Pippa White

Toots, whose real name was Alice, was the oldest of five children.

Sometime in the 1920s, her parents split up. Her mother was too young to be a good mother and the children ended up living in a tent in the Catskill Mountains for a summer.

The locals noticed that the children were not doing well on their own and they were taken on by what passed for social services in the day.

Toots became one of about 200,000 children to take a ride on an orphan train, which was a program that transported orphaned and homeless children from cities on the east coast to foster homes around the country – but primarily in the Midwest.

Pippa White, of Lincoln, Nebraska, will bring the story of Toots to life tonight when she presents her one-woman show at the Norelius Community Library.

White will also tell the stories of seven other children who rode the orphan trains, which were in operation from 1854 and 1929.

White, who is originally from California, has a background in theatre.

She said she is more often called a storyteller today because of her solo shows, which cover a wide range of topics from history.

The orphan train was one of the first topics she came across after relocating to Nebraska.

“I wondered if there was any dramatic material about that orphan train, so I checked it out and I found out that there was,” she said.

The orphan trains were started by a man named Charles Loring Brace.

“He was one of the few social workers that felt something had to be done for homeless children,” she said. “New York and Boston had thousands of homeless children in the 1850s.”

Brace built an orphanage, but that only took care of a few hundred of the thousands on the streets.

“He got the idea to put them on trains and send them out to 47 of the 48 states, but mostly to the Midwest,” she said.

The intent was to find foster homes and new lives for the children in places where they would be needed.

“Some children got wonderful homes, some children got not so great homes and others got something in between,” White said.

“I tell the stories of why they had to ride the train, what their home life was like or their situation, the trip itself and what they got when they arrived.”

The story of the orphan trains is a big part of the history of the Midwest, she said.

Several orphans who ended up in Iowa are characters in the play.

“It’s a piece of forgotten history; something that people who live in our part of the world should know about,” she said.

White describes her performances as “theatrical storytelling.”

She inhabits the characters and also narrates the story.

White wrote the narration for “The Story of the Orphan Train,” but the words spoken by the characters come from the orphans themselves.

She based the characters’ lines on memoirs and newspaper articles.

All of the stories in the production are true, she said.

White got to know the real-life Toots very well as she researched the play.

“She and I really bonded,” she said.

Toots sent all her materials and pictures to White and even helped her find work in Oklahoma.

“I will save it for those who come to the performance to find out what kind of a home she got,” White said. “She was a wonderful individual.”

All the orphan train riders she met and read about were extraordinarily resourceful people who made something of themselves, she said.

They told her to keep their story alive.

“They said, ‘Let people know how it was for us. Please keep doing this,’” White said. “It’s been a wonderful experience.”

When she started researching the story of the orphan train in the 1990s, about 200 individuals who had ridden the trains were still alive.

White had personal contact with many of the orphans she chose to portray in her production.

Some were in their 70s then, but most were in their 80s and 90s - and time has taken its toll.

Toots and all the other characters in her play have passed away.

“There are not very many orphan train riders alive now – just a handful,” White said.

Her performance of The Story of the Orphan Train begins tonight at 6 p.m. at the Norelius Community Library.

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