Chattanooga's Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878 had struck most viciously in the Third and Fourth Wards of the city, and more than 366 people had died in three months. Chattanooga found itself confronting the need to care for an increasing number of orphans. A group of community-minded women, members of the Women's Christian Association who had stepped forward months earlier, doubled their efforts to solicit additional money to support children's services. Their success meant that Chattanooga would have an orphanage caring for children without parents or with parents unable to care for their needs.
By 1907, the Chattanooga Star reported that Mrs. Reed, the matron of the Vine Street Orphanage, was appealing to the general public to help identify any children needing placement. Due to successful placements, there were only 23 residents — 11 boys and 12 girls — and the home could accept additional children.
"The splendid work being done by this home is beyond description, the little homeless children are taken in and given everything that they need — good healthy food, plenty of warm clothing, an education and, above all, a love that is hardly exceeded by that of a parent," it said. Mrs. Reed explained that when suitable homes were found for the children they could be placed but not until background checks and home visits had determined that "they will be treated with the utmost kindness." If there is any hint that a child was not being cared for with love, the child was taken back and "with the kindest of treatments made to forget all harshness."
Ten years later, Mrs. Reed assessed the work of the home and commented on the increasing needs in a Chattanooga Times article. "The waste of child life is the most pitiable thing in the world today," she noted. "It cannot be realized that the richest investment of money, time and love is that placed in children. All they need is a chance ... . The city and country and even the state cannot realize what they owe to the ladies who established and maintain this institution. Their watchword has always been, 'What is best for the child.'"
Mrs. Reed reminded readers that since its creation the home had cared for more than 1,000 children, and then she shared stories about "their children." There was Frank, abandoned by his mother when just a baby and later adopted by a "good family." Frank had graduated from the University of Virginia in 1914 and was now an attorney who regularly wrote to "Mother Reed." Jerry, a tot, had been discovered by Chattanooga police officers living alone in a tiny hut in Stanleytown. His vocabulary included "oaths that would have shamed a parrot," but he had "reformed quickly" and, adopted by a physician and his wife, was now a graduate physician. The matron recounted that seldom a week passed without receiving a letter from former residents ("physicians, soldiers, ministers, musicians and just good citizens, from the Philippines to the New England states") who were thankful for the home and family that the Vine Street Home Association had provided for them. Mrs. Francis Martin, president in 1917, added that while the city and county provided some funding, the majority of the support was provided through donations from philanthropic citizens.
In April 1919, Martin announced that Mrs. Robert Scholze, widow of Chattanooga's prominent tanner and manufacturer, had donated a 14-acre plot of land with a large 15-room hotel, Three Oaks, complete with furnishings and two other cottages known in the Summertown community as a "summer resort" for the Vine Street Home. Appraised at "fully $25,000," Three Oaks was located near the Walden's Ridge homes of program's supporters, including P.J. Kruesi, Dr. Cooper Holtzclaw, R.H. Williams. Mrs. D.M. Key, John Poindexter, Sim P. Long and others.
A headline in the July 27, 1919, edition of the Chattanooga Times read: "Orphans in Ridge Home: They're Happy but There is Some Money Needed." Mrs. T.R. Preston, finance committee chair, shared that 61 children had "been made the happiest ones for miles around during the past week by beginning life in the open far above the noise and dust of the city." However, she noted that funds were needed to complete the transition of the property to meet the needs of the children.
Caring for Chattanooga's orphans was proving to be a never-ending tug between increasing needs and costs, but Martin and the leadership were committed to expansion of services.
Linda Moss Mines, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County historian, also serves as historian of the Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR. Visit chattahistoricalassoc.org for more information.