The Next Page: The Odd Fellows Home for Orphans, my grandmother's 'Home'

Raised in an orphanage on the North Side, my grandmother always spoke of 'The Home' that defined her life. Now I am finding out what that life was like.

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Do you have a family member or know someone who was raised in Odd Fellows Home for Orphans? I am collecting narratives and personal accounts. Contact me at or 724-612-1785.

For as long as I can remember, every time that my maternal grandmother, Margaret Schall Bell, talked about her memories of growing up as a young girl, it made me sad.

For her entire life, Gram never used a personal pronoun when referring to the place where she lived. Her vocabulary automatically eliminated the word "my" and replaced it with "the" at every mention of The Home. It was a way of differentiating where she lived from how she lived, almost as a justification of her distinctive makeup and insecurities.

My grandmother was raised in the Odd Fellows Home for Orphans on the North Side in Pittsburgh from 1920 until 1933. An orphan by circumstance rather than by the death of both parents, my grandmother was raised amidst a multitude of children in an institutional setting from the time she was a toddler until her high school graduation because her mother could not adequately care for her.

The Odd Fellows Home was my grandmother's branding. It defined her more so than any genetic traits or her German Lutheran ethnicity. She was an orphan -- a label that became a state of mind that could never be forgotten.

Her own personal story is not only a poignant reminder of a way of life in the years leading up to the Great Depression, but equally, an important piece of Pittsburgh's socioeconomic history that has all but vanished from official documents and record books.

With mixed sentiments, I stare at a photograph [above] of Gram's family that was taken before she went to The Home.

She sits as a toddler on the knee of her grandfather, with her older siblings standing on each side. Her mother, Sarah, stands behind her children, holding her fifth and youngest daughter, Jane, not even a year old. Missing from the photo is Sarah's husband, Bertram who left her a widow with five children at the age of 32.

Though I never knew my ancestors, I resent seeing Sarah's mother, standing by her husband wearing a scowl on her face and cradling a cat in her arms.

Observing that there appears to be an accommodating home in the background I can't help but look at her and think, "Why didn't you do something? Why couldn't you help?"

I am also bothered by a later so-called family picture [above] that was proudly displayed on my grandmother's dresser until she died at the age of 83. The photo of her mother with the five children gives the pretense of a family, maybe one time serving as a hopeful illusion.

I felt sorry that by definition, there was no family -- they never lived together in a traditional sense.

The words varied for how she ended up there. My grandmother, nicknamed Tootie since childhood, was "placed," "forsaken," "discarded" or "cast off" to The Home in 1920 when she was 4 years old, along with her 3-year old sister and 6-year-old brother, just three months after their father whom they never knew had died. Because they could fend for themselves, two older sisters were spared the fate and able to stay with their mother.

It took nearly a decade after Gram's death in 1999 until I realized that I knew only Tootie's version of the story.

When I was young, I couldn't comprehend the dire circumstances that Sarah Schall faced, so how could my grandmother and her young siblings understand the logic of being sent away? Too far removed from that era, we never knew what it was like from Sarah's perspective.

We heard how the little ones were "too much trouble" for the young mother to care for and, without even giving it a try, a quick decision was made to send them away to live in the orphanage. But in reality, she must have been terrified to be left so young without her husband. "How could she provide?" became a question that was answered by the Odd Fellows.

During his short life, my great-grandfather, Bertram Sylvester Schall was a member of the Mineral Point Odd Fellows Lodge in Armstrong County. In the early 1900s, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows was one of the largest fraternal orders in the United States with over 1,200 lodges throughout the state of Pennsylvania. Membership was non-discriminatory and was made up of miners, iron workers and all types of laborers.

A basic requirement was to believe in the teachings of the Bible, especially the stories depicting strong morals, good friendship and loyalty.

As a benevolent men's organization, members were committed to visiting the sick, relieving the distressed, burying the dead and having a strong belief in a principal goal of assisting the widows of members and ensuring the upbringing of their orphans. The I.O.O.F. existed with a mission to provide assistance and comfort to its widows and orphans and in the early 1920s, a boom in the construction and establishment of statewide homes took place which was viewed in the day as a type of health and life insurance. A member could count on the Odd Fellows to take care of them or their family if misfortune should arise.

Upon her father's death, my grandmother's preordained future began on Aug. 4, 1920, when she was relinquished to the first Odd Fellows Home in Ben Avon, a Victorian house where one widow and 29 children lived, along with a matron who was the schoolteacher. Scared and bewildered at only 4, Tootie found herself in a strange place with nothing familiar but her baby sister and older brother.

It wasn't long before it became evident that more room was needed to care for increasing families with limited funds. In 1923, a new building was constructed by the Odd Fellows in the area now known as Brighton Heights. Tootie and her siblings moved to the three-story, red brick colonial home with accommodations for 242 orphans, considered a state-of-the-art facility complete with boarding accommodations, a dining hall, school, playground, barber shop, dentist office and an infirmary to isolate children when they were sick.

My grandmother recounted her early memories of how the children at The Home were referred to as "inmates." Gram often talked about the dreadful conditions that surrounded her growing up. Everything was communal and privacy was non-existent. For 13 years, she slept in an overcrowded dormitory, waited in long lines to use the lavatory and lost her individuality to the uniform appearance of an orphan.

That uniform appearance is apparent in a photograph of the children gathering for a meal in the dining hall. I know that my grandmother is among the children in the photo [above], but because they all look alike, she can't be identified.

Gram had passed away by the time I tracked down these photos depicting life in The Home in the 1920s.

Tootie went without many of the childhood comforts others take for granted, such as being tucked into a warm bed at night or curling up in the lap of a parent. Being hugged and kissed and hearing the words "I love you" were emotional supports that my grandmother never had. Throughout the years, she made several attempts to run away to her mother's home, only to be sent back to the orphanage each time.

Feelings of emptiness and despair left impressions that shaded her spirit and defined her personality for the rest of her life. While the absence of a true home and family created a void that she could never shake, as her grandchild, I found it ironic that she later became so naturally giving of the love and comfort that she never received herself.

The stories painted a drab and lusterless picture of The Home's appearance with an aura of unhappiness to accompany the setting. Children were assigned chores from a very young age -- scrubbing floors, cleaning the bathrooms, performing the daily rituals of making beds to perfection, sweeping, dusting and polishing, serving meals and washing dishes, all subject to inspection.

Hearing the accounts through the next two generations of my grandmother's descendants, my family and I often felt bad about the life the orphans endured. I remember feeling guilty for the contrasting luxuries that we enjoyed growing up, even the simplicity of having my very own doll to play with or candy as a treat, when Gram would sadly remind me that she had none. Everything reverted back to her experience in The Home.

Yet her situation was more common than realized. Census records show that in the early 1900s, orphanages in the United States housed more than 100,000 children -- thousands of those orphans living in Pittsburgh. Perhaps the most valuable benefit of being a Home kid was the common bonds formed of shared circumstance. Empathy and understanding for those in the same boat created a lifelong camaraderie that never weakened.

As a testimony to the Odd Fellows' teaching and spirit of goodwill, the friendships among the orphans continued throughout their lifetimes as extra efforts were made to keep track of one another and stay in touch. Faithful through late adulthood, former orphans always looked forward to attending the annual reunions as an opportunity to reconnect and only missed the event if prevented by illness.

On Sept. 1, 1933, my grandmother and her sister Janie were graduated from The Home and, according to record, "released to their mother." True to their commitment, the Odd Fellows made good on a promise to provide an educational opportunity, a strong work ethic, religious and moral nurturing and a sense of community.

As society changed after World War II, so did the need for orphanages and this Odd Fellows Home for Orphans eventually closed. The records from the early years have all but vanished and all that remains today is that same three-story brick building that became the Rooney Middle School, part of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

With skills she learned in the orphanage, Tootie entered the workforce and became a talented seamstress and soon after, met and married my grandfather. Together they endured the Great Depression and World War II, had two daughters, followed by a dozen grandchildren and, later, so many great-grandchildren that it became a challenge to keep track of birthdays and ages. My grandparents' long-standing marriage weathered many storms and became a relationship that set the ultimate example of perseverance and commitment.

My grandmother's story is the memoir of many and remains an important piece of Pittsburgh's history about the institutional setting that gave thousands of orphans a sense of a place to call "Home."

Joann Cantrell, a trade magazine editor and freelance writer, lives in Cranberry.


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