. I did take history in school; I got good grades, but it was about a lot of dates and names.
The history I have learned in the last 20 years has been all about local history and how it is affected by things going on in the world around us.
Because I was nosy and wanted to read something, I got the job of "archivist," which means I catalogue (sounds much more official than it is) everything and try to keep track of it. It is time consuming to say the least. I no more get one group of things (items donated to the society) archived until I get another.
Last fall, though, I got a really interesting little purse, which has its own story that is so fascinating. I'm trying to learn more about orphan trains.
It seems a man who would become a member of borough council, a leading businessman, a fire department chief and highly respected member of the community actually arrived at Conneaut Lake as an orphan who came on what was known as the "orphan trains." He arrived carrying a little purse with a handkerchief in it. It belonged to his mother, who died when he was born. His grandmother raised him and when she died, he became an orphan.
He was placed on one of the orphan trains and taken on a wagon to Conneaut Lake.
I'm now retracing his steps and wondering just how many more "orphan train" riders ended up in our area. Because it was early in 1900, the records aren't as easy to find as I would like.
But the story of how the orphan came to town, stayed in foster homes and later became one of the town's leading citizens is just fascinating to me.
I wondered what he thought when he was taken off the train. Was he afraid or looking forward to a new adventure? How did the town treat him? What things did he learn growing up at Conneaut Lake which led him into a successful life as a businessman and leader?
I also wonder about the rest of the 250,000 orphans who were dispatched between New York and Kansas during that time. How many of them succeeded in life and how many of them got lost in the shuffle? Were the foster homes good ones or were they treated like servants?
It is fascinating — thinking about all those kids being placed on trains and not knowing exactly where they would end up or who would become their "families." I can't even imagine the experience.
I know about foster homes. In fact, I was a foster mom at one time to a couple of teens. But they came from the local area and I knew their background — and the people who placed them checked on them regularly.
My uncle also had a foster son who still keeps in contact with the family from time to time.
I am aware that not all foster homes are good, but I'd like to think there are more good ones than bad ones.
Many of the orphans have told their stories in books that are available to purchase, and I am sure they would be really interesting to read.
But I'm really interested in the stories of the ones who came to Conneaut Lake (or other sites in Crawford County) and found it such a good place to live they decided to stay and make it their home — and make the town better for those who came after them.
It is said that those who came from two-parent homes are generally considered the most likely to succeed.
Perhaps that's why the stories of those who didn't have such a great beginning but ended up changing other people's lives for the better is such appealing to me. I love to hear about the "underdog" who proves that everyone in the world has value — and with support, love and caring from others can change their own situation — and helps change other lives for the better.
I asked some of the "true historians" in our historical society about the "orphan trains" and only a few had ever heard of them — and one heard about them only in a fictional love story she had read.
Maybe if more of the stories of orphan trains were told, we might be more inspired by history. The stories are a lot more interesting than all the dates we had to learn about world history.
Maybe that's why I didn't like history when I was a teenager; it was all about dates and I was more interested in people.
The people are what really make history interesting. The dates are just times for us to put things in perspective with what was going on in the world.
Hearing the stories of how people coped with their issues in life is what really inspires me to want people to learn more about how people and their histories have changed the world for those who are living today and make history for tomorrow.
I'm kind of excited to tell the story of the orphan train at Conneaut Lake — and how one man changed the town in such a good way and told his daughter there were a myriad of the people who helped him as he went from being an orphan to a town leader.
I hope it inspires others to do what they can to make their own mark in their own life and their own town.
Jean Shanley is retired from The Meadville Tribune where she was communities and society editor.