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  • Writer's pictureRochelle Gridley

Schwehm Sisters and the Girls Industrial Home

Updated: Jun 29, 2023


After receiving an email from the son of Mary Schwehm I was inspired to search a little further for the five Schwehm sisters. I did find a little more information -- more newspapers have been added to an I did search in the Chicago papers as well.

It was in 1922 that Horace Schwehm deserted Opal, his wife, and five daughters in Weldon IL. A warrant was out for his arrest (desertion was a crime) for THREE YEARS until he was found and arrested in Chicago. Horace's father owned a grocery store in Weldon and from the news articles in the Weldon and Clinton newspapers, he was a prosperous man. He traveled to California, The South (for hunting) and Michigan in his own automobile as early as 1920.

Opal was granted a divorce and the magnificent sum of $40 a month in alimony and child support. However, in 1927 Horace was brought up on charges of not paying support for his family. In court he claimed that he had been in Rochester MN in hospital (for two years?) and was excused from paying the support. He of course had a job in Chicago in the post office later. Perhaps the support payments went to the Girls Industrial Home while the girls were there.

Phyllis Schwehm, the youngest of the sisters was a talented mezzo soprano. There were several articles that mentioned her as a competitor in music festivals. In 1940 she was voted best mezzo-soprano in a Chicago music festival.

Original article:

On February 24, 1926, Opal Schwehm of Weldon in DeWitt county lost all hope and allowed her five daughters, Mary, Loretta, Betty, Dorothy and Phillis to be declared dependent and placed into the Girls Industrial Home in Bloomington, Illinois. This must have been a very difficult decision, because once declared dependent the girls could just as easily have been sent to the poor farm. Her husband, Horace, had left her and she had no means of keeping the five girls, especially after her mother had died in 1925. Phillis was just 3 years old and Mary, the oldest was twelve.

By 1930, Mary (16) was working as a servant in the home of Attorney William Costigan. Mary appears in a group photo of underclassmen at BHS in 1931. Carroll Costigan, the teenage son of the Costigan household was included in another grouping of students that year. Imagine attending school with the son of your employer during the turbulent teen age years! Children at the home were sent out as servants in many instances and in the earliest days were actually indentured to families. Records in the Hyde Park Career High School Yearbook indicate that she, along with her four sisters, all moved to the Hyde Park area of Chicago and attended high school there from 1934 - 1938. Mary Frances Schwehm graduated in 1934, but in 1935 was noted along with three of her sisters (Betty, Loretta and Phyllis) as color assistants on the yearbook staff. Social security records show she married and had the name Habschmidt by 1954 and died in 1992.

Loretta, Phillis and Dorothy were inmates of the Industrial Home when the census was taken in 1930. Loretta had an October birthday, and took part in a birthday party at the President of the Board's home on October 16, 1927. The custom at the Home was to celebrate all the birthdays that occurred in the month at one party, usually at the Board President's home or another officer's home. Loretta married William Oliver and lived in Chicago with him and their twin sons in 1940 and died November 7, 2003 in Pima, Arizona.

Phyllis Schwehm attended Hyde Park High from 1935 to 1938, when she graduated. She was active in dramatics and the German club. (Senior photo at right.)

Betty's name was absent from any census at all in 1930. However, death records from California identify her as the wife of George Von Gehr and Milton Davenport. She died in San Diego in 1981.

Opal Schwehm died December 5, 1941 in Cook County at the age of 45. She was working as a housekeeper at the time of her death. It could be that she managed to get her daughters transferred to a home in Chicago while she worked there, so that she could maintain contact with them. Horace Schwem lived until 1955. In 1930 he was living in Chicago and working in the U S Post Office, and in 1940 was an inmate in the Chicago State Hospital for the Insane in Norwood Park. Perhaps a mental illness or alcoholism led to the failure of the marriage.

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