Learning About Life, Family Through Orphan Records

When Mike Kazmierski started working in maintenance at SaintA, he told his mother about his new job. “Oh, that’s where your grandfather was,” she answered, referring to the old St. Aemilian’s Orphan Asylum. Mike had known his grandfather was an orphan, but he never had many details. He thought this connection to his personal past was “neat.”

Then, after a couple of weeks, he started talking to Gina Aiello, who keeps orphan records for the agency. Gina pulled the records, for Charles O’Dwyer and his brother Michael.

Mike Kazmierski
Mike Kazmierski

“I told my mom that I knew my grandfather’s name was Charles, but I had no clue he had a brother. She said, ‘Who do you think you were named for?’ ”

These exchanges started the search in earnest. Mike’s mother was overjoyed to have tangible evidence of the life of her father and great-uncle. And the old documents and hand-penciled letters, some still in yellowing envelopes bearing penny stamps, also gave Mike a much greater appreciation for his grandfather.

The aging, fading records also paint vivid pictures of childhood adversity shortly after the turn of the 20th century, and how relationships and resilience contributed to very different outcomes for two young boys.

Charles and Michael O’Dwyer’s father was a dentist who records bluntly refer to as a “chronical (sic) toper” and a “habitual drunkard.” The parents had divorced and their mother was no longer around, so from the ages of 4 and 6, they lived with their father’s sister, in Montello, Wis. They stayed with her for five years. But times were hard for the aunt and her three daughters, and her husband was leaving town, so she petitioned the court to place the boys in the orphanage. Probably reflecting the trauma the boys had suffered with the divorce and disruption of their home, the aunt said, “They have been looked after closely, but they have been hard to handle.”

After the boys’ father admitted in court that he was in no position to care for his children, St. Aemilian’s, then in St. Francis, became the boys’ home. The year was 1916. Charles was 11 and Michael was 9.

As was not uncommon for that time, Charles was moved from the orphanage a year later, in 1917, and placed on a farm in Greenleaf, Wis., run by the Diny family. The Dinys were related to a Sister Coletta, who worked at the orphanage, and they had requested a farm hand. Although the relationship with the Dinys was cordial and ultimately grew to be quite warm, Mike’s grandfather was “indentured.” The form the Dinys filled out requesting a child to come and work for them asked for “the youngest age of the child you wish to procure.” The Dinys said ages 14, 15. Charles was 12.

Under the arrangement, the farm family paid the child a wage, depending on his age, and sent the money to the orphanage. The funds were kept there until the boys turned 21. In a letter to a family who took Michael in, in 1919, the orphanage explained, “We keep these monies on hand so that they have something if later on they wish to establish themselves or have special need of the funds. If given to the boys while earning, they would only learn to be shiftless and would spend everything they had.”

The orphanage’s paperwork says that, with children who are indentured, “we prefer to place our boys in country homes.” The boys got free room and board and clothing, and they were required to attend school until they were 14 and finished the fifth grade. Indenture ended at age 18.

Shortly after he arrived at the farm, Charles penciled a letter to St. Aemilian’s priest. “I am having a good time,” he wrote. The same day he penciled a letter to “Dear brother Mikie.” In it he said, “Some day when I am farming you have to come and see my farm. I suppose you are sledding downhill every day.” Then, describing his workload, he wrote: “There are 49 cows, 10 horses, 20 pigs, 100 chickens, three geese to feed, water and tie up every day. We have 6 fresh cows.”

In Charles’ orphan records, a St. Aemilian’s report in 1921 referred to Charles as “fair to good” on industriousness as a farm hand and noted he was well liked and “seemingly” content.

Michael, however – who was only 4 when his life was traumatically disrupted — was let go from two families to whom he also was indentured. The second one wrote to St. Aemilian’s, “there is no peace here as he ain’t never satisfied.” Letters to the orphanage detailed how Michael would become very upset when expected letters from his father failed to appear and how he would lie about his treatment at the farm in letters he sent to his father.

The farm wife wrote to the orphanage that Michael was “mean to the farm animals. He beats them, curses and swears at them and he has always been that way.” He was accused of dishonesty and later theft. The farm wife, however, admitted in her letters that she felt her own five children were easier because she raised them since they were little and that her husband had to give Michael “a lickin” every now and then. For whatever reason, Michael and Charles later became estranged, but they reunited when Mike’s mother was young, Mike said.

The only serious issue the Dinys and St. Aemilian’s priest had to deal with was Charles’ wish, at age 17, for money. Although the Dinys gave him $2 to attend dances and sometimes let him use their car or a horse and buggy, Mr. Diny wrote to the orphanage that a recent refusal to let Charles use the car made the teenager mad. “It’s after nine o’clock and he is in bed yet,” the farmer wrote. He added, referring to the orphanage’s holding of wages until a youth turned 21, Charles had said he “don’t want to work for nothing.”

“From information coming to me, it seems as if you are of the opinion that you are earning a million dollars a year,” the priest then wrote to Charles. “While it is not in the nature of a complaint, but through reference, a statement was made to me that you are also going to dances. Personally I maintain that a boy of your age has no business going to any. You are not ripe and mature as yet to keep company with a girl and ought to expend your energies in other directions and in legitimate amusements.”

The money issue ultimately turned out to be the last straw for Charles, and he left the Dinys in October of 1922 to find work where he could be paid directly. The farmer informed the orphanage, adding that “he was a good kid, only he wanted all of his money what (sic) goes to the orphan home….I wish him luck and happiness in this wide world… for I am sure he will think of us.”

Charles did keep in touch with the Dinys and, when his father died in 1923, he told them he had no clothes to wear to the funeral. The Dinys bought him clothes, with an agreement that Charles would return and work it off. But, according to a letter to the orphanage, Charles’ relatives persuaded him to stay with them, and Mr. Diny asked if he could deduct what they had spent on the funeral outfit from the money they were still sending to the orphanage. Listed were: Charlie’s suit, $20; shoes, $3.50; collar and cuffs, 45 cents, stockings, 50 cents.

“My grandfather was a hard worker and he made something of himself,” Mike said. Charles O’Dwyer became a sheet metal worker and a father himself.

“For my mom, my grandfather hung the moon; he was such a loving father,” Mike said. And he said he thinks the St. Aemilian’s experience did a lot to form his grandfather. “It was stable and he had a purpose… he learned to sew, cook, and he got a lot of life skills, and along with that a good attitude.

“A loving caring place rubs off on you.”

The Dinys became Charles’ family, Mike said, and he remembers visiting them over the years in Janesville.

“We never knew they weren’t (real) family, it was always we were going to Aunt X, Y or Z’s house…Michael moved to New York and we don’t know what he did.”

Mike said his grandfather never talked about being an orphan, about family at all for that matter, and that he found looking at his story in the orphan records to be happy and sad. He particularly liked the letters about going to dances.

“It was interesting to see what he had to go through to become the man he was … But I’m a lot like my grandfather and my mom; you don’t dwell on the past or bad memories. You keep the good memories at heart.”

Mike said he believes he got from his grandfather and his mother a good work ethic and the firm belief that he would do anything, sacrifice anything for his family.

In the end, he said, “I was really impressed to find out that I’m actually working for a place that helped my grandfather.”

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