Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In 1912, Isador Sobel, born in New York in 1858, was an individual of considerable standing in Erie, where he had studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1888. Three years later he was elected to city council and during his second term served as president. President William McKinley appointed him Erie’s postmaster in 1898, as did President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 and 1906, and President William Howard Taft in 1910. In his later career, Sobel was elected president of the Erie County Bar Association for five consecutive terms, the first lawyer to be elected to the post for a period of more than one year. Throughout his life, his civic, charitable, and fraternal associations in Erie were legion, and he served on the boards of many of the community’s institutions and clubs.

One of the groups which enlisted his support was District Grand Lodge Number 3 of the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith (IOBB), a Jewish benevolent organization that had compiled an impressive roster of projects promulgat­ing social reform and charitable endeavors. The IOBB Lodge operated three orphanages in its district, which comprised Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and West Virginia, but each was restricted to care for local children only. During the IOBB’s annual confer­ence held in January 1912 at Atlantic City, outgoing president Isador Sobel presented his farewell address, in which he pleaded for the building of a new orphanage in the Erie area. The estab­lishment of such a home, he said, would be “a foremost undertaking,” and a “noble and typically Jewish cause … conceived to meet a crying need.”

In those days, children who presented a problem to society were recommended for institutional care. Orphanages operated according to a wide range of rules, and with varying degrees of success. These establishments, declared Douglas J. Besharov in his 1977 report, Child Abuses and Neglect in Residential Institutions, were often “designed for the convenience of the staff rather than to meet the needs of the residents.” Sobel hoped the children’s home he and his fellow IOBB members envisioned would be much different.

During the convention, members discussed the site of such an orphanage and narrowed their choices to Wilkes-Barre, in northeastern Pennsylvania, and Erie, in the Commonwealth’s northwest corner. Sobel’s chapter pledged a large farm and an annual contribution to maintain the orphanage if Erie were selected. Erie, too, had a large Jewish community.

So determined were the Erie members of the IOBB to secure the orphanage for their own area, they had begun a search for property even before the convention had opened. Seven months earlier, in the June 8, 1911, issue of Cosmopolite Herald, a weekly newspaper published in Girard, readers learned that the Jewish community had purchased “95 fertile acres” in Fairview Township. The property included a long frontage on the Ridge Road, one of two main routes running east and west through northwestern Pennsylvania. Another advantage was the property’s proximity to the tracks of several railroads, including the Nickel Plate, the Cleveland and Erie, the Lake Shore, the Pennsylvania, and the Bessemer. In addition, according to the newspaper article, the Conneaut and Erie Trolley line ran along the Ridge Road, and its owners pledged to “provide all the conveniences for the home and put a station in front of the property, lay a side track to the premises for the purpose of delivering building materials and in any way do its share.” The article concluded by congratulating “the people of Fairview … as it will mean the expendi­ture of a large amount of money each year in the community.” Fairview Township was a small agricultural community eleven miles southwest of Erie; in 1910, its population totaled less than sixteen hundred residents, three hundred and fifty of whom resided in Fairview Borough.

The 1912 convention approved the Erie County site and work began on two cottages for the staff, the first of the dormitories designed to accommodate thirty children, and a kitchen with pantry. Tn the meantime, a nearby house and surrounding farm were rented and renovated, and the temporary facility of the B’nai B’rith Orphanage for Children opened on July 4, 1912. The first children admitted were nine-year-old Harry Davidson from Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, and sisters Lilly, age six, and Polly Eisenberger, five, from Farrell, Mercer County. To be accepted a child had to be somewhat self-sufficient, and generally no younger than five. Most children arrived with siblings and nearly all had a living parent or relative. Children who were permanently disabled – physically or mentally – were not accepted. Relatives rarely visited, and the children were not allowed to leave the orphanage to visit relatives. Many students referred to the facility as simply “the Home” and to themselves as “the Home Kids.”

The matron, Eva Eichenbaum, noted in the first year-end report that the children were in generally good health. “One boy, who a year ago came to us limping and emaciated, is now as well and strong as any normal boy his age.” She reported, too, that “all the children have been taught darning, bed making, dish washing, sweeping and dusting. The boys, too, because the girls were young on an average.”

