A Song for Cecilia

A Peoria Novel
by Jo Fredell Higgins

Listen. I have a story to tell you.

It combines the salient history of Peoria, interwoven with the life of Cecilia Rose Delaney, who comes west on an Orphan Train and is adopted by a prominent local family.
A Song for Cecilia takes place in Peoria during the 1920s and 1930s. Enjoy this journey as we discover the city of Peoria and read about the childhood and emerging maturity of Cecilia.

Before the white settlers arrived, Illinois was nearly half-forest. Indians would peel the bark from birch trees and fashion it to a frame of small tree branches, making a light, easily carried canoe. The first French explorers used these canoes to barter their furs, and early settlers followed the traders down the Illinois River, which would later be filled with steamboats.

By 1830, glowing accounts of the fertile Illinois prairie brought a wave of immigration. A popular song of those days said, “Move your family west, if good health you would enjoy. And cross at Dixon’s Ferry in the State of Illinois.” The same year, Abraham Lincoln came with his parents to the Prairie State.

Those settlers who could not afford river transportation came by wagon, horseback or on foot, following the Indian paths and buffalo trails with their horses and oxen. The wheels of their heavy wagons helped widen the narrow, muddy trails into roads. The Indians walked overland, marking the trails with bent saplings. Some of these trees can be seen even today, now grown into elbow-shaped trees.

“Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, Grow’.”—Talmud

The land near Peoria was first settled in 1680 when French explorer René Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle constructed Fort Crevecoeur—French for “broken heart”—on the eastern shore. Nine years later, on the other side of the river, Henri de Tonti and Francois Daupin de la Forest built Fort St. Louis, also known as Fort Pimiteoui, near the present-day foot of Mary and Adams streets. Jesuit missionaries established the Immaculate Conception Mission as a village grew up around the fort. The settlement had trading posts, a chapel, a winepress, a blacksmith shop and a windmill. Around this fort, the first permanent village in Illinois was formed, which would become the city of Peoria. The French village would later burn to the ground, and in 1813, Fort Clark was built by American soldiers near what is now downtown Peoria.

Five years later, Illinois became the 21st state of the Union. In the northern part of the state, there was not a single white man, so far as is known, except at the Chicago military post. The prairies, covered with grass and spangled with flowers, were undisturbed, but for droves of passing deer. The rivers and creeks, stocked with trout and bass, quietly flowed by. The solitude of the groves was broken only by the howls of hungry wolves or the occasional sound of an Indian musket.

Having heard reports of the fertile land near Fort Clark, seven white men arrived on the site in 1819. Deciding to settle there, Virginian Abner Eads loaded a two-horse wagon and returned with his wife, Rebecca, and their three children. Rebecca Eads was the first American woman to see the site of Peoria. Abner Eads bought 160 acres of land and was elected sheriff of Fulton County, which then included Peoria. Another early settler, Josiah Fulton, bought 80 acres of land from the federal government at $1.25 an acre. He farmed in and around Peoria and was another prominent figure in its early history.

On January 13, 1825, the Illinois General Assembly approved an act erecting Peoria County “out of the country in the vicinity of Fort Clark.” Until Cook County was created six years later, Chicago was actually part of Peoria County. In 1835, Peoria was incorporated as a town, and the city charter came a decade later. At the time, the City of Peoria had a population of 1,619.

By 1910, the city had grown to include 66,950 residents. Occupations listed in that year’s Peoria City Directory included cigar manufacturers, coppersmiths, broom makers, carriage manufacturers, wagon makers, woven wire mattress makers, milliners and undertakers. Trains had become the main means of transportation, and due to its central location, Peoria was the fourth-largest regional hub in the U.S. for many years, serving 15 railroads with 70,000 miles of track at its peak.

“Light seeking light doth light of light beguile.”—William Shakespeare

And it was on one of those trains that Cecilia Rose Delaney arrived in Peoria in 1918.

Born in the tenements of New York City, Cecilia was adopted by the prominent Harriman family of Peoria, where she would grow from a small child into womanhood. It was a most auspicious society for Cecilia, as the Harrimans and their neighbors and friends embraced her warmly.

Theadeus Harriman was a successful banker at the First National Bank, located at 210-212 S. Adams Street in Peoria. His eyes radiated kindness from behind wire-rimmed glasses, and his sagacity in business matters accounted in great measure for the bank’s success. His firm was doing quite well granting loans to local businesses involved in supporting the World War I effort.

His wife, Teresa, was a homemaker raising their four children, Timothy, George, Ruth and Olivia. There was part-time help for Teresa every Tuesday and Thursday. Liza lived on South Laramie Street and took the bus each week to the new homes on the East Bluff where the Harimanns lived. She helped with the cooking, washing, ironing and cleaning, and was a great help with the children on days when Teresa had errands to run.

The Harriman household had most of the modern conveniences, including an ABC washing machine, manufactured in East Peoria, and a modern Meyer furnace to heat the home. The furnace, too, was produced in Peoria. The kitchen icebox was made of oak, with fancy doors and sturdy handles. Liza would place a card in the front window that read “25 pounds” or “50 pounds” to indicate to the iceman that they wanted that sized block of ice. The Woodruff Ice Co. plant was situated at 116 S. Adams Street and had a capacity of 15,000 tons of ice.

Together, the Harrimans had decided to adopt an Orphan Train child, a decision applauded by Teresa’s uncle, Edward Nelson Woodruff, who owned the ice company and served as Peoria’s mayor.

