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


26 Responses to “A Wisconsin school honors orphans via “The Orphan Bed Exhibit””

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    How amazing that your blog post helped in establishing this connection with this production and the visuals of the orphan beds!! That is really a very neat thing and I am sure the impact of seeing that exhibit will drive home the message that Judy Lillquist is trying to convey. Powerful, Audrey!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, and if only Hales Corners was not so far from Faribault, I would be there. Also, don’t you just love that name, Hales Corners? So literary, so folksy. I really should research its origin.

      Judy is one of those teachers who seems simply passionate about her work.

      • Lori Straw Says:

        Hi Audrey,
        I live in Hales Corners and the name originated like this: Two brothers, Seneca and William Hale owned a lot of land here including three ‘corners’. (Turned out to be our biggest intersection.) So it used to be Hale’s Corners and eventually the apostrophe was dropped.
        My daughter is in 7th grade at HCLMS and is working backstage. I can’t wait to see it tomorrow. The teachers are treasures!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Lori, thanks for that explanation of your community’s name. Town names are often sourced from original settlers, so I should have guessed.

        Just from communicating with Judy Lillquist, I surmised that she’s a treasure. I’m also impressed with the offerings at your Christian day school, after my visit to the school website. My three children also attended an LCMS school in my community but did not have nearly the academic choices. I hope the play goes well and the exhibit is well received.

  2. westerner54 Says:

    Wonderful teacher, wonderful story.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I agree. I love when teachers go that extra mile, when they are so passionate about teaching, like Judy.

  3. Clyde of Mankato Says:

    I have known two people from the Owatonna orphanage. Quite the stories they tell. Not bad, just interesting and in an odd sort of way inspiring how they see life as a result.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I don’t personally know anyone from the orphanage. But I’ve read several books by former residents and visited the museum twice. What I learned from reading and touring were primarily about the negative experiences. But you also have to wonder if the lives of some of these children would have been any better had they been left in difficult family situations/circumstances. Every child, every story, every outcome, every take-away, is different.

      • Clyde of Mankato Says:

        Both were there because they had no family to take care of them. They had no bad experiences, just efficient care, full in every way but affection as one said. Both knew they were far better off for being there than no where else to go.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Yes, love and affection were the missing elements in care, as I’ve understood, too.

  4. My grandfather was an orphan, separated from siblings….sadly little is known of his family. He rarely talked about it—I often wish I had taken more time as a teenager and young adult to “listen” and “ask” more about his life. He preferred to talk about his days in the Army. Thanks for bring his memory back to me today.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I totally hear you on the “wish I had asked and listened.” I feel the same about my father, who served on the front lines in the Korean Conflict. He talked so little about his time there.

      Perhaps it’s not too late to uncover your grandfather’s story.

  5. Oh, I just wanted to add that Lucy and I are watching the Anne of Green Gables story….her journey from the orphanage has brought tears to our eyes numerous times.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I have never read that book nor seen the movie. Perhaps it is time to experience that classic.

      • I know you would enjoy it!!!
        The scenery of Green Gables house—so us!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        I’ll take your word for it. Is this story or movie set in Nova Scotia? I think I recall my mother visiting something from Anne of Green Gables when she visited Nova Scotia.

  6. Your post gave me chills – I certainly take for granted that I had two parents raise me under a roof with a warm bed! I also know I had threatened to run away a few times too! Thanks for enlightening your readers on this lesson in history and what it means to those families. Have a Great One:)

  7. There is something about orphanages that tug at our heart strings, isn’t there? Even lovely and nice orphanages make me feel that way. I don’t know if you’d like this book, but there’s one that came out a couple years ago called “Miss Peregrin’s Home for Peculiar Children” – and it takes old, vintage photos and creates a whole story around them about children in an orphanage. I really, really liked it – but I’m not sure you would! It’s a fast read…can’t remember the author…

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