Of the twenty children admitted the first year, the oldest was eleven and the youngest was five. “The children being normally mischievous, it is sometimes­ – particularly when new children arrive – a little difficult to maintain the proper discipline. But on the whole, discipline has been very satisfactory,” Eichenbaum continued. The only gifts accepted by the orphanage were clothes as the children did not wear uniforms. Every day they walked to the two-room neighborhood school a half mile away.

Construction was completed on the boys’ dormitory in 1914, and the children moved to the orphanage’s new perma­nent location, with the boys sleeping on one floor and the girls temporarily on another. The building also housed a study room and library, and classrooms where the children were taught Hebrew and religious lessons. The facility was self-contained; the children cultivated the vegetable gardens and fruit trees, and attended to the chickens, two workhorses, and milk cows. Orphanage officials hired a local farmer to oversee the farming operations.

As for schooling, students were transported – by trolley until it ceased in 1921, then by public bus – three miles west to the new Battles Memorial School on the east side of Girard. During the years the children attended this school, one girl was named valedictorian and U1e board of governors arranged for a scholarship to Smith College for her. One of the boys received a scholarship to Haverford College the following year.

The girls’ dormitory opened in 1916; each dormitory accommodated thirty children and each had its own study room and classrooms. Each dormitory had two sleeping quarters and an effort was made to allow siblings of the same sex to sleep near each other, regardless of age. All the children ate in a common dining hall. The kitchen, connecting pantries, sewing room, and power plant were located between the two dormito­ries.

To celebrate the opening of the B’nai B’rith Orphanage for Children’s newest building, the IOBB held its 1916 conven­tion in Erie and the attendees toured the facilities. They were served a meal prepared by the girls themselves and learned, among other things, that each child received an annual physical. “Under-nourished children who are in need of sun rays during the winter months are given sunlight treatments with the aid of a quartz ray lamp. There is also a sun parlor enclosed in a glass built porch,” they were told. Staff positions included a supervisor, nurse, girls’ counselor, boys’ counselor, two cooks, and a janitor. For many years the girls’ counselor was a Catholic woman who also served as nurse.

By 1924, one hundred and twenty­-three children – who were generally released at the age of sixteen – had been cared for in the orphanage. During the first twelve years of the orphanage’s operation, several supervisors had come and gone as well. But in 1924, M. Garson Fall and his wife Bess Goldstein Fall arrived to assume administration of the facility; their tenure would last a quarter of a century, ending only with the death of Bess Fall.

M. Garson Fall was born in Wisconsin in 1885, one of three children. Deeply interested in the welfare of children, he became assistant superintendent of the Jewish Foster Home in Philadelphia, and was given charge of the Star Garden Recreation Center in connection with the Big Brothers Association where he worked with runaways and children with behavioral problems. Bess Goldstein was a child living in Denver, Colorado, when a fire engulfed her home and left her an orphan. She was sent by train to a Jewish orphanage in Philadelphia, where she met Garson, ten years her senior. She studied nursing and when she turned nineteen they were married.

By the time the Falls were asked to oversee the B’nai B’rith Orphanage for Children, they had two boys of their own, Garson Jr., born in 1916, and Irwin, born in 1920. The proposal required serious consideration because it involved the well-being of their sons. But, in 1924, they came to Fairview, with Garson serving as the superintendent and Bess as the head matron and assistant nurse. The couple occupied one room on the top floor of the girls’ dormitory and their sons slept with the boys.

Fall regarded the assignment as taking responsibility for a very large family. He instituted a number of changes, called the facility a “home for children” instead of an “orphanage,” and allowed the children the opportuni­ty to finish high school. Both Garson and Bess Fall tried to find employment for the graduates.

In 1927, a third building was complet­ed. It featured a gymnasium with locker and shower areas; an auditorium with a stage; a dental clinic; a library; an infirmary and isolation ward where newly admitted children were kept for four weeks before settling in a dormito­ry; a kitchenette where the nurse prepared food for the patients; a chapel; and a three-bedroom apartment for the Falls.

