Siblings reflect on time spent in children#039;s home

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 14, 2005

The Ironton Tribune

When a loaf of bread cost a dime, Bill Darling, of Franklin Furnace, was making some of his most priceless memories.

Now 71, Darling was about 4-years-old when he and his four siblings were placed in the Lawrence County Children's Home from 1936 to 1937. When he reflects on that year and those following it, Darling recalls an Ironton of long ago that was full of wonder for a young boy - not sadness or regret.

Email newsletter signup

"We didn't know we were poor. We were happy," he said.

Darling spent much of his youth running shoeless in the summer on the flourishing streets of Ironton. Back then, there were picture shows to take his mind to far-off locales and 5-cent doughnuts to tempt his taste buds.

The world was at his fingertips downtown with everything from Clark's Grocery where everyone went sledding in the winter to the blacksmith's shop on the corner where Darling spent so much of his time.

"It was just a great place to grow up," he said. "ŠEveryone was in the same boat and we had a lot of love and respect for each other in those days."

But like so many children now, Darling's childhood was interrupted when his parents went through a messy divorce. Because neither could agree on custody, their children were placed at the home until his mother could manage to make ends meet.

For Darling, the facility located at 912 Vernon Street was a haven from the Great Depression ravaging the world outside. Although times were hard, he, his brother and three sisters made the most of what they had.

"It was tolerable. There was nothing nasty or dirty or abusive about it, I guess," he said. "You were kept clean; the older boys took care of the younger boys and the older girls took care of the younger ones."

The challenge came when children went beyond the shelter's walls.

"When you went outside, you had to take care of yourself because there was no one there to pick you up or patch you up," Darling said. "If you stubbed your toe, it would just have to bleed until it stopped because there was no one there to fix it. But that wasn't being abusive, that was just the way things were then."

Being so young at the time, food is one of Darling's primary memories of the home where the 50 or so children ate together in its dining hall.

"The meals were usually hominy, or something like that. They were meager meals," he said.

Darling's second oldest sister, 78-year-old Juanita Darling Russell of Ironton, recalls helping in the kitchen to prepare the food. Then 12, Russell said the meals were appetizing enough, but her younger sister didn't think so at the time.

"She didn't like onions or spinach," Russell said. "We'd get brown beans and corn bread with some onion, but she wasn't about to eat that onion Š but you were expected to eat everything on your plate, so she would put her spinach on something and send it on down the table to someone else. She was just a little thing then."

Russell's experience was not so different from that of her brother, although she had more chores as an older child. Life inside the children's home wasn't without its fun, but separation from her parents often proved difficult.

"That's when I learned to pray," she said. "Š Being away from your mother is hard, but (we) were clean and (we) had food."

Their mother came to see her children regularly.

"Every week, she'd come with a big bag of candy," Russell said. "Š She parceled it to out to all of us and they all like to see her come. My dad didn't make it there too often."

Two matrons were responsible for all of the children at the home. Both ladies were strict, Russell said.

"There wasn't nobody they didn't paddle," she said laughing.

But the two women were also fair and did what they could to make the experience a little brighter.

"They had strict rules and everybody had to follow those rules," she said. "Then once a week we got to go to the shows. We went to church once a weekŠand we got to go to the county fair when it was on. There were a lot of things you couldn't do because you didn't have cars to run around in Š but it was a nice place, a good place."

While they were at the home during the Great Flood of 1937, Russell and Darling left the home that year and returned to live with their mother. She did domestic work to provide for her five children.

Through her example, she instilled in them a love for family and a strong work ethic, Darling said.

"The first thing she taught us was to stick together," Darling said. "That was a good thing to know when we went to the home and I raised four of mine the same way.

"My mother made me promise to get an education. There were many times I wanted to quit, but I didn't."

Darling left home at 16 to start working at a variety of jobs, eventually joining the Navy and attending Ohio University after returning from four years of service. Russell graduated high school and began working.

Both Darling and Russell went on to marry and have children of their own. The lessons they learned from their childhood have stayed with them.

"I've just had a good life. I've lived like I wanted toŠI think I respected people and expected them to respect me," Darling said.

Darling's and Russell's grandfather, William Chatts, helped to build the children's home. Chatts was a bricklayer and Cherokee Indian. He was one of Lawrence County's original 37 land grant holders.

According to Martha J. Kounse, author of the Annotated Children's Home Register 1874-1929, the Lawrence County Children's Home was established in 1874 at a private residence along Front Street.

It was created to give homes to the numerous children orphaned by the Civil War. Many were living on the streets, running wild and were slowly starving to death.

The Ohio General Assembly authorized the creation of such homes in 1866, but it took 12 years for one to be established in Lawrence County.

Spencer Church took control of the charity in 1878 and put $1,500 toward its maintenance. It was relocated in 1878 to the home of J.N. Thomas on Vernon Street where the current facility is located. That building remodeled during the 1930s.

Sometime in the 1980s, the children's home was closed and converted to a facility for juvenile delinquents and renamed the Dennis J. Boll Group and Shelter Home.

Kounse, the assistant branch manager of the Briggs Lawrence County Public Library in Chesapeake, began researching the home's history after hearing heartbreaking stories of children displaced from their families. Records were difficult to obtain, but those recollections kept Kounse intrigued.

"It took 10 years of my life to research this," she said. "Š There are so many unique stories in this book. They just made me want to cry after learning what some of these children must have went through."

Kounse's book is available through Little Miami Publishing Company by calling (513) 576-9368 or visiting its Web site at For additional information, login to Kounse's Web site at