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Annie Wittenmyer

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Recently I saw an announcement for one of those motivational workshops titled "Be the engine of your life, not the caboose." Here's a story about one woman who did not need that workshop.

Annie Wittenmyer was a nurse during the Civil War. Ministering to the dying soldiers after the surrender of Vicksburg, she took special note of their concerns for families back home. What would happen to those families when the soldiers died?

In 1865, Annie Wittenmyer took it upon herself to do something. Using her position as Iowa State Sanitary Agent, she visited Iowa Governor Samuel Kirkwood and convinced him to establish homes for children orphaned by the War.

Governor Kirkwood agreed. One of the five Iowa Soldiers Orphans Homes that came of this was set up on the grounds of Camp Kinsman in Davenport, the former barracks for Union Army guards at the camp for Confederate prisoners on Rock Island. Annie Wittenmyer herself served as matron of this home for two years, and it eventually took her name.

The Annie Wittenmyer Home was intended to be self-sufficient, a community within a community, with its own power plant, meat market, cannery, dairy, laundry, chapel, school and hospital. The Home raised vegetables and animals on several hundred adjacent acres to feed its 700 residents.

Children at the home lived in small cottages, each with a matron, rather than the large dormitories typical of 19th century orphanages, an innovation in its day.

Some former residents of the home remember their stays as pleasant; others found the rules too strict. The home changed the lives of at least two public figures. Billy Sunday, the evangelist, came here at the age of 12 when his mother could not support him. He later said, "My years there inspired me with an ambition to make something of myself." The orchestra leader, Wayne King, "the waltz king" learned to play clarinet at the orphanage.

The Annie Wittenmyer home is still in use by a number of social service agencies, the legacy of one woman who decided to make a difference.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.