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Holdrege's Christian Orphan's Home is an important piece of songwriter's history
by Betty Sayers
Jon Chandler is widely regarded as one of Americana music’s premier singer-songwriters as well as being one of the country’s best western authors, with his work appearing in publications such as American Cowboy, Persimmon Hill and True West in addition to several novels. Jon’s western novels, songs and poems share an historical perspective about the American West and the value of the frontier spirit.
Although Chandler lives and works in Colorado, his life and many of his songs and stories share a link with the South Platte region of Nebraska. His grandparents farmed near Orleans in the early 1900s, and in 1922, Jon Chandler’s grandfather was killed in a car-train accident, leaving a pregnant wife and six young children.
A hard decision
Jon tells the story from his father’s perspective: “They were from a prosperous family, but their father’s death taught them the darker side of human nature. Their mother found she was pregnant with her sixth child on the day her husband was buried. Over the next three years, her world unraveled. Relatives and friends provided volumes of faulty counsel. Money was siphoned away. Her father-in-law, a respected farmer, Civil War veteran and protector of her children, died. Hearts hardened. She made decisions. Tough decisions. They were neither right nor wrong; they were just decisions that had to be made. The two brothers, along with their two sisters and two baby brothers, were left in the temporary care of an orphan’s home while their mother sought a better life in Colorado.”
The Chandler children lived six years of their young lives in the Christian Orphan’s Home in Holdrege. The home had been established in 1889 by the Evangelical Free Church, and records show that 1,100 children lived, worked and attended school at the Christian Orphan’s Home between 1889 and the institution’s closing in 1954.
Life in the orphanage
Malcolm Chandler, Jon’s father was placed in the orphanage at age 10.
Chandler writes, “In the first few years they were educated at the orphanage because they weren’t allowed to attend school in nearby Holdrege. As orphans, they were accused of having bad blood, of being reprobates. Still, they later recalled much of that time with great affection, and even their punishments and indignities somehow entered the realm of fond memory.”
The brothers and sisters prevailed over their misfortune and lived successful, productive lives. Chandler writes, “The four boys all fought for their country in World War II. The two youngest paid dearly for it, one with his life at age 21 near a cave at the Anzio Beachhead, the other with a lifetime of horror, the memories of a 19-year-old boy in combat, killing with impunity to avenge the death of his brother. The girls married farmers, whose service was to feed the country during that darkest time. They lived that terrible, distant war through the letters of the four brothers.
“They raised families, bought homes, and invested in their futures and in those of their children. Chandler believes a history lesson is in order, “perhaps now more than ever. It is this: They could have been embittered. They chose to become empowered.”
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