“Here lies Julia Adams … who died of thin shoes.” That’s an actual epitaph, according to a book of epitaphs I just tried to find here in my office. Sometimes my books seem to take on a life of their own and just when I need a specific title—poof—it’s gone. But that’s another blog post.
Today, I thought I’d share a book idea that sprang up over ten years ago and then just wouldn’t go away. I saw this sign at a local cemetery. H. of F.? Hunh? I asked at the cemetery and was told the letters stood for Home of the Friendless. The phrase wouldn’t go away.
Since I love prowling about in the historical archives here in my home town, I finally asked about the “Home of the Friendless” one day. (This was before we could “google” and know everything.) I learned: “In 1876 … charitable women of Nebraska organized a society known as the ‘Home of the Friendless,’ … to furnish a refuge for friendless children, girls, young women, and old ladies.” By 1881, “so many friendless and deserted children came to our doors requiring protections that the state legislature … appropriated the sum of $5,000 to assist the society by the erection of a permanent building.” Here’s a photo of the Home of the Friendless from around 1917.
Most of us don’t really think of the 1870s and 1880s as a time when many people were “friendless.” We think of it as a kinder and gentler time. Sort of “little-house-on-the-prairie-ish.” But 1876 was a dismal time in Nebraska. Thanks to hordes of grasshoppers, “property fell to ruinously low prices, farmers had little to buy with, and hundreds not only left their farms, but the town of Lincoln also.”
I spent several days at the archives squinting at hand-written meeting minutes from the early days of this organization, and the more I read, the more enthusiastic I became about writing a story that would revolve around this compassionate ministry.
They hired a full-time Matron (for $25 a month.) A Matron. Ah … a character for a story. (You’ll meet mine if you read The Shadow on the Quilt).
“Mrs. X will furnish the parlor and hall with carpets and curtains, parlor and back parlor for a bedroom …” Ah. Mrs. X must have been rich. (Enter Juliana Sutton, the heroine in my novel.)
I kept reading. More story ideas emerged. In August of 1883 an “interesting old lady” was admitted at $3 a week board. “Two little babies were brought to the home … we do not think they will live.” A boy who had been adopted out was being brought back because of “dissatisfaction.” He was returned to the home and then taken by another couple “who had his little sister.” “Mrs D. was hired to work in the nursery for $8 a month plus the boarding of her three children.”
A note in the meeting minutes from July, 1886, made me think of that sign at the cemetery. “The committee on cemetery grounds reported the old lots nicely planted with bedding plants from the greenhouse and the new lots to be graded and sodded by fall.” Ah. I could have someone interested in the final resting places of the “friendless.”
Some of the entries in those historical documents broke my heart. Some inspired me to thank my heavenly Father for the boundless blessings I knew when I was raising my four children. When I became as single mother, I wasn’t friendless like this woman in 1881: “A young mother was brought to the gate of this Home with a three days old baby. I took the child as she came to the steps and carried it to the nursery. Also assisted her to a room. In a week she was able to work and we found her good help. Her child is healthy and growing nicely. She has given it to the home.”
Today, never-married mothers aren’t treated like pariahs. “July 8—I received a letter asking the admittance of a young girl, one of the deceived and deserted ones. At first my heart rebelled when this class of inmates came, but after knowing them better my heart turns toward them, and I have done what I could to lead them to a better life.”
The Shadow on the Quilt is my tribute to the women who created the Home for the Friendless in 1876; God’s extraordinary women who saw a need and filled it. Extraordinary women who believed in an eternity where the word “friendless” will no longer be needed.
July 28, 1881
“Our dear little patient Hazel has gone to the home
where sin and poverty will never enter,
for Jesus has taken her to himself.”
Is there a time when you've felt friendless and someone ministered to you? What did they do that helped? Let's learn from one another!