Saturday, February 9, 2013

Lutheran Orphanage in Salem, Virginia

My grandfather, Marvin Edward Jennings (1901-1961), was sent to the Lutheran Orphanage in 1911. He was the only child out of twelve that was sent to the orphange. As a result he was never terribly close to his brothers and sisters as the older ones took in some of the younger children, but not my grandfather.  So how did all of that come about? Well, I never really knew too many details, but here's what I've been able to surmise from the documentation.

Marvin Edward Jennings, Sr.

My great grandfather, Charles Edward Jennings (more about him in future post), had twelve children by two different wives.  His first wife, Nancy Jane Johnson, died giving birth to her eighth child and he, Johnson Jennings, died too. Three years later, Charles married again to Effie Davis Beard and proceded to have four more children. Effied died in May of 1906 and her youngest child, Clyde Graham, died a few weeks later. My grandfather was five years old at the time.

Sometime before 1911 my grandfather contracted polio and was required to wear a leg brace the rest of his life in order to walk...and work.  His Dad was 63 years old with three small children at home.  So off to the orphange Grandpa went.

He was sent to the Lutheran Orphanage in Salem, Virginia.

Lutheran Orphanage; photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

There were two orphanages in Salem -- Baptist and Lutheran. They were established in the 1890s when accidents and dread diseases -- like tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid, and malaria -- frequently robbed children of their parents. In those post Civil War years, according to one report, the number of orphans grew to "unthinkable levels," and: "Across Virginia, frightened children roamed the streets and countryside begging for handouts and mercy."

In May of 1896, the Lutheran Orphan Home of the South moved to Salem, into a two-story brick home at the southeast corner of Florida Street and the Boulevard. The children's home has moved several times within Salem since then, but the brick house still stands at Florida and Boulevard in front of Kiwanis Stadium where it houses the Florida Street Center of the City Department of Recreation and Parks.

It didn't stay on Florida Street long. Under the leadership of the Rev. Benjamin W. Cronk, who succeeded Painter in 1897, the Lutherans in 1899-90 bought and moved into a very elegant five-story building, formerly the Hotel Salem, on College Avenue at Fifth Street. The new building -- on the site of today's Andrew Lewis Middle School -- was to serve the orphanage until 1927.  The Lutheran home thrived in the old Hotel Salem -- an imposing, 80-room, red-brick structure, almost castle-like in appearance, with its tower, turrets, dormers and arched windows.

A concerted fund drive by the Lutheran United Synod liquidated that home's building debt by 1907. The orphanage paid heavy attention to their children's education. The Lutheran home operated a school on premises to offer the "necessary branches of learning," along with manual training for both girls and boys though eventually it began a long and difficult process of integration of the children into Salem's public schools. The professional staffs as well as their church provided religious instruction.

In 1904, the Rev. John T. Crabtree, Confederate veteran, former Salem High School principal and Roanoke College professor (he had become an orphan himself at age 8), succeeded Cronk as superintendent of the Lutheran home. During his tenure, until 1922, the home housed more than 100 children and still had to turn away applicants.

This excerpt is from the Salem Museum historical website.  For more information about the Lutheran Orphange after the 1920s, read this excellent article.


  1. Thanks for sharing. I'm certainly glad we had places like the Lutheran Orphan Home you describe, but I can't imagine being in a situation where I had to send my own child there.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Niki. It's certainly hard to think about giving up your children.

  2. My maternal grandmother was also raised in an orphanage somewhere in the mid-Valley. I would love to know which one or to find records.

  3. In 1906 my grandmother was 18 months old when her mother died, leaving her father with five children between 18 months and 14 years. He worked for the N & W out of Roanoke and traveled. He Had no choice but to take his children to the Lutheran home in Salem. Other than the 1910 census, how do I find her orphanage records?