Orphan House of the Holy Saviour (1875)

Report with extensive quotations from Susan Fenimore Cooper

Originally published in State of New York, Ninth Annual Report of the State Board of Charities, transmitted to the Legislature January 14, 1876 . Albany: Weed, Parsons and Company, Printers, 1876. pp. 386-391.

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Annual Report of the Orphan House of the Holy Saviour


{p. 386} In a spacious family dwelling-house, by the shore of the beautiful lake of Otsego, are gathered, from the county poor-house and desolate homes, a band of twenty-eight little children. Most of them, on their arrival here, presented all the traits of children whose early years had been neglected. Some had become soured and apathetic; some perverse and morose; the natures of others had, by the corrupting influences of pauper and criminal associations, been corroded into forbidding angularities. But under this hospitable roof a beneficial change has been wrought in these susceptible natures. They have been brought to feel the warmth of true love and the benign workings of Christian teaching.

The Orphan House is situated on the borders of the quiet village of Cooperstown, opposite the village cemetery and Mount Vision, commanding a view of the bold and picturesque scenery which surrounds it, and which has been rendered familiar, alike to visitor and stranger, by the pen of America’s great novelist.

The necessities out of which the institution originated may be stated as follows: In 1869, and the few years previous, it had been painfully evident to those interested in orphan and destitute children that an Orphan house and Industrial school for the relief of this class in Otsego and adjacent counties, was greatly needed. Miss Susan Fenimore Cooper used the following language in describing the condition of the poor children at that period: “Until now the poor-houses have been their only resource, and they have been exposed to the constant evil examples of the older paupers, too many of whom are men and women of the very worst characters and habits. They are scantily fed, clothed and sheltered, with schooling for less than half the year, usually from three to five months. These are the benefits they receive. On the other hand, they are not taught the great lesson of work. They have no moral or religious teaching beyond one hour on Sunday, when they are possibly, though not necessarily, taught by volunteer instructors from the neighborhood.”

The importance of this work was brought to the attention of the benevolent of Cooperstown and elsewhere, and through the untiring zeal of Miss Cooper a beginning was made in this large field, which is even now but partially occupied. The Orphan House of the Holy Saviour, having for its object to provide a home and industrial school for orphan, half-orphan and destitute children, was incorporated by special act of the Legislature in 1870. It is under the patronage of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Albany, and the {p. 387} special guardianship of Miss Susan Fenimore Cooper, who devotes to it a great part of her time, and who has made for it large personal sacrifices. Its immediate charge in assigned to Miss E. M. Stanton, who resides at the home, and who is assisted by her daughter. Both are ladies of culture and well adapted for this important work.

At the day of visitation, July 30ᵗʰ, the following interesting snatches of history were ascertained from the teacher, of six children who had been taken from the county poor-house, and who were brought at our desire under our special observation:

  1. A little boy “from a very low family. His father died of dissipation. The child has been in the home a year; is one of our most obedient boys. He ranks among those who take the best care of their clothes.”
  2. A little girl. “Her father is not known. Her mother was so profane that they could hardly endure her in the county house. This little girl is very promising, very affectionate, sings any thing, and learns rapidly.”
  3. A little boy. “He was brought to the Home on a pillow. The physician had given him up. He was covered with scrofulous eruptions and obliged to eat his meals in a dark corner. We commenced giving him baths, and very little medicine, but gave him nourishing diet. Now he is a bright boy with clear eyes and an intelligent countenance. He learns rapidly, is a close observer, and although near-sighted sees much quicker than many who have the full use of their eyes.”
  4. A little girl, sister to No. 1. “She is a delicate child, not so promising as her brother.”
  5. A little girl. “She is one of the most obedient children in the house. She will not recognize any of her relatives, which is something very unusual.”
  6. A little colored girl, called by the teacher, “Sunshine under a cloud,” from her very pleasant disposition.

The average age of the children in the house was about eight years. Six of them were under three years old.

The following information regarding the institution, was obtained from Miss Cooper:

“We would gladly take all the children from the county-house to our institution, had we room for them. Our house can only accommodate thirty children. We have no building of our own, as yet. We took six children from the county-house last winter, and shall probably have room for two or three more this year. We agreed to take from the supervisors all that we had room for, but we shall not have over three other vacancies this year. We rent the house which we occupy, with its garden, for which we pay $350 a year.

“The children have three hours of schooling every morning. In {p. 388} the afternoon, the girls sew and do housework, while the older of the boys work in the garden, under an old man who has charge of it. We have a paid woman in the kitchen, also a woman who comes to wash two days in the week. We find all that is needed for thirty children. We keep them till the age of fifteen, if desirable, and then place them in good homes.”

Miss Cooper, on being asked whether she thought it better to place the children in families as soon as possible, or to keep them in the asylum till they were of a certain age, said:

“I think both courses ought to be adopted. The utmost care should be taken, as regards the families into which they are placed. There are very many private families where there is very little home-like character, and there are public institutions that have a great deal. It is better to keep children longer in such institutions than to place them in families where they will not be properly treated.

“In our institution we teach the children to consider themselves as brothers and sisters, and try to make them feel at home with us. We are very particular about their morals.

“Our institution is for orphans, half-orphans and destitute children. If they are half-orphans, we try to cultivate affection for the remaining parent, teaching them that it is their duty to help such in times of need, and especially during sickness and old age. We teach them to pray for their parents, and constantly inculcate the general principle that they must do what they can for their parents, even when they are bad. We are not unnecessarily strict with our children in every little minutia. I think this is one cause of the difficulty in England. They establish most admirably arranged asylums and orphan homes, but they are exceedingly strict in all matter of detail, and when the children leave the institutions and return to their own families, where every thing is loose and lax, there is a reaction which proves disastrous to the children.