“I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”—Sarah Williams

Cecilia had arrived on an Orphan Train from New York City, one of nearly 200,000 children who were transported on Orphan Trains all over the United States. In the 1850s and 1860s, Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society, propounded that it was wise to remove the children from the squalid tenements of New York and transport them west to new homes and families. The State of Illinois had accepted 9,172 children.

The first group of 37 orphaned and destitute children left New York by riverboat on the evening of September 28, 1854. E.P. Smith, a Children’s Aid Society agent, accompanied the children, who ranged from six to 15 years in age. In a report, Smith delineated stories of grinding poverty. One abandoned boy had been born in Chicago. Another child’s mother had died at Bellevue Hospital, and his dad was intemperate. Jack, a little German Jewish child, had been taken to a shoe shop, but “Little Jack made awkward work in trying on a pair of shoes. He don’t know them, sir. There’s not been a cover to his feet for three winters.” These children, weakened by hunger, living in alleyways and chewing on meat bones and bits of hard, moldy bread, were given a chance to meet a new family who would care for them.

The Orphan Train Movement
Source: National Orphan Train Complex

  • Between 1854 and 1929, nearly 200,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children were transported on trains and placed in new homes throughout the country.
  • When the trains began, 30,000 abandoned children were estimated to be living on the streets of New York.
  • These children were expected to break completely with their past and start over with new families. Many siblings were separated and lost contact with the rest of their families.
  • While the movement offered food, family, shelter and safety to children living on the streets or in orphanages, they were sometimes exploited for their cheap labor, and the movement eventually fell out of favor.
  • Despite its flaws, the Orphan Trains marked the beginning of documented foster care in the U.S. Children’s protection laws, school lunches, medical treatments and the beginnings of the welfare system all arose out of the movement.
  • The National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas preserves information about the Orphan Trains and the stories of the children and agents who rode them. For more information, visit orphantraindepot.com.

The last Orphan Train left New York on January 22, 1929, because the thinking at the time was changing, and these views were no longer in vogue. Children were now kept in their communities, with the biological family in many cases intact, under the care and oversight of local children’s agencies and with assistance from the federal government.

The year before Cecilia’s arrival in Peoria, Congress had passed a bill requiring immigrants to be literate. They needed to learn the language of the country they had chosen as their home as the first and most important step. Many south-side Peoria immigrants learned English at their local churches. They might speak Polish or German or Italian, but they were eager to learn English, and free classes were offered for them. The Neighborhood House offered classes and other training programs for poor immigrants from its location at 2000 S. Washington Street. The area at that time was settled by Eastern European families, and 14 foreign languages were spoken.

The year of 1926 arrived in Peoria with a terrible blizzard. The sounds of tree limbs breaking with the heavy frost could be heard everywhere, and the temperature hovered around minus 10 degrees. By March, the city would experience its greatest snowfall in 42 years. Cecilia, now in fourth grade at St. Bernard’s School, loved to check books out of the McClure Branch library. Liza would warm chocolate milk, and together, she and Cecilia would read. Cecilia would write her own poems and short stories, and she and her friends would write plays and act them out for the family.

At the end of each school year, St. Bernard’s Pastor M.P. Sammon hosted a picnic for the children with games and races. Cecilia marveled that the teaching sisters would play baseball with the boys and interact in ways she had not seen before. Summertime was full of ambrosia and family fun. Days were filled with warmth and wonder.

Cecilia would graduate from St. Bernard’s and enroll as a freshman at the Academy of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. She was a gifted and articulate student, who was just beginning to notice the boys across the street at Spalding Institute. She and her girlfriends enjoyed going to the Spalding football and basketball games.

Fate soon played an auspicious hand.

Cecilia and Christopher would meet at a dance held at the Spalding Institute Center and begin to fall in love. They complemented one another—both were honor roll students and class leaders. Cecilia would graduate from the Academy of Our Lady in 1932 and pursue a degree at Illinois State University. After graduation, she would take a teaching position at St. Bernard’s.

The city was recovering from the depths of the Depression, and the Neighborhood House provided comfort for many of its indigent families. Federal food stuffs were shipped into Peoria by the carload, and people would come to the depot at Oak and Walnut to pick up allotments. Those with a little money could buy a pound of dried beans at 60 cents, enough to feed a family. Men worked 12 hours a day for $1 when they could find work. Some of the children at St. Bernard’s would talk to Cecilia about these matters, and she would try to help their families.

Cecilia and Christopher had become a couple and made plans for a July 1936 wedding. There was a lovely garden ceremony, followed by a honeymoon trip to Chicago. The couple would have several years together before Christopher would be drafted during World War II. They enjoyed buying their first home on Forrest Hill, purchasing seeds from the Hagemann Seed Company, and planting lovely gardens about the property. Life was embroidered by their love for one another.

A Song for Cecilia is a remarkable story of love and longing, of dreams fulfilled and dreams shattered, of a young woman’s sense of loss and redemption. Cecilia grows up in Peoria during a time now long lost, except for memories and the history books. Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis has written the book’s welcome letter and local author and historian Jerry Klein has written its introduction. A Song for Cecilia will be released by Tate Publishing in the spring of 2011. a&s

Jo Fredell Higgins is a graduate of the Academy of Our Lady in Peoria
and an internationally published and award-winning writer, poet, photographer and essayist.

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