Monday, July 30, 2012

A Bridge to the Past

Kevin Coolidge

I can hear the rush of water as the horses approach the stream. It’s a cold, wet night, perfect for dallying in the shelter of the covered bridge crossing Miller’s Creek. Perhaps, I can even steal a kiss from my sweetheart.

I love the red, rustic look of a covered bridge. It reminds me of a time when life was simple and roads were made of dirt instead of asphalt. During the 1800s, there were over 12,000 covered bridges in the United States, but due to fire, flood, neglect and modern replacement that number has dwindled to about 750.

Pennsylvania has slightly more than 200 covered bridges, more than any other state. In fact, Pennsylvania has 25% of the existing covered bridges in the United States. Pennsylvania has many waterways, and during the 1800s, Pennsylvania was almost entirely forested as well as being a major source of lumber for the United States, thus the reason for so many covered bridges.

The first covered bridge in the United States was built in Philadelphia. Timothy Palmer, a bridge builder from Massachusetts, thought if bridges were better protected from the elements, then the life of a bridge could be extended from 10 to 12 years to perhaps as many as 40 years. Today, we can see how keeping a bridge dry and properly maintained can increase its use to well over a 100 years.

Pennsylvania also had the longest covered bridge ever built. The Columbia-Wrightsville Covered Bridge was over a one mile in length, and was constructed over the Susquehanna River. Pennsylvania is indeed the “Covered Bridge Capital” of the United States, being the state with the first covered bridge, the most covered bridges, and home to the longest covered bridge. What could have been an end to a large number of our covered bridges occurred in 1958, when the state highway department began to modernize the highway system.

In Pennsylvania, the state-owned bridges were to be replaced within three years if they did not have at least a 15-ton limit capacity, at least a 14-foot clearance, or one travel lane. This would have eliminated most covered bridges. Local historical societies and a new group of concerned citizens formed the Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society of Pennsylvania, to save these historical structures.

The influence of the society and public outcry helped create an understanding that the covered bridges would be preserved if it was feasible. The needless destruction of these bridges was slowed, and today the number of existing bridges remains fairly constant.

Fred J. Moll is a historian of the society, and his book Pennsylvania’s Covered Bridges looks at the earliest covered bridges as well as those that have survived progress. There is also a chapter on Pennsylvania’s railroad covered bridges. Very few photos or information exist on these structures. So, step back in time and imagine the days when our forefathers traveled these wooden spans to reach their daily destinations….

Bridge the gap? Or burn your bridges? Email me at and let me know. Miss a past column? Take a bridge to the past at and catch up. Get a glimpse into Hobo the cat’s past in “Hobo Finds A Home”, a children’s book about a cat’s adventures.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Orphan Trains

Dark brown eyes and thick, wavy black hair. The girl is beautiful, and it’s the only photo Lee has of a mother he can’t remember. “I guess blocking everything out of my mind is how I got through it.” Even though he was seven years old when she died from complications of childbirth, he can’t remember his mother’s death, though his brother Leo, then four, remembers.

He does remember his father overcome with grief. He tried to care for the seven children, but couldn’t. The three oldest had to leave home and take of themselves. The baby was given to family friends. Somebody else took Gerald, then a year old. Lee has never forgotten what happened to Leo and himself.

Lee and his brother were taken to an orphanage. Two more homeless kids in a country that already had too many. Many of these children had one or both parents still living, but those parents could not care for their children or had abandoned them. Parents who were ill, fathers who were widowed, or mothers who were not married sometimes put their children in orphanages because they had no way to care for them.

Life in the orphanage was hard and hungry and there were too many orphans. Lee thought about running away, but he stayed because his brother was too young to go with him. One day, Lee, Leo and some of the other children were told they were going to ride a train.

Orphan trains like the one Lee was about to board had been operating since 1854. By 1929, when they stopped running, the trains had carried about 200,000 homeless children from the East to new families in the Midwest and South. I read about Lee’s story in Orphan Train Rider by Andrea Warren.