Under Fall’s direction, the Home offered an enrichment program for the children. Activities included a softball team, scout troop, and several music groups, because he firmly believed music was the best method for relax­ation. Every child was encouraged to take lessons, with a piano and an array of stringed instruments available. In 1936, Earl Lawrence, an African American music instructor in Erie, was hired to teach music to the Fairview Borough school children, and he agreed to teach the Home Kids free of charge.

During the school year the daily routine began at 6 AM. with bathing, dressing, and calisthenics. Prayers were said at 6:45, then came breakfast and chores, and at 8:15 the children were transported to Girard to school. They returned for lunch and were back at school by 1:15 P.M. After school they had Hebrew religious classes until dinner at 5:30. Afterward they complet­ed their chores, had free time for play, and by 7:30 the younger children had gone to bed while the older ones studied. High school children were allowed to stay up until about 10 on school nights. When the radio craze swept the nation, the children were allowed to listen to programs in the early evening. On Friday evenings they observed Kiddush, conducted by an older girl who had been confirmed, and on Saturday mornings they attended religious services. When ready to be Bar Mitzvahed, the boys were treated to a trip into Erie to the synagogue.

The summer routine, adjusted for recreation and outdoor activities, began at 7 AM. Playtime included picnics and trips to Lake Erie, which Garson Fall Jr. dubbed “the best swimming hole in the United States.” The children’s chores were housekeeping, canning, and assisting at mealtimes, as well as general grounds maintenance, care of the vegetable garden, fruit trees, and farm animals, including the cows which needed to be milked daily.

Garson and Bess Fall did not neglect their own children. The owner of the Red & White Grocery Store in Fairview Borough recalled that the young Fall boys often accompanied their father when he stopped. Fall taught his sons to drive his car, Garson Jr. recalled in a recent interview, although he did not give his wards the opportunity. They found other ways, though. “We could learn to drive if we wanted to,” said Hank, a 1941 graduate of the Home. “The janitor and some others had cars and we learned to drive on the dirt roads on the grounds.” A classmate, James, learned on a farm tractor.

By 1930, three years after Fairview Borough and Township opened a joint high school in the borough, the Home Kids attended school in Fairview. They walked as a group to school on a path cleared for them along the Ridge Road. “Four times a day,” said Hank, because there were no lunch facilities in the school. “It didn’t matter what the weather was.” The Great Depression had cut seriously into the operation of the Home and money was not available for transportation.

The Depression brought a number of other changes to the children. The privileges of helping themselves to milk, and fixing peanut butter and apple butter sandwiches on day-old bread, were curtailed. Used clothing for the children was gratefully accepted.

“We thought their place was pretty nice,” said a Fairview native who continues to farm there. “They had a modern facility for the time .. . running water and electricity.” His parents’ home and those of most of the farmers and townspeople did not have such amenities. Fall occasionally brought in movies and the Home Kids were allowed to invite friends for the evening. They also could invite friends to attend religious services.

Fall and Catholic Bishop John Mark Gannon of the Erie Diocese learned they had similar responsibilities and devel­oped a close friendship over the years. They frequently listened to Notre Dame football games together and both enjoyed walking. Saint Joseph’s Orphanage was the recipient of much Christmas candy and sports equipment, and Bishop Gannon often shared these with the Home Kids.

Across the Ridge Road from the Home lay a large open field where Neil McCray opened an airport in 1928. Fairview soon became the mecca for airplanes and pilots. Notables such as Amelia Earhart, piloted by Hubert Hall, landed at Fairview’s Erie County Airport. McCray sold planes, conducted flying lessons, offered rides, and hosted air shows. The children had a clear view of the airport’s activities which also provided occasional summer employ­ment. One Home Kid, Mary, wanted to learn to fly and according to the high school yearbook, was “usually seen at the airport.” Because of the airfield’s proximity, Fall usually knew when famous pilots were flying in. When Wiley Post landed he was invited to visit the children. Not long after, Post and passenger Will Rogers died in a plane crash in Alaska. In 1938, Fall participat­ed in the project to establish air mail service.

The idea of locating an orphanage for Jewish children in a small, mostly Protestant farming community was bold for its time. “We were different,” said Hank. “I could feel it. That’s just the way it was then.” However, James never experienced prejudice of any kind and believed he and the other Home Kids were