“When children leave us we endeavor to get them situations in respectable families. In some cases where we have children of uncommon promise, we ask them to be left with us, and we take the whole charge of them for a time. The great object we have in view is the formation of character and industrial habits. These are the two things that we look to most of all. We have now two or three bright children who will probably become teachers, and we keep that in view in their education. Some will learn trades. Others will go out into families to do housework. In some cases families wish to adopt them, and we consent to it if we see they are suitable parties. Every afternoon the girls sew, and we hope that every girl who leaves the home at the age of fourteen, will be able to make their own clothes, at least. They also learn to knit. They, of course, make their own beds, sweep, wash, {p. 389} iron and make bread. We had some excellent bread baked by a girl of fourteen, which was exhibited at our last examination. When we have a new and larger building, we shall probably have a trade taught on the premises.”

In regard to discipline Miss Cooper says:

“Our system is to blend firmness and kindness together, and when this principle is acted on faithfully it is pretty sure to succeed. We have always found it so, and we have had some quite wild ones to manage. I had a specimen in a little boy about six years old. The lady who sent him to me said he had been in her house six weeks and had not minded her once. We bore with him at first. If you said ‘Charlie, you must not do that,’ he would go straightway and do it. I would call him, ‘come here, Charlie,’ he would walk right away. ‘Charlie, keep your seat,’ he would stand up immediately. He was a very troublesome child, and was looked upon as a regular ‘black sheep.’ After he had been at the Home for about two months, he seemed all of a sudden to change. the changed seemed to come upon him almost miraculously. It worked so well that at the end of three or four months he was like the other children, and is now one of the best boys I have — the most obedient. I think there is a great deal in the atmosphere of the house, and as I have said, in the blending of kindness with firmness. We never had one who has not come round by this method.”

On being asked if she thought all children could be reformed, Miss Cooper said:

“I believe that any child under fifteen years of age can, with proper Christian influences, be reformed. I have had a girl at our Orphan Home who came from a very bad family. I shrank very much from taking her on that account. She was badly spoken of as regards honesty, and I almost trembled to take her on account of her influence on the other children. She is now doing exceedingly well, and her name is read out at every examination as one of the most trustworthy and honest of our girls. We have a practice of reading before the Trustees, at our yearly examination, the names of the best worker, the best bread maker, the best sewer, etc. The matron marks for family life, and the school teacher for school life, and these marks, good and bad, are all read before the Trustees at the end of the year.”

In regard to the aim held in view in educating the children, Miss Cooper says:

“We endeavor to give our children an industrial education. We deem this very important. We do not think it necessary to teach Latin, Greek, French and German to all. We aim to give them a plain, practical, English education, good as far as it goes. But if there are any bright children, who have capacity to go on, we afford them every opportunity to do so.”

The children looked bright and happy and were particularly clean and neat in their personal appearance. An air of contentment was {p. 390} manifest in their demeanor, and they seemed to be on the alert to obey through a seeming regard, if not love, toward those caring for them.

The appointments of the house throughout were orderly, and an air of sweetness and purity, such as is peculiarly characteristic of a Christian home, seemed to pervade it. The floors were clean. Snow-white counterpanes covered the beds. The house was thoroughly ventilated, and throughout the rooms were distributed illuminated cards with mottoes, which not only appealed to the aesthetic nature, but inculcated order and moral sentiments. A retrospective thought of the former wretchedness of the little ones here congregated forced upon the mind the blessedness of that Providence that had brought them under such elevating and refining influences, and an earnest hope was awakened that the little company of children, even the day previous amidst the degrading associations of the county poor-house, might soon, through the exercise of a wise benevolence, be permitted to share similar advantages.

The number of children in the institution, October 1, 1875, was twenty-eight. Of these five were orphans, twenty half-orphans, and three had both parents living. Twenty-three were of native and five of foreign parentage. During the past year twenty-two children had been received and thirteen discharged. The expenditures for the year amounted to $2,895.59.

A great need seemed to be felt for a larger building.

“We are compelled,” said Miss Cooper, “to refuse to take between fifty and a hundred children a year. So many families have been deserted by their fathers that we have always a number of applicants whose parents are still living. Husbands desert their wives, leaving them with four and five children. The women come to me and say, ‘We cannot struggle under this burden. We do not want to send our children to the poor-house. Can you not take one or two of our children? We are willing to work.’ But we are obliged to turn them away for want of room.”

It is proposed to erect a new building as soon as means can be provided for this purpose. A tract of land containing 15 acres eligibly situated near the village, has been secured and paid for. A plan has been drawn for a building to cost $15,000, which will accommodate eighty children. The same design may be enlarged so as to comfortably provide for one hundred and twenty. The project of erecting a suitable asylum building is a heartfelt desire on the part of Miss Cooper and those co-operating with her.

It was gratifying to see the daughter of one of America’s greatest writers in the very spot which had given birth to numerous productions of her father’s gifted pen, engaged in so noble a work for the outcasts of society, thus sanctifying by her self-denying Christian life the place which the genius of her father had immortalized. It was {p. 391} sad, however, to reflect, that while there existed a large and urgent field of labor in her immediate vicinity, this lady should be restricted in her benevolent work merely from lack of funds. It is believed, however, when what is now stated becomes more generally known, that out of a grateful sentiment felt toward the father by those who have enjoyed the rare intellectual treats from his labors, the means will be forthcoming to erect in the village of Cooperstown a tasteful and commodious edifice, where the daughter may be permitted to carry on her self-sacrificing work in an enlarged field of usefulness.