A history of orphans in Carson

Courtesy Nevada State Library and Archives The first orphanage built in 1873 in Carson City is seen with the children standing out front.

Courtesy Nevada State Library and Archives The first orphanage built in 1873 in Carson City is seen with the children standing out front.

In 1999 the Nevada State Children's Home had its first Children's Home reunion. This evolved from a visit by John Guerrero, a former resident, and his memories of the Home that were brought to light in a visit with Steve Shaw, the Administrator of the Division of Child and Family Services. The old home had closed in 1989 and many of the past residents would come back to visit the only home they knew. The only original building left on site is the old gymnasium, which was once a two-room schoolhouse for the children at the home. It was built in 1898 and existed as a home school until 1911, when the children were sent to public school. Mr. Shaw wanted the children who once lived at this location to have a chance to see it once more before the cottages were torn down, and to see each other again. What follows is the history of the home and its former wards.

There were many fond memories of the home, including this one from Bonnie Boice Nishikawa, who spent here lifetime growing up there:

"I was just three years old and my sister was four and my brother was six ... We were admitted to the Home September 15, 1942 ... My mother died January 1941 ... [my father] couldn't take care of his children and earn a living for them. Children, both boys and girls [at the Home], stayed in the nursery until they were about five years old. ... When we first came to the Home we probably had thirty, forty beds. It just seemed like it was just row after row ... probably at least thirty kids in the same room. ... We had weekly assignments. One week we would be in the dining room helping set the tables. The next week we might be in the kitchen peeling potatoes ... another week we would be in the nursery getting little kids ready for breakfast and also for dinner. We ironed clothes, cleaned dorms, toilets, sinks and bathtubs, living room and hallways. The boys did the washing ... milked the cows, took care of the livestock, worked in the fields, and were in charge of running of machinery. They milked about twenty-five, thirty cows; we also had pigs, chickens, horses. We had a wonderful farm, a dairy and we all had our own little garden plot."

In 1864 Nevada had an orphan asylum founded by Fr. Patrick Manogue which was run by Sister Frederica McGrath and the Sisters of Charity in Virginia City. Here is an excerpt from St. Mary's Asylum & School, Virginia City, Nevada, October 1864:

"The number of orphans having greatly increased, our good Father Manogue was moved to pity at the crowded state of affairs, and the many trials we underwent in the performance of our duty - thought it better that we should have another addition built to the main building. ... As the addition to the main building was roofed in, times became very dull, there was a pressure on the Stock Market, consequently, a relaxation in all sorts of business. A report had floated around that the Mines were exhausted, no fate for the city, but that it be deserted and left to its original inhabitants - the Indians! The weather became so very severe during the months of March and April, that we were compelled to close our Schools. Our wood was all consumed and owing to the deep snow, it was utterly impossible for the wood yards to obtain a further supply - so were obliged to repair to one large room on the sunny side of the building where there was a very small stove, and a very small fire ..."

It eventually was called the Nevada Orphans Home. In 1869, the Nevada Legislature passed an act establishing a Nevada State Orphans' Home in Carson City. Both orphanages were being funded by the state. The Daughters of Charity would only accept young girls, and if they had a younger brother, then he would be accepted too.

The first Children's Home Orphanage was built in 1873. Boys were to be taught "useful trades and occupations," and girls "housewifely." The home covered 15 acres and was self-sustaining. Cows were milked, cattle and pigs butchered, vegetables were grown. Surplus was exchanged for goods from the state prison. The home initially took in only full orphans (both parents deceased), but there were so many with one parent living, that they changed the law to allow half-orphans (one parent deceased). This was because many men were killed in the mines, leaving their wives with many children to care for, and little or no income. Children of living parents were also listed in the home's register as half orphans until 1900.

In April of 1881, people of the community were up in arms as to what was printed in the press about what was going on in the home. The accusations were without merit. Here is a poem written about that time from the Carson Daily Index:

Vexed Question Settled

I went to the Orphans' Home

To see if it was true

That all the boys and girls therein

Were beat till they were blue.

Of course I had to arm myself.

Against the coming ills:

Besides you see I had to face

That demon, Mr. Mills (superintendent)

The children in this Institute

Are treated very kind;

The food is good, the clothes are clean,

And we educate the mind.

We teach them how to read and spell,

And how to use the pen;

We fit them for the world at large--

It makes them better men."

I felt surprised at what he said;

The dog lay fast asleep;

And don't you know, I felt as though

I'd been out stealing sheep.

I sheathed my trusty bowie knife

And left that good old man

To belied about by the morning press

That's edited by Sam. (Sam Davis, Appeal editor?)

E. Starkey

In 1902 the home burned and was rebuilt in 1903 out of sandstone from the prison quarry. It was a magnificent building with three stories and a copula. One side was for the boys and the other side was for the girls. Originally the home was called the Orphans Asylum on Prison Road. In 1951, the name "Nevada State Orphans Home" was changed to "Nevada State Children's Home." It was also called "Sunny Acres."

In June 1963 the old Home was demolished, and cottages built. In November of 1989, the home was closed for good. Children needing care were placed in foster or group homes. In 2004 the offices at the old Children's Home location were closed and boarded up, the property to be used for state offices. The old gym built in 1898 originally as a two-room school house (and still not on the Nevada and National Register of Historic Places) will remain there as a memory for the children who spent their lives at the Home.

Information for this article came from Nevada State Library and Archives - Carson Daily Appeal and Carson Daily Index newspapers; Comstock Women and The Roar and the Silence by Ronald M. James, St. Mary's Asylum and School report, Virginia City, Nevada October 1864-July 1897 and the Oral Histories of Leonard W. Blumstrom and Bonnie Boice Nishikawa. Report on the History of the Children's Home by Nevada State Library and Archives.

• Sue Ballew is the daughter of Bill Dolan, who wrote the Past Pages column for the Nevada Appeal from 1947 until his death in 2006. She is president of the Carson City Historical Society and a docent at the Nevada State Museum.

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