Spring 1999

 
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My Story

and What I Remember of My Parents
and Miss Clara Comstock

by

Richard H. Call

I was born in Canandaigua, New York, February 28, 1922. My parents had come from Holland soon after World War I. Shortly before I was born, my father was killed in an automobile accident. My mother could support herself by doing housework but was not able to care for me, so just after my birth, I was taken by way of the Lehigh Railroad to the Brace Orphanage in New York City.

The Brace Orphanage was a collecting place of the New York Children's Aid Society for children who needed a home and caring parents. At the orphanage the children were cared for, checked medically, given new clothes, and prepared for their journey west to new homes. They were also given a small Bible with their real name printed on the cover in gold.

The mission of the Society was to find couples who would take these children to raise in their homes. The Society sought kind and reliable parents for the children; preliminary checks of the reputations of applying parents were made. Society agents accompanied the children to distribution points along rail lines where people would come and pick a child.

Trains left regularly with 25 or more children and three or four women to look after and place them with adopting parents. I was at the orphanage only a few days before I was carried west on the "Orphan Train."

Taking care of me was Miss Clara Comstock and Miss Alta Cline. They had both come from farming families near Hartsville, New York, close to the border between Steuben and Allegany counties. Other members of the Cline family worked on the farm of the Brace Orphanage to produce garden vegetables for the children.

I had already been chosen by Miss Comstock for her friends Mr. and Mrs. William Call who lived on a farm in the Town of Hartsville. William W. and Isabelle Rhone Call had no children of their own and had already adopted a little girl from the Brace Orphanage. Now they wanted a boy and had asked Miss Comstock to choose one for them. I suppose that she chose me because of my Dutch ancestory, because I had come from a farm family, and undoubtedly because I was a very cute baby.

On our trip the train made frequent stops along its line so the children could get off the train and be presented to couples who wished to adopt a child. The ages of the children ranged from a week or so to sixteen years.

People chose children at the railroad stops to become their son or daughter for life. When the necessary papers were completed, the chosen children went off with their new parents and the remaining children returned to the train to travel to the next stop. The train traveled across the country all the way to the midwestern states where there were many farm families able and willing to accept and raise children. The people who adopted children were almost always loving and giving individuals. I was well taken care of and soon felt very happy with my parents and my sister in our farm home.

Because she knew my parents and visited our home, and probably because I knew her nephew Alton very well, I came to call Miss Comstock "Aunt Clara." She had graduated from Canisteo Academy in 1895, then taken a teacher's training course for several years in Canisteo and taught school for a few years before working for the New York Children's Aid Society.

Miss Comstock was a large person, affectionate, but always in charge. She often worked with Anna Laura Hill who came from Elmira. There were other agents who looked after the children. They all operated from Des Moines, Iowa, probably because it was centrally located to the area where most of the children had been placed.

They even canvassed the country for prospective parents and they attempted to place children from Catholic families with Catholic families, and the same with Protestant orphans. Quite a number of children were placed in Hartsville, Canisteo, and Greenwood. Different people from the same area worked at the Brace Orphanage and at its farm. Alton's parents worked there and so did Frank Goff and his wife.

Alton remembered going to New York City when he was 14 years old with his aunt and helping out with the care of 14 children from Rochester, four of them babies, others up to six and eight years old.

Miss Comstock would visit the adopted children in their new families two or more times to make sure that the new parents and their adopted children were doing well. Very seldom were children taken from a home and placed in a different home. She continued to visit "her children" into the 1940s. Aunt Clara was proud of them all: two of the children she placed became senators and one a governor.

Miss Comstock did not drive a car and in later years after her father died and when she had moved back to Hornell to live at 21 Collier Street, she hired Alton to drive her around in this part of the country to visit the children in their adopted homes. Alton drove her about 1000 miles every three months. Miss Comstock tried to see the children that often. She kept a record and a diary. Alton remembered stopping at one place where the 60-year-old parents seemed to be exhausted. Aunt Clara asked the six-year-old what he had done. "I just tired 'em out."

She wasn't a scold and she didn't hold grudges. Alton was married in 1934 and his wife also drove for Aunt Clara who herself would sit holding a baby on her lap. Alton had great stories about their trips. He later came to stay for summers here on our farm.

The financial crash of 1929 wiped out the endowment of the Brace Orphanage, curtailing their operations. The era of placing out was ending, but Miss Comstock continued to make her calls on the families who had adopted children.

Clara Comstock placed more that 12,000 children and kept track of them until they came of age. She had trunks filled with records, and after she died her trunks of records went to The Children's Aid Society.