Charles Loring Brace, a minister, started the orphan trains. He had worked in the slums of New York City, and worried about the lack of housing, good food, medical care, and schooling for all the homeless children. In 1853, he started the Children’s Aid Society. As soon as he opened an office in the slums, the children came.

He wrote articles and gave speeches to raise money. He used that money to start programs to “help the children help themselves”. The homeless needed somewhere to live, but Brace didn’t think orphanages were the solution. Children needed good families so they could become adults who could take care of themselves and others. Where would he find families to take so many needy children?

The answer: out West. In 1854, the Children’s Aid Society sent 46 boys and girls to a little town in Michigan. Within a week, every child had a home. Inspired by this success, large groups of children were sent west on what became known as orphan trains.

Lee remembers the excitement and heartache of the trains. Lee did not want a new family and was angry to be taken to a new home. Agents who worked for the Society looked for towns that were interested in having an orphan train stop. They then put up signs and set up a screening committee to find as good a match as possible.

Most placements were successful, though children who were physically or mentally handicapped or just too old were usually left behind. The Midwest was settled largely by white Europeans, and most of the orphan train riders had that heritage. The society knew these children had the best chance of being chosen.

Lee arrived in Texas a bitter, unhappy boy. At first he wanted to run away, but his new family made sure he saw his brothers as often as possible, and he learned to love them deeply, and call them Mom and Dad and mean it. Lee finally found his home

Trains? Planes? Or Automobiles? Drop me an email at and let me know. Miss a past column? Visit http://frommyshelf.blogspot .com. Hobo the cat was an orphan that rode the rails. He found his home and you can read all about it in “Hobo Finds A Home”, a children’s book about a cat and his adventures…

Thursday, July 12, 2012

All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome

Kevin Coolidge

Your child is special. He’s not the best at catching the ball and doesn’t like playing at recess. He’d rather stand alone staring at the ants. Maybe he’ll be an entomologist. Besides, it’s not like you were captain of the football team. He’s still young. Sure, some of the kids think he’s a little weird, but he’ll make friends. He just has to find someone that shares his interest in the stars. He can name all the stars in the Orion’s belt. It may take a little time. He can be so talkative. He can be so quiet. Maybe he just scares people? You love your son.

It’s why it made you a little anxious when the doctor asked if he’s often aloof with his peers? Does he look you in the eye? Does he find comfort in routine? He refers you to specialist in childhood development disorders, but he suspects a mild form of Asperger Syndrome. Your heart just dropped into your stomach. What does that even mean? More importantly, what is it going to mean to your son?

Asperger’s Syndrome is also called Asperger’s disorder, and belongs to a group of conditions that involve delays in the development of many basic skills, usually the ability to socialize, communicate, or to use imagination. Asperger’s syndrome is similar to autism, but with some important differences. Children with Asperger’s generally have normal intelligence and near normal language development, though problems in communication may arise as they get older.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Common symptoms include problems with social skills—such as maintaining a conversation. Children may develop repetitive behaviors like hand wringing. A child may start rituals that they refuse to alter—such as getting dressed in a specific order. People with Asperger’s often do not make eye contact when speaking, and have difficulty in understanding body language. The movement of children with Asperger’s may seem clumsy or awkward, and children may develop an almost obsessive interest in specific areas, for example weather, or maps, but may be exceptionally talented in a particular area—such as music or mathematics.

All these descriptions can be overwhelming. Will my son be able to live a normal life? Will I be able to be the type of parent I need to be? A book that brings this diagnosis back into perspective is all cats have asperger syndrome by Kathy Hoopmann. There’s truth in humor, and this book is filled with funny photographs of cats combined with accurate, yet simple information about Asperger syndrome.

If you care for a child with Asperger, you are going to find some encouragement within these heart-warming pages. Your child may be different, but his needs aren’t always so different. He needs love and encouragement, some occasional advice, and space to be himself. He’s different in his own way, but there’s a little Asperger in all of us…

All cats have Asperger’s? Or do all dogs have ADD? Drop me an email at and let me know. Miss a past column? You can find them all at Cats or dogs, if you love animals, check out “Hobo Finds A Home”, a children’s book about a cat who found a home, and a friend…