Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Wisconsin school honors orphans via “The Orphan Bed Exhibit” April 25, 2013

The main building at the orphanage, built in 1886, housed offices, a reception room, chapel/auditorium, boys' cottage, living quarters for employees, a sewing room, attic and linen storage. This main portion today serves as the Owatonna city administration building.

The main building at the Owatonna orphanage, built in 1886, housed offices, a reception room, chapel/auditorium, boys’ cottage, living quarters for employees, a sewing room, attic and linen storage. This main portion today serves as the Owatonna city administration building. File photo from December 20, 2011, blog post.

THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY miles from the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum in Owatonna, a group of Lutheran school students in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, just southwest of Milwaukee, are honoring orphan children of the 1920s and 1930s.

The story of how this came to be involves me, a dedicated and creative middle school language arts teacher/musical theater director, and a bit of personal family history.

Several weeks ago, teacher Judy Lillquist, a native of Le Sueur, MN., who has lived in Wisconsin for 20-plus years, commented on a December 2011 blog post I published after a visit to the Owatonna museum. (Click here to read that story.)  She discovered my orphanage stories while researching for her school’s production of  Annie Jr. My posts included photos of simple orphans’ beds in a stark orphanage bedroom. (Click here to read my second orphanage post.)

The boys' bedrooms are stark, devoid of anything homey. This small room slept three.

This photo of an orphan’s bed inspired Lillquist to create “The Orphan Bed Exhibit.” The orphans were not allowed to sleep on their pillows; those were just for show. File photo.

Those orphan bed photos inspired Lillquist to work with her students in creating “The Orphan Bed Exhibit” which accompanies the school’s spring musical, Annie Jr., showing this Friday and Saturday at Hales Corners Lutheran Middle School.

Working with middle schoolers on a musical seems challenging enough. So I really have to admire Lillquist’s efforts to personally connect her students and audience members to the plight of actual orphans via “The Orphan Bed Exhibit.” The exhibit includes a synopsis of the inspiration behind the project.

The orphan bed designed by Lillquist.

The orphan bed designed by Lillquist.

Using cardboard boxes, paper, tape, glue, clearance bed sheets and other everyday materials, Lillquist’s sixth graders built 20 orphan beds. Those attending the musical will see silent orphan statues (students), attired in tattered dresses, stationed next to those beds.

Beds were packed tight into sparse bedrooms in the cottage.

Beds were packed tight into sparse bedrooms in the Owatonna orphanage cottages. File photo.

The scene is meant to make a powerful impact. Lillquist explains:

In my research for the play, I began formulating an idea of somehow showing our audience how important it is for us to count our blessings. I for one am very thankful for a warm home and comfortable bed. It gives me a heavy heart knowing that the orphan children of those days were not so fortunate, my husband’s dear grandmother among them.

…The beds pay homage to the orphan boys and girls of the 1920s and 30s. Our plucky little orphan girls get to play that role for a little while. Some children played that role their entire lives. This is simply to honor their memory.

A photo of some of the school's residents on exhibit in Cottage 11, which housed boys ages 6 - 13.

An Owatonna school orphans photo displayed in Cottage 11, which housed boys ages 6 – 13.

For Lillquist’s family, this is personal as her husband’s grandmother and siblings were placed in a state orphanage after their mother died. Lillquist shares:

Once placed, she would wave across the lunchroom at her two brothers. When she was finally fortunate enough to be adopted, her new family decided one year to go back to the orphanage to adopt her sister. That was her birthday present. She was in her 80s when she told us this story.

She never saw her brothers again once she left the orphanage and she could not bear to tell us what eventually happened to her sister.

Can you imagine?

I expect “The Orphan Bed Exhibit,” combined with the theatrical performance of Annie Jr., will drive home the message Lillquist intends:

Our families are blessed and that’s the message of the exhibit.

FYI: Hales Corners Lutheran Middle School, 12300 West Janesville Road, Hales Corners, Wisconsin, presents “The Orphan Bed Exhibit” at 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 26, and at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27. The curtain rises on Annie Jr. a half hour later.

Thank you to Hales Corners students, and especially to Lillquist, for their dedication to this project. I am honored to have been, in some small way, a part of this undertaking.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
“The Orphan Bed Exhibit” image courtesy of Judy Lillquist