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  • Writer's pictureRochelle Gridley

Girls Industrial Home inmate, Mildred Curtis

Grace May Dalton had a rather tragic life, and it was all told in just one piece in the Freeport Journal on December 22, 1904. She was thrown on to the charity of strangers as a young girl somewhere in or near Freeport, Illinois. A couple named Clarke took her in and adopted her, but at the age of thirteen, Grace May ran away from her good home. The Clarkes, no matter how they looked, never found her again.

Grace Dalton somehow wandered to Lexington, Illinois and was taken in yet again, by George Davis and his wife, until she married at age seventeen. She married Frank Curtis on August 21, 1884 in McLean County, and had three children with him. The oldest child was Hazel B. Curtis, born in September 1888; Sarah Mildred, born in June 1892 and Carl, born April 1897. Her husband Frank was killed by the collapse of an ice house in Lexington on an unknown date, but some time after 1896 and before 1900, and Grace was left alone with three children. She was probably in much the same condition as her mother or father had been decades earlier when she was a child. Inexplicably, May Curtis then took her children to Beardstown, Illinois, where she was a janitress in a school. (The family appears in the 1900 census in Beardstown) Grace subsequently died in Beardstown, sometime between 1900 and 1904, leaving her children orphaned.

The Cass County authorities declared the children dependent and disposed of them as they saw fit. Hazel went to Mansfield, where she worked as a servant, Carl went to Mansfield as well and was living on a farm. Mildred was sent to the Girls Industrial Home in Bloomington, Illinois. As we can see, these children were sent quite far away from where they had been living, far from where their mother had been, and far from where their parents had been married (except for Mildred).

Mrs. Clarke, Grace's adoptive mother in Freeport, died around 1904 near Freeport, having left no children at all, but it was remembered that a girl named Grace Dalton had been adopted by her -- a large estate was left, so lawyers searched high and low for Grace. Finally they found that she had died and left three children, who were then declared the heirs of the Clarkes! An estate of $10,000 was divided between the three siblings. What happened to Hazel and Carl is unknown. When Mildred was seventeen in 1910, she was still living at the Girls Industrial Home. In 1913, a woman named Mildred Curtis was declared incompetent in Bloomington -- whether this is the same woman or not is not known, but in 1913, Mildred Curtis would have been 21 and able to order her own affairs for the first time.

The unforgiving conditions of life: disease, accident, poverty, bad decisions and lack of social support had created two generations of orphans in one family and all trace of that family has disappeared. What was truly amazing was that a poor orphan girl became the heir to her adoptive parents, who either left the proof of her adoption, or made their wills in her favor, despite her disappearance from their lives. So many families who took in orphans would promise to give their charges financial support beyond that required by indentures or to remember them in their wills, but very few did. The Clarkes were truly an exceptional couple.

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