In a sense, today’s story came about by chance.
Two weeks ago, former Blanchester Mayor Lee Miller was laid to rest in his beloved town of Blanchester. After the funeral there was a gathering at the Red Zone Restaurant to reflect on Lee’s life and to offer condolences to the family.
A gentleman walked over to our table and introduced himself.
“I’m Les Freeland, brother of Lee’s wife, Janet. Lee was my brother-in-law,” he said.
“I understand you were Clinton County sheriff,” Les continued. “Did you ever hear of the Clinton County Children’s Home? Janet and I grew up there.”
I told Les, of course, I remembered the children’s home, although it closed operations the same year I took office in 1980.
Les said he had spent 12 years there, and Janet spent 10. The children’s home was located at 1791 U.S. Route 68, Wilmington, where Faith Baptist Church now stands.
The children’s home, originally built in 1904 with extensive remodeling carried out in 1941, was a large, multiroom house with an immense front porch. The area surrounding the home contained a large, white barn, a smaller outbuilding, and farmland, which was a sizable measure of its purpose.
“I was what we called a ‘barn boy’ who milked two cows morning and night,” Les said. “We raised our own sweet corn, potatoes, onions, strawberries, cabbage, tomatoes and beans. Animals raised on the grounds ultimately ended up on the table including 22 cows and calves, eight feeder cattle and numerous chickens. We had plenty to eat for the 65 kids who resided in the home.”
Les said life at the children’s home was good. Every summer all the kids, boys and girls alike, hopped on a school bus and traveled to the Clinton County Fair and grabbed brooms and brushes to clean the old wooden grandstand that stood where the shiny metal bleachers now stand.
“Twice during the summer we went to Coney Island in Cincinnati where we met other orphans from all over Ohio. On Friday nights a bus took us to the Murphy Theatre and on Sunday mornings we were taken to the big Quaker Meeting House at the corner of Locust and Mulberry streets where we listened to Rev. Applegate hold the Quaker service. In the winter we went to the Smith Place Hill and slid in the snow,” Les recounted.
As Les spoke about his school years, he became emotional, talking some about his mother and father. “I never understood why we were originally taken to the children’s home, but …”
He was unable to finish the sentence, so I tried to change the subject back to happier times.
Les cleared his throat, blew his nose, and said quietly, “Mom remarried and moved to New York. That’s all I know.”
On Aug. 6, 1970, Wilmington News Journal Staff Writer Bob Bowman wrote a story about the children’s home and titled it, “Children Work, Play, Learn At County Children’s Home.”
According to Bowman, the rules of the jome stated: “When the proper authorities have decided a child living in Clinton County would be better off away from their parents, for one of several reasons, and there are no relatives qualified or desirous of taking him or her in, chances are the child will become a resident of the Clinton County Children’s Home.”
There were 27 children living in the home in 1971, ranging in age from 7 to 17. The home attempted to provide most of the children’s basic needs including food, clothing, schooling, spiritual guidance and medical attention.
Under the supervision of a superintendent and Mrs. Charles Weaver, the children attended schools in Wilmington, and were active in 4-H, Boy Scouts, Civil Air Patrol and Rainbow Girls. In their spare time, they played ball on the spacious grounds of the home. The home had a well-stocked library.
“A board of five members, appointed by the Clinton County commissioners, was comprised of Carlton Binkley, chairman, and other members including the the Rev. John Morris, John Reed, Mrs. Franklin Thatcher and Mrs. Billy Marine. The board’s executive secretary was Mrs. Ben Rider,” Mr. Bowman wrote.
I turned back to Les and asked him if living at the home had been a good experience for him.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “We had a great life and made friends that have lasted a lifetime. We grew up in a loving, caring environment. There were no drugs, alcohol, or other temptations at the home. In fact, the time I spent there was some of the happiest times of my life.”
“I don’t know much, but I do know the kids at the home received a good education, a sense of stability and security, we learned to love God and man, and we grew into responsible men and women. Who could ask for anything more?” Les asked, wiping away a tear.
Shaking my head, I said, “No one,” as I took a drink of water to wash away something that was stuck squarely in my throat, in that spot just above my heart. “No one, my friend.”
Pat Haley is a former Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.