At the age of 3, a Jewish toddler named Teresa left the only home she knew, to ride on a train from New York to Kansas, and was given to strangers in Ellis County.
Author Marilyn June Coffey tells that girl’s story in her book, "Mail-Order Kid: An Orphan Train Rider’s Story, the biography of Teresa Martin." Coffey will speak at 2 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14, at the Barton County Historical Society Museum, located just south of the Arkansas River Bridge on U.S. 281 in Great Bend.
Coffey’s visit to Great Bend will include a display of orphan train pictures, a short talk, a dramatic reading from her book, and a question-and-answer session. The program is co-sponsored by the Barton County Arts Council and the Historical Society.
Teresa Martin was one of 200,000 to 500,000 children relocated by East Coast orphanages from 1854 through 1929. This orphan train movement is one of the largest relocation of children in the world.
She was placed in Schoenchen, a Volga German village where Catholic school children taunted her: "You’re just a mail-order kid. Your folks ordered you like they would a pound of coffee." Growing up there made her feel like "the lowest of the low."
For 50 years, Martin lived in nearby Hays, where everyone knew she was an orphan train rider. She graduated from college and worked as a children’s librarian in Hays until she moved to Denver, where she worked as a medical librarian for 31 years.
How Martin resolved her experience as an orphan train rider is the subject of "Mail-Order Kid." According to Pippa White, an orphan train dramatist, Coffey’s book is "quite fascinating, a new and unusual look at the orphan train experience."
Coffey is a best-selling, national prize-winning, internationally published author of poetry and prose. Her "Pricksong" won a Pushcart Prize, and Atlantic Monthly featured her Great Plains Patchwork: A Memoir on its cover. The National Orphan Train Complex gave her its Special President’s Award.
Called a prose stylist, Coffey trained as journalist (B.A., University of Nebraska, 1959) and creative writer (M.F.A., Brooklyn College, 1981).