Robert and his older brother, Archie, were abandoned by their father in a park in New York City around 1921 or 1922.
Archie, 13, soon found work selling newspapers and delivering telegrams. He kept Robert with him, living at a Newsboys' Lodging House until the authorities found out. That's when Robert was sent to live at an orphanage operated by the Children's Aid Society, an organization aimed at addressing the homeless children population.
Robert later became one of the 200,000 children who rode the Orphan Train from the East Coast to the Midwest from 1854 to 1930.
“I have very few memories of my time at the orphanage and very few memories of the train trip from New York to Omaha,” he said. “My really vivid memories begin when I was sitting on a chair, on the stage of the city hall of Blair, Neb.”
In a dramatic one-woman show, Pippa White presented “The Story of the Orphan Train” on Sunday at the Depot in Lions Park. The presentation was hosted by the Washington County Historical Association in partnership with the Nebraska Arts Council.
Using storytelling and songs, White painted a picture of the Orphan Train and its riders, using actual stories and accounts from those who made the long journey to their new homes.
Of the many of thousands of children who rode the orphan train, one became a justice on a state supreme court, two were state senators, two were governors and many successful doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers and businessmen.
But most notably, “wonderful parents,” White said.
“Orphan Train riders grew up to be good, loving parents,” she continued. “They were a resourceful, determined lot. I've met some of them, I'm proud to say, and if I had even one word to sum them up all up, the word I would choose is resourceful.”
In 1923, Robert was sent on an train to Omaha. He was taken with other boys to Blair. An ad in the newspaper told of boys who needed homes and anyone interested should come to the city hall.
“I will never forget that Saturday, sitting there all day with people to come to look at us,” Robert said. “At the end of the day, there were only five left. No one had selected me.”
A few days later, the child welfare agent talked to local businessmen to find anyone interested in taking the boys. A local banker said a farm family may be willing to take a boy.
The agent loaded the boys into a taxi cab and traveled to the Petersen farm near Blair.
“This I will never forget, having never seen a farm before, I was awestruck by the beauty of it,” Robert said. “We drove down this nice lane and at the end of the lane there was this nice white house and a big red barn just like in picture books I'd seen. And animals, not one of which I could identify, except for a dog in a fenced yard.”
The couple told the agent they had thought about adopting, but felt they were now too old to do so. However, they agreed to let one boy stay to experience farm life for the afternoon. The Petersens selected Robert.
“It was hard to describe my feelings. I mean, I heard what they said. They weren't interested in taking a boy on a permanent basis,” Robert said. “But I couldn't pass up a chance to spend at least an afternoon in this wonderful place.”
Following supper that evening, the Petersens returned Robert to the hotel. The agent told the boy to wait in the lobby while she went upstairs to speak to the couple.
“Finally, the three of them came down the stairs and Mr. Petersen said, 'How would you like to come and live with us?'” Robert said.
As a grown man, Robert wrote:
“We often think of adversity as being a terrible thing to have to happen to a person, but sometimes it turns out just the other way. The day that I was abandoned on the streets of New York turned out to be the luckiest day of my life.”
Robert Petersen stayed in Nebraska and had a long and successful career as an Omaha attorney. He passed away in 1995.
Following the presentation, White said when she began working on the show 25 years ago, many of the Orphan Train riders were still alive.
“They would say to me, 'Tell our stories,'” she said. “We want people to know what we went through.
“Orphan Train Riders ask that you remember them,” she added. “There are a handful still living, but they are all senior citizens. If we don't know their stories, soon they won't be here to tell them.”