Orphan Train Rider saga explained for EPL audience

By Tom Phelan - Staff Writer
Enfield - posted Wed., Apr. 6, 2011
Judith Kappenman read excerpts from her book, based on the life of her maternal grandfather, at the Enfield Public Library. Photo by Tom Phelan.
Judith Kappenman read excerpts from her book, based on the life of her maternal grandfather, at the Enfield Public Library. Photo by Tom Phelan.

From time to time we are absolutely amazed to learn about things we never knew had happened. Judith E. Kappenman took the story of her maternal grandfather, and turned the saga into her first published book.

Kappenman, a Sister of St. Joseph from West Springfield, Mass., came to the Enfield Public Library on Wednesday, March 30, to tell about how she came to write “To Dakota and Back: The Story of an Orphan Train Rider.” The book is a fictionalized version of the story of her mother’s father, John Donahue, who was born in South Boston, Mass., lived in an orphanage as a young boy, and was sent to live a life of indentured servitude in the Dakota Territory in the mid 1850s.

Kappenman was an English teacher for 42 years, who retired from teaching in 2000 to make good on a promise to her late mother to publish the story of her grandfather’s unusual life.

She said the key was starting by developing a chronology of her grandparents’ lives. She had a trunk of memorabilia they left behind – pictures, newspaper articles, documents, obituaries and letters.  The couple was married in 1904, lived in the Dakota Territory, and eventually moved to Massachusetts in their later years.

Kappenman read about a half-dozen excerpts from her book in the expressive voice one might expect from someone who had taught English and writing for so many years. She read a love-letter from Donahue to the woman he would eventually marry, as well as a section conjured up around the evening the Donahue boys were told by the orphanage that they were taking a trip.

Donahue was born in South Boston in 1877. He was but four when his mother died of tuberculosis, and his father put his three children, John, his older brother Thomas and his sister, Mary, into the Home for Catholic Destitute Orphans in Boston. The elder Donahue apparently never came back to see his children.

Before he was even 10 years old, John Donahue and his brother, Tom, were put on a train by the Catholic orphanage, and sent to the Dakota Territory– an area that is now South Dakota. Their younger sister was left behind, and they never saw her again. John and his brother were indentured to related, families on separate farms, where they worked until age 21.

The practice was a shock to most people in the audience, but Kappenman explained that Boston orphanages sent about 3,000 children off to new homes between 1850 and 1920. Catholic orphanages were slightly more responsible than some others about finding homes for the children before they were shipped off to live their indentured lives with strange families.

The book contains references to many actual and some official-looking documents from the period. They and the contents of the trunk are the basis for the book, but the story Kappenman built around them is fiction. She told her Enfield audience that many of the people who have read the book and listened to her speak about it had allowed themselves to be fooled into thinking that every facet was true-to-life.

Donahue, according to Kappenman, had only sparse education, but was an avid reader. He eventually went out on his own, became a teacher, and then a businessman. He sold real estate and insurance for a while, and eventually bought a newspaper in Ethan, S.D. Like many of the Orphan Train Riders, her grandfather did not allow himself to become bitter, and made quite a success of himself.

Kappenman actually finished her book several years ago, but when she took it to publishers, she found no one was interested. Disappointed, she left the project dormant. She gained support from friends and fellow teachers, and eventually decided to take the book to the public through the self-publishing route.

Kappenman met with friend Bruce Penniman, former director of the Massachusetts Writing Project, to bring the writing to a close, and format the work for publishing. She thought she was finished with the book. He told her he was too busy at that time, and suggested that she “look at the manuscript one more time.” She discovered there was room for improvement. “I found things that were wrong chronologically, and other things that just didn’t work,” she said. 

About three months later Kappenman and Perriman got together to wrap up the project. “I think we were doing the cover,” she said, “and I was still tweaking this and that.” Perriman told her, “That’s what writers do. They keep rewriting instead of publishing.”

Kappenman’s first self-published work of more than 250 pages is available at www.lulu.com for $20.

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