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Feature Article on Children‘s Home. Topic: DOWNTOWN/BUILDINGS
Written by Rich Wallace in July, 1995

TRAGEDY PROMPTED CONSTRUCTION OF SHELBY COUNTY CHILDREN'S HOME

Below is the home as it appeared after construction with the tunnels leading to the girls’ and boys’ dormitories on either side
of the building. These side buildings have since been torn down and the main structure altered.

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Have you ever been inside an old house and wondered - if these old walls could talk, what stories would they tell? A tour through the stately old Children's Home compels one to ask just that question. If you listen closely enough, you can almost hear the laughter of the children mingled with the staccato issuance of orders by the matron. The voices represent over 800 children whose lives were improved - and in some cases saved - over the 79 years the Home was in operation. But those stories can be told more eloquently another day by those who experienced the atmosphere of the Home. What about in the beginning? What circumstances compelled our citizens to build such a magnificent structure? Her story is one born of tragedy and the resulting commitment of a community to address the problem.

After the guns of the Civil War fell silent, 300 Shelby County families were feeling the effects of the loss of a loved one. The war, combined with short life expectancies caused by diseases such as cholera and smallpox made children orphans at an early age. The Ohio General Assembly passed legislation authorizing the construction of children's homes in 1866. Although surrounding counties soon constructed homes, it would be more than 30 years before Shelby County followed suit.

In the meantime, what about the little children who had no parents? No one seemed to care. If no relatives were available to take them in, less than satisfactory arrangements were made elsewhere. For years, a number of the children were kept at the Shelby County Infirmary, the home for destitute and insane adults. No one intervened on behalf of the children. . After Logan County completed its home, no one in Shelby county stepped forward on behalf of the children to suggest the construction of a home for them.

On June 26, 1892 a county Board of Visitors was appointed by Judge Richie to tour all charitable institutions and report yearly concerning their condition. On June 6, 1893 the Board rendered its verdict to the county commissioners: Shelby County needed a children's home- and its construction should be a top priority. Politics reared its ugly head, however. Republicans backed the issue, which meant the Democrats were of course opposed. A stalemate appeared inevitable.

In the early 1890's, the General Assembly passed a law forbidding just what Shelby County was doing: housing children in an Infirmary. The Commissioners were faced with a mandate eerily similar to the one with which Sheriff Schemmel was recently confronted: comply with the law and make other housing arrangements for those in your care. The commissioners took steps to transfer 16 children from the Infirmary to the Logan County Children's Home at a cost of $1.75 per child per week. Now, money was also an issue. Among those shipped to Bellefontaine were Shang Effie May, Frank and Fred Williams, and Carey and Ida Barbee.

Some were left behind. Among them: little 3 year old Evelyn Wyford. Her mother was in the insane ward at the Infirmary. After some thought Superintendent Guthrie decided to advertise beautiful, blond haired Evelyn for adoption. Mr. and Mrs. Albert Strickland of Middletown applied and the adoption was completed. Evelyn Wyford left for a strange town with her new parents.

childrenshomeboysinfront.gif (107666 bytes)

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 the 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."

childrenshomesmallgirlinfrontofporch.gif (75893 bytes)

Supt. Guthrie rushed to the scene but nothing could be done. Mr. Strickland claimed he was afraid to interfere. Mrs. Strickland disappeared and was never found.

A sense of shame settled over the community. Government and community leaders were determined to act so that nothing like that would ever happen again. An Advisory Committee consisting of A.J. Hess, S. L. Wicoff and S.J. Hatfield was appointed by new Judge J. D. Barnes. Soon, representatives were touring children's homes throughout the state with the intention of building a children's home that would be "the finest in the state." There were of course some obstacles along the way. A levy issue to raise funds was placed on the ballot and passed on November 10, 1893. (The Republicans of course claimed victory). The county commissioners also struggled with site selection. Competing were the McCracken, Fielding, Doorley, Duncan and Orbison farms. After consulting landscape architect Herman Haerline of Cincinnati, the 142 acre Duncan farm was chosen for its commanding view of the river and the city. A dispute immediately ensued after the commissioners announced their intention to construct a new road to the home to be known as the "Children's Home Pike." Area residents were bitterly opposed, complaining the road would be "very expensive and of doubtful utility." It is now considered one of the most beautiful drives in the county.

An architect firm from Columbus was selected and plans were meticulously prepared. Preparations were made for the opening of bids on December 7, 1894. Eleven bidders arrived from across the state. Excitement ran high as the bids were opened. The lowest two bidders were Sidney builders Snyder and Altenbach. Because of the combination bidding that was allowed, confusion immediately arose as to which was the lowest bid. Both builders engaged counsel and the dispute was quickly resolved.

Casting a cloud over the bid opening was the sad news received the same day. Frederick Woodruff, the young son of Bertha Woodruff of Sidney died in the Logan county home on August 29 after his transfer there from Sidney. Incredibly, Infirmary officials in Sidney were not notified until December 7. County officials were more determined than ever to properly provide for the children in this county.

County officials assembled on the top of the beautiful and wind swept hill that was to be the site of the home for the laying of the cornerstone on May 31, 1895. A box containing appropriate documents was placed behind the cornerstone. On the minds of those present must have been Evelyn Wiford and Frederick Woodruff. This would be a children's home to honor their memory. It would stand as a hallmark to the commitment of Shelby County to her children for future generations. Over two years would pass before the home was completed. Thirty-five children arrived by train from Logan County on October 15, 1897 to occupy their new home. Our community had met its commitment to the children. A new day had begun.

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The home as it appeared in 1996
Photo courtesy of Tom Homan.

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