“We all have a common bond. We’re like brothers and sisters, regardless of when we were there. We all know that kind of life,” said Richard Johnson, one of the younger alumni of the former Madison County Children’s Home.
Adults who lived in the home as children reunite annually for a potluck lunch and fellowship at Battelle-Darby Creek Metro Park in West Jefferson. The oldest in the group lived at the facility in the 1920s; the youngest were there just before it was torn down in 1974.
The Madison County Children’s Home, a large facility with separate wings for boys and girls, once stood on Route 38 north of London. Fairhaven School, MATCO, the Madison County Board of Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities, and the Humane Society of Madison County now occupy the land.
The home wasn’t an orphanage, explained Pete Ellars, who was among the former residents in attendance at this year’s reunion on Sept. 15. The children had one parent or both, he said, but for a variety of reasons needed the shelter and care the home provided.
Ellars, now 84 and a resident of London, entered the home in 1932 when he was 8. His mother had left with some of his siblings for California. His father needed help raising the remaining children.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Before that, I ran the streets and was always in trouble,” Ellars said. “The food was good, the clothing was good, and we had a roof over our heads.”
Ellars lived at the home until 1943. He was 20 when he left.
“I was one of the oldest kids there at the time. I was the third one to ever graduate high school from the home,” he said.
Ellars went on to serve as an infantry scout in the Phillippines in World War II and to raise two children. One of his proudest moments, he said, was when he passed the civil service exam in 1968 and landed the job of superintendent of the Madison County Children’s Home, the very place he grew up.
Ellars and his wife, Irene, oversaw the home’s operation for six years until the fall of 1973. During that time, the facility housed between 29 and 46 children, he said.
South Vienna resident Harold Taynor resided at the home during some of the same years that Ellars did. Taynor was there from March 1938 to June 1941 and again from October 1945 to Jan. 7, 1947.
“My dad died when I was 9. Back at that time, it was hard for a woman to get a job. The home was a blessing to us,” said the former Mount Sterling resident. “They treated me right.”
At the home, Taynor worked in the kitchen, milked cows, and looked after the horses. As an adult, he went on to work as a farmer, serve as a volunteer firefighter, marry and raise a family, transport new International trucks around the U.S. and Canada, and plow snow and maintain the cemetery for Deercreek Township.
When the children’s home was torn down, Taynor salvaged some of the bricks to build posts for the Deercreek Cemetery sign and the fire station sign in Lafayette. In 1982, he built the home he now lives in from the ground up.
While many of the people at this year’s reunion still live in or near Madison County, one person drove five-and-a-half hours to attend. Carl Morrison, who tends a horse farm in Sherman, N.Y., makes the trip every year.
“I come back because it’s nostalgic,” he said.
Morrison became a resident of the children’s home in 1938 when he was 6.
“It was during the Depression. There were five of us kids. My mother and father were having a hard time because there was no money,” he said. “I stayed there until I graduated from London High School in 1951. It was home to me because it was all I knew.”
Morrison became a career military man, serving in the Corps of Army Engineers from 1952 to 1974. He retired as a first sergeant.
The reunion attendee whose memories of the children’s home date back the furthest is Harold Jester. Born and raised in West Jefferson, the 87-year-old entered the home in 1921 at age 3 when his mother and father separated. His father remarried three years later and took him out of the home.
Jester remembers when people would go by the children’s home and throw out boxes of Cracker Jacks.
“Once, someone threw out six boxes. Nobody saw that but me. I went and got every one of them, but the superintendent made me share,” Jester said with a twinkle in his eye.
He remembers going to the county fair in a horse-drawn surrey, seeing the barn on the home’s property burn down (it was later rebuilt), and eating so much bread and milk that he didn’t want to see any for a long time.
Jester’s three older sisters lived in the girls’ wing of the facility.
“When they took me away from my sisters, I cried hard—so hard, I haven’t cried much since then,” he said. “Sometimes, we got to eat with them, but there wasn’t a lot of playing or socializing between the boys and girls. They were pretty strict back then.”
Later in life, Jester served in the U.S. Army at Normandy Beach during World War II. He worked for Yaeger Machine Co. in Columbus for 33 years before he retired. He and his wife, Martha Jane, have been married for 62 years.
Jester’s step-brother, Walter Jester, is one of the people who organized the first children’s home reunion 11 years ago. He has been a key organizer of the event ever since.
Walter’s years at the home started in 1939, the year after his mother passed away. He was 10.
“Dad couldn’t watch us and work, too,” he said.
Walter has many memories of the children’s home, including the time he tried to pole vault over a five-foot fence on the property using a spud bar. He missed and ended up with a chipped tooth and scar on his arm from the barbed wire.
“We talked about that one at the reunion,” Walter said with a chuckle. “We come up with that kind of stuff all the time when we’re talking.”
Walter stayed in the home until about 1944. He later served in the Army and drove truck for 30 years. He and his wife, Jean, adopted two children and were foster parents to many more. They have been married for 54 years. Walter is originally from West Jefferson. He now lives in Columbus.
“I wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn’t gone out there,” Walter said of the children’s home. Just as his friend Pete Ellars’ said, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Walter has already secured Cedar Lodge at Battelle-Darby Creek Metro Park for next year’s Children’s Home reunion. The date is Sept. 6, 2008.