The Home for the Friendless assisted indigent women and children of Springfield from 1863 to 1928, when it was merged into the Children’s Service League. The gradual addition of other social service agencies ultimately led to formation of the Family Service Center of Sangamon County in 1974. The Family Service Center continues to operate near Seventh Street and South Grand Avenue, where the Home for the Friendless was built in 1865. (The original home was demolished in 1935.)
The Rev. Francis Springer, a Lutheran minister who worked with destitute refugees as a chaplain in the Civil War, is often given credit for inspiring the creation of the Home for the Friendless. However, an account written in 1927 by Mary Humphrey for the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society makes it clear that the Home’s organizers also were motivated by their own experiences with homegrown Springfield poverty.
Whatever their motives, once the Home was authorized by the General Assembly, prominent Springfieldians responded with donations – of money and property, but much more. According to one report quoted by Humphrey, contributions also included “a sleigh ride, 40 candy canes, China asters, Zu Zu ginger snaps, 3 large watermelons … loan of a cow for the summer; bread from the Democratic National Convention.” Annual Christmas fairs – three days long and held in the Capitol Rotunda – also supported the Home for many years.
The Home’s first officers were all male, headed by president S.H. Melvin, but much of the work of the group was done by women. For instance, when committees were formed to visit “the poor of the city” in each ward, the visitors appear to have been exclusively female, and women supporters of the Home made the items sold at the Christmas fairs.
Although the Home was designed to take both indigent women and children, children always predominated. In 1902, for instance, 16 women and 168 children lived at the Home during the year. Over the years, at least two infants were left on the Home’s doorstep – “Johnny Knight,” who was deposited after dark, and “Mary Stone,” who was left on a stone step, Humphrey reported.
The Home, however, did not knowingly accept illegitimate children and did not care for black children (who became the responsibility of the Lincoln Colored Home, founded by Eva Carroll Monroe on South 12th Street).
Officials of the Home for the Friendless tried to find new homes for many of the children who passed through the Home’s doors – by adoption, fostering or indenturing. Springfield historian John Carroll Power, quoted by Humphrey, wrote, “The greater number were placed in homes of comfort and positions of thrift and usefulness. Some had died, some had been taken away by families, and a few have preferred freedom of outdoor life and have departed without leave.”
Only in 1903 did the Home begin to investigate families who applied for children. (Again, the investigations were done by women volunteers.)
Volunteers for the Springfield Survey in 1914 compiled four case studies involving Home for the Friendless clients, which detailed circumstances under which the Home was, and wasn’t, effective. (The case studies also give sometimes heartbreaking glimpses at working and living conditions among poor Springfield families in the early 20th century.)
Here is one of the studies, along with the Survey’s comments (comments in italics).
The third case shows a complex situation in which a whole set of community problems undiscovered by the institution had been lessening the chances of family rehabilitation while the institution cared for the children. Moreover the problems were those with which many other families were struggling, and broad community treatment was needed as well as immediate personal help for this particular mother.
III. The family was not known to the Associated Charities.
Mrs. A. put her four-year-old girl and six-weeks-old baby to board in the institution at $10 a month. Her given reason was that she had been divorced from her husband and had to go to work. The institution felt that it was helping her in the best possible way and the mother was delighted at the treatment which the children were receiving. It seems, however, that the husband was under court orders to pay her $10 a month alimony but in this he had lapsed. Twice he had been arrested for contempt of court, yet no money had been forthcoming. Although the mother had undergone a serious surgical operation three weeks before putting the children in the institution, she took a position as dish-washer in a restaurant. Here she worked for twelve hours a day standing, and lifting trays of dishes weighing from 50 to 75 pounds. The room was hot and she often thought that she would faint from the heat and strain. Later she was transferred to potato peeling, at $5.00 a week and meals, working from 6:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. seven days a week, with one hour off for each meal and free time from two to five; but this she seldom took because she felt that she was slow. Here the visitor found her. Financially she was not getting ahead because she paid $10 a month to the institution and required the balance for clothes for herself and the children. She lived with her mother rent free.
Considering that the need for the institution’s care was in reality due to a defect in the court proceedings, against which a strong protest should have been entered, and that the institution was permitting this good mother to work under conditions which were dangerous to health in order to earn money to pay the children’s board, it was hardly discharging its social obligation.
Although the Home for the Friendless housed far more children than indigent women – to the extent, Humphrey wrote, “that peace and quiet were impossible” – one blind woman, Susan Moore, lived there from 1864 until her death in 1907.
The Home cared for an estimated 6,500 children during its existence, including at least 643 who died at the home prior to 1904. Those children are buried in a plot at Oak Ridge Cemetery.
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