If I tell you that there exists in this world, a children’s railway, would you think of the Orphan Train, bringing children out West for adoption into families there? Or would you think of some kind of forced child labor on the railways? Either way…you would be wrong. The Children’s Railway was started in Soviet Russia in 1932. The concept is a unique one. The idea was to teach teenaged children to build and run a railroad as a way of learning the railroad trade. It was an extracurricular activity that was voluntary. Things like that aren’t offered in this country…at least not that I’m aware of. Nevertheless, I think my grandfather, Allen Luther Spencer might have enjoyed that, had it been offered in his time. I also think that my cousin by marriage, James Forseen, might have loved that since he has always loved trains, and managed to land a job with the railroad. He loved them so much that he had to have one in the wedding photos when he married my cousin Dani Byer Forseen. Just imagine James, if you could have worked on a railroad in high school!!
As I said, the children’s railway was a phenomenon that originated in the USSR. The first Children’s Railway opened in Gorky Park in Moscow, on July 24, 1932. It was a greatly developed activity in Soviet times. By the time the USSR broke up, there were 52 children’s railways in existence in that country. Many children’s railways are still functioning in post-Soviet states and in Eastern Europe, so obviously this is an activity that has taken off…and imagine the kids who would stay out of trouble if they fell in love with railroad work. I can envision the kids having such a great time running the railroad that they would never have the time or the inclination to get into trouble or into gangs. Their imagination would be too busy.
The children’s railway has come so far that many of them exhibit railway technology not seen anymore on the main lines and they can be seen as heritage railways. Even though a few exceptions exist, most of the children’s railways that were built in the communist block have a track gauge of at least 600 mm (1 feet 11 5/8 inches) and can carry full size narrow gauge rolling stock. Of course, for the sake of safety and training purposes, the children’s railways are all run under the supervision of adult railroad workers, but what better way for things to be done. The children’s railways in existence these days are mostly for the purpose of tourism, but I suppose that if necessary, they could be used for other reasons. Whatever their purpose is today, I think the Children’s Railways sound like a very cool idea.
Opinions vary on the matter of child labor, and who can legally have their child work and at what kind of job. Some people take it to the point of saying that children shouldn’t even do chores around the home, which is, in my opinion, silly. It is my thought that children need to be helping out around the house, but beyond that I suppose the water gets a little bit murky. In the distant past, children were farmed out to spend their days working at a job that should have been done by an adult, and the kids really had no childhood to speak of. That is cruel treatment, and the current child labor laws prevent that from happening…unless people are so illegal that they do it without the knowledge of the government.
That said, there is a group of kids…even today that do work every day, and it is not illegal at all. These are the children of farmers and ranchers. I don’t know of any of those kids who don’t help out around the farm or ranch. There are stables to be cleaned, and cows to be milked, and animals to feed. There are also crops to be cared for and planted. These kids work and there is nothing illegal about it. Of course, their parents do have to be careful on a few matters. The children must get their schooling, and they have to be working on the parents farm or ranch.
Such was the case for my husband’s great uncles and his grandfather. Many people owned farms when those boys were young, and the kids helped out with just about everything. Most families back then really couldn’t afford to hire the amount of workers that it would take to run the place, so they hired what they had to, and the kids learned to work. I really can’t say that I think this is a bad thing. The kids often like the work…especially taking care of horses…since they often get to ride them too.
If you look back on the lives of our parents and grandparents, you will find that many of them grew up on a farm or ranch, and most of them were working to help out on the place at a very young age. Really, what a wonderful way to bond with the parents. Running a ranch or farm is a big job, and most kids like to do the things their parents are doing, because they want to be just like their parents. If a child is interested in doing the same kind of work their parents do, or take over the family farm, they need to know how to do this from the bottom up. What better way could there be, than to help out as a child.
Of course, not every family owns a farm or ranch, and while they may live in the country, they don’t have that kind of work to do. Still, the kids can and should help out with things. My nephew, Barry Schulenberg, loved helping his grandpa split firewood. He ran the splitter while his grandpa loaded the wood into it. Barry was about 4 years old, but you couldn’t have pulled him away from that job for anything. He was the one who did that, and that was all there was to it. Maybe some people would think he was a bit young, but there was never a single accident when he worked the splitter. I think sometimes we don’t give these kids enough credt. They can often do more than we think they can. They just need to be given a chance.
I have been reading my Great Aunt Bertie Schumacher’s journal for a while now, and every time I pick it up I find something new. She started her journal by talking about how any writer can become famous in time, simply by observing the events around them and writing about those events, how they made people feel, and what happened because of those events. As a writer myself, I began to think about what she said, because there really is a vast difference, I think, between a writer and a reporter. A reporter simply tells the events as they happened, but a writer elaborates on the events, the people involved, and their feelings. There are reporters who are writers, obviously, but I think it would be very hard for a writer not to interject their thoughts and feelings into a report.
Aunt Bertie wanted to tell a little bit about the things that were going on in their time. Still, she could not help but put into words how she felt about the events of the day. She mentioned that the first Kindergarten was formed in 1873. At that time there were only about 200 high schools in the entire country, but by 1900 there were 6000, along with colleges that were heavily endowed by the Rockefeller, Stanford, and Vanderbilt families. Fisk College for “blacks” came into being. Women were coming to the foreground. Football became a part of college life. You could become a doctor in four months…later it took three years, and we all know it takes much longer now. At that time, 98% of children were in the grades. Aunt Bertie mentions that it was thought that education was a cure all. Authors like Emily Dickinson, Bret Hart, and Mark Twain tried to enrich the world. There were streetcar and yacht races, P.T Barnum Circus, Dwight Moody held mass revivals, and McGuffy’s Reader taught moral lessons. And then she tells about the thing that bothers her the most, when she said, “But all this did not abolish CHILD LABOR!” It seemed to Aunt Bertie that there were so many changes that the nation was seeing, but the one thing that appalled her the most at the time, was still there, and still endangering the lives of children. It was so hard for her to imagine that with everything else moving with such monumental steps toward a more modern civilization, that was so much more educated, that no one could stop child labor. In fact it seemed to her that no one noticed it, or even cared at all.
Her writings picture disasters, such as the panic in 1873, at the height of the reconstruction of the 1870’s…widespread unemployment, bankruptcy of many people, and failure of businesses, the Great Chicago fire and fires in Wisconsin, Boston, and other places that caused the failure of Insurance Companies who did not have enough Reserves to cover all of these disasters, railroad strikes and violence. Then she mentions what she terms “the sins of society”, one million people living in New York slums…ten to fifteen people in three rooms. The thought of so many people being forced to live in such appalling conditions tore at Aunt Bertie’s heart. Somehow, these things just should not be, and yet this was the world we were living in at that time.
Aunt Bertie wanted to tell about the things that were changing in our world, and how many improvements those changes were making to the world, but her tender heart just couldn’t get past the horrible injustices she could still see. There are lessons to be learned from her writings. Lessons of compassion, kindness, charity, and love for our fellow man. All too often we are so busy working on the improvements we want to make in our lives, society, and our world in general, that we forget about how those things could affect the lives of others. The greed of the factory owners could not see past the profit to what their child laborers were suffering. Many changes have come from the horrors of the past. Child labor laws now protect our children, and as an insurance agent, I know that companies must hold enough in reserve to cover disastrous losses, and that while no insurance company is completely safe from failure, there is far less chance of it these days because of those reserves. While those days and events tore at Aunt Bertie’s tender heart, maybe society wasn’t totally deaf to the plight of the people after all.