Like many communities after the Civil War, towns in Phelps County had an orphan problem. County records recall several instances of children being adopted from a single parent. There was one instance where a farmer found a young baby. He contacted the County Court seeking some financial assistance to care for the child. The Court records referred to the child as a “young woodchuck.”

Orphanages have been around for centuries. Most cultures had them. The ancient Romans had orphanages from about 400 AD. An orphan is a child without parents. The archaic term half-orphan describes a child who had only one parent.  Currently in North American and Europe there few if any orphanages are remaining, but developing countries still rely on orphanages.

In the United States the Children’s Aid Society had a solution. They transported orphans, abandoned children and runaways primarily from New York City to the Midwest looking for new homes for the children. Thus, was born the Orphan Train program which operated from 1854 to 1929.

Phelps County had its own orphan problem. County records recall several instances of children being adopted from a single parent. There was one instance where a farmer found a young baby. He contacted the County Court seeking some financial assistance to care for the child. The Court records referred to the child as a “young woodchuck.”

The problem intensified with so many young men dying in the Civil War.  Leaders in Phelps County decided to embark on a program to take care of orphans and half-orphans, especially the children of soldiers. In 1866 a group of 18 men and 15 women associated themselves into an organization and adopted a Constitution for the purpose of becoming incorporated. They called their group the Orphans Agricultural Home.

Who where these people? Most of them were prominent citizens and leaders of their time. Many were just beginning their career of public service but became more prominent in later years. Just to name a few: Edmund W Bishop, founder of Rolla and real estate promoter; Charles P. Walker, editor of Rolla’s first newspaper The Rolla Express, Circuit Clerk and Recorder of Deeds, and County Superintendent of Schools; Andrew Malcolm, County Treasurer; Cyrus H. Frost attorney and bank president; Sanford Ing, preacher; Harrison L. Wheat, Circuit Clerk and Recorder of Deeds; Thomas Maxwell, Public Administrator; and Elijah Perry, Circuit Judge. These were some of the movers and shakers of the day. They were the people who could get things done.

According to their Constitution, they organized “…for the purpose of establishing a home and school for the education and support or orphans and half orphans of soldiers and others as hereinafter specified under the name and title of Orphans Agricultural Home with power to receive and hold real and personal estate, acquired by deed, donation, purchase or otherwise by endowment, not to exceed the sum of one hundred thousand dollars.”   The home “shall be open to orphans and half orphans of soldiers and others without distinction of nationality, sex, color, or religious denomination; nor shall the institution be placed under the exclusive control of any religious sect.”

The officers of the association included a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer.  There was a board of eleven trustees with the president, vice president and secretary as ex-officio members.  There was also a board of fifteen lady managers.

Other provisions of the Constitution included Articles outlining the election of officers, quorum, filling of vacancies and other procedural issues.  The Constitution was adopted by the members on November 20, 1866 with Edmund W. Bishop as President and Charles P. Walker as Secretary. The Secretary of State registered the organization as a Benevolent Corporation on March 7,1867. Since Benevolent Organizations are not required to file annual reports, and the Constitution of the organization did not provide for a corporate life, the corporation is still “alive today.

While the Constitution enumerated the four officers, it did not explain what the duties of the officers were. Nor did it explain how the Board of Trustees was supposed to function. No mention was made of the purpose of the lady managers. There was general direction that the organization was to “immediately organize by electing officers…provide and keep a seal, with a record of their transactions and shall have power to make all necessary rules or by-laws.” Without some additional By-Laws to correct these omissions, it might have been difficult to manage this organization without a lot of arguments about who was to perform what duty. If by-laws were enacted, no copy has yet been found.

The Constitution only provided a general vision of operation of the organization. The incorporators “shall control and manage the property and funds of said institution raised or to be raised as an endowment thereof and safely to invest the same in such interest bearing securities or improved real estate as their judgment will insure the best and most certain income together with all tuition, in  money or otherwise from time to time obtained shall be appropriated to the support, maintenance and education of such orphans and half orphans of soldiers and others as shall be received or placed under the control and care of said Home and when practicable to aid in the support of others who reside with their mothers.”

As to accomplishments of the organization, nothing can be found other than their incorporation papers. This is surprising as their Secretary Charles Walker was the editor of the Rolla Express most of the time it was published from 1860 to 1875. Surely if the organization accomplished anything they had easy access to being published in the newspaper. It must be acknowledged, however, that copies of many of the early newspapers have not survived. The biography of Edmund Bishop published in 1899 by Goodspeed mentions several of the organizations that Bishop founded or belonged to, but the Orphans Agricultural Home was not included, so one might assume that this organization no longer existed at that time.

A search of deeds has not revealed any transactions involving this organization so apparently, they never purchased any land. The Rolla school district had been established in 1864 so the school district would have had the responsibility for the education of all children, including the orphans. By 1866 when the Orphans Agricultural Home was incorporated, surely the schools were functioning so that the Home would not have the responsibility for educating its children. While the education problem has been solved, the orphans still have needed a place to reside.

Most likely the greatest problem which the organization suffered from was their commitment to create an endowment to fund the organization.  One hundred thousand dollars was an enormous amount of money to raise in 1866.  Without any evidence to the contrary it can be assumed that they were not able to raise sufficient funds to get started on their Home so the lofty goals of this organization were never fulfilled.

Thanks to local historian John Bradbury for help in deciphering the old records regarding this organization.