Miss Comstock was a life-long friend and a friend of my mother. She visited our home often, and so as time went by I got to know her very well. She was a founder of the Canisteo Valley Genealogical and Historical Society and was a regent of the D. A. R.

Clara Comstock died in 1958. I owe a great deal to Miss Comstock for placing me in the Call homestead where I was taught the better things in life.

When I was still young, my new mother died following an operation that removed a very large goiter from her neck. My father took care of my sister and me until he married a second time. My third mother was Myra J. Stephens Call. She had been a school teacher and still continued to teach. She was very strict with me. I wasn't very happy for a time, but I came to realize that she wanted the best for me. She was an excellent housekeeper, cook, teacher, and a very caring person. I had become a loner and she brought me out of my shell.

When I was six years old, I was told by other children that I was adopted. I felt as though I wasn't worth anything, that I was trash. It was a terrible feeling and I went home and told my father what I had learned. He calmly sat me down and told me that he and his first wife had wanted to have children but they did not have any so they decided to adopt a girl and a boy. He told me that we were both very much wanted. My dear father made me feel that I was the pick of the litter. My parents must have made my sister feel the same way, because there was no rivalry between us, we were always very close.

My sister Bernice was not a very healthy child; my parents fed her goat's milk to improve her health but she was often sickly. When Bernice was quite young, she married Merle Cline and they had one child, Vance, before she died in the 1950s. Bernice Louise Call Cline is buried in the family plot in the Hartsville Center Cemetery. Vance married Diane Fisher and they have five daughters, and live in Addison, New York.

My parents supported me in every way. When I was 15 they opened a bank account in my name and gave me control of it. While I was in school my mother always encouraged me to speak in public which at first was very difficult. But she built my confidence and told me before each performance that when I was stage frightened I should always look directly at her and talk to her. It worked, I finally found that I could talk easily to groups of people.

My mother taught school all these years; she was my teacher for grades 6, 7 and 8 in the "White Schoolhouse," Hartsville District No. 7, right here on the farm. She was also my teacher in the 12th grade when she taught in the High School in Canisteo and I was a student there.

My parents encouraged and supported me in business undertakings. When I was 16, in 1938, and just out of high school I bought the old District 7 schoolhouse and installed six brooders to raise Rhode Island Red chickens to sell pullets for egg layers and roosters to other breeders. Some of the roosters sold for $25 apiece.

I was a member of Future Farmers of America and received the Empire Farmer's Degree in 1940 which was the highest award in the state. The next year at the National Convention of the Future Farmers in Kansas City, Missouri, I was awarded their highest honor, the American Farmer Degree. Of course I worked on the farm to help my father. We milked 60 Ayshires and kept around 125 young cattle. He had bought Call Farm which is on Call Hill, the highest elevation in Steuben County.

My father, William Wellman Call, born in 1883, was the third generation of Calls living in Hartsville. Levi and Joel Call bought land in Hartsville in 1822 and moved here from West Virginia with their families a few years later. They were farmers and lived off the land. The Calls had originally come from England in 1636.

When I was 16, I looked up my real mother and an aunt who were still living in Canandaigua. In 1944 I bought them a double house on Center Street, in Canandaigua, and they lived in it for the remainder of their lives.

I went into the army in 1944 and became Sergeant Major of the Seventh Infantry Division, "The Hourglass Division." I remained in the army, in the Phillipines and Korea, until 1956. After that I worked in Bath, New York, until 1976 for the U. S. Veterans Administration Hospital.

At the time of my retirement from the VA, I was Historian for the Town of Hartsville. A group of us local people organized the Hartsville Historical Society and I was elected president.

In 1975 a cousin of the Calls, Randolph O. Webb moved here and brought household antiques from his side of the family. I had been collecting old things for much of my life and we put them all together, even built a large building to house our expanding collection of household items and farm machines.

On the ground floor we have the fully restored 1932 Chevrolet pickup truck my father had bought new in 1931, and a 1939 Farmall tractor. The upstairs level contains books and magazines including the annual reports for 140 years of the Supervisors of Steuben County.

Randy Webb taught for years at Alfred University and many of his paintings and ceramic pieces are in a gallery in the barn.

In 1982 I gave the Call Homestead to the Hartsville Historical Society, Inc. to become the Hartsville Museum to preserve the house, barn, schoolhouse and their contents.

I have always been very gratful to the Brace Orphanage and very thankful that Miss Comstock chose me for the Calls.

1999, Richard H. Call
 
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