Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
Sarah "Annie" Turner was born in Sandy Springs, Ohio in 1827. Because her parents felt that all their children should be educated, she attended a seminary for young ladies and developed a talent for writing. She authored a poem at the age of 12.
A merchant named William Wittenmyer married her, and in 1850 they migrated to Keokuk. She quickly discovered that only the wealthy could afford to educate their children in private schools in the west, because public schools were rarely available.
Wittenmeyers believed in equal opportunities in education for rich and poor alike, so in 1853 Annie opened a tuition-free school for underprivileged children. So many enrolled that the school was soon moved to a warehouse. She even arranged for her students to attend Sunday School.
Influenced by Annie’s example, local people and business men began supporting the school. One day in a local bookstore, a Chicago businessman overheard Annie charging 30 textbooks to her own account because her students couldn’t afford them, and was so touched by her generosity that he paid the bill himself.
When the Civil War started, Keokuk became a center for the war effort. With volunteers coming from many miles, Keokuk became a supply headquarters and then opened hospitals to care for both Confederate and Union soldiers. Annie volunteered time to help care for soldiers at the Estes House, a hotel converted into an army hospital.
When Annie learned about the hardships of the soldiers, she immediately began to do something about it. Annie became a Sanitation Agent for the State of Iowa in order to help make sure that soldiers were supplied with food, clothing and medical attention.
She received a letter from a wounded soldier recuperating in a southern Iowa hospital, which read: "We are grateful for all your kindnesses….but we would prefer that you forget us and look after our wives and children who depend on us for support….hold your charity from us."
She read the letter to a convention of soldier’s aide societies and sanitation organizations on September 23, 1863 and by February of the following year, a board had been formed in Des Moines to establish and operate a facility for orphans of soldiers, and Mrs. Wittenmyer was named a trustee.
The Civil War left more than 13,000 Iowa men dead, and thousands of others so crippled and sick that they could not care for their families. She used her influence with Iowa newspapers, Ladies’ Aid Societies, and churches to advertise the need for such a facility and contributions began to flood in to support the cause.
The committee secured a large brick building near Farmington, which they called Lawrence. According to the Farmington website, the Lawrence building they purchased was the former Plymouth Hotel. The Plymouth Company had built the hotel and a small number of homes a mile north of Farmington with the purpose of building a dam, but the venture failed financially. Now the large brick structure served a noble purpose.
Mr. Fuller of Mt. Pleasant was hired as steward of the facility and furniture was purchased in June, 1864. On the 13th of July, the first children were admitted and the name official name became "Iowa Orphans’ Home, Lawrence, Iowa."
Within three weeks after the opening, the home in Lawrence had 21 children at the facility. By the end of the year they housed 70 children, with twenty more applications were on file. They were ridiculously crowded.
The Iowa Orphans Home in Lawrence was ridiculously over-crowded. Other large facilities were obviously needed. When one could not be found in Farmington, the government donated the barracks of the deserted Camp Kinsman in Davenport. In November, 1866 150 orphaned children came to live at the new facility.
The General Assembly provided locations for several new homes in different counties, and buildings in Cedar Falls, and Glenwood were purchased. A former hotel was outfitted in Cedar Falls, and in October, 1865 they admitted their first children. They received an appropriation of $10 per month to care for each orphan. By January, this facility was also over-crowded, with 96 enrolled.
The home in Lawrence was sustained entirely by voluntary contributions until 1866, when the State assumed responsibility. By 1870, the children at the Farmington facility had either grown up and gone, or had been moved to Davenport, so the facility closed.
In Cedar Falls and Glenwood, the orphanages were very successful for many years. Gradually, the facility at Glenwood became an asylum for "challenged" children. (people called them feeble-minded in those days)
Meanwhile Annie had moved on. While campaigning for her war orphans, she worked with the U.S. Christian Commission to set up a special dietary kitchen system to ensure better quality of food in army hospitals, and the system she organized is still being used. Annie established several of these kitchens herself and hired the staff to supervise them.
Although her kitchens were a huge success, Annie received criticism for letting "mere" women meddle with hospital affairs, as it was against rules and regulations. Thus Annie worked even harder and made doubly sure that her staff was honest and used their funds properly. She resigned from the State Sanitary Commission in May, 1864 and ran the kitchens until the Civil War ended.
After the War, she organized the Woman’s Home Missionary Society and was elected its first corresponding secretary in 1871. She edited magazines called The Christian Woman and The Christian Child, wrote hymns, and wrote a book Women’s Work for Jesus.
In 1874 Annie became president of the national Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, as she believed that alcoholism was a moral problem and one that caused severe economic consequences for innocent people. She established over 1,000 local unions, taught over 5,000 children about temperance and enrolled over 100,000 men into reform clubs. She edited the magazine Home and Country, and wrote articles for the New York Weekly Tribune.
In 1878 her book History of the Women’s Temperance Crusade was published, and in 1884 she came out with Women of the Reformation. In 1889, she became national president of the Woman’s Relief Corps. Through her efforts homes were built for nurses and for widows and mothers of veterans. She campaigned for pensions for retired army nurses. While in the House of Representatives one day, she fell from a wobbly chair and damaged her hip.
The injury made her bedfast for a time, but she kept on working, writing articles, wrote an autobiography (1895) called Under the Gun, and in 1898 Annie herself was granted a pension by Congress for her many years of selfless work on behalf of the Union.
A few hours after delivering a lecture on February 2, 1900 Annie suffered an asthma attack and died. She brought many changes in education, the military and in social morality, and even won admiration from Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.
The best measure of her life’s work can be summed up by George Perkins, a veteran of the 31st Regiment, Iowa Volunteer Infantry, who relates one of her typical kindnesses:
"I was a member of Company B and was taken violently ill. Our camp was destitute of hospital supplies….the boys gathered leaves and dried them and made a bed for me. My soldier overcoat was my pillow. In this situation, too weak to move more than my eyes and my fingers, Mrs. Wittenmyer found me….I remember that one day soon after her visit, a real pillow took the place of my overcoat. I was weak…. and I confess that I instantly began to moisten it with my tears. This is only one small incident in the army work of Annie Wittenmyer, but it is enough to enshrine her in my sacred memory."
(From Quad City Memory: Annie Wittenmyer, Special Collections, Davenport Public Library; History of Benton County: Soldiers' Orphans' Homes; "Annie Turner Wittenmyer: Reformer," Iowa Woman, Sept. 1986)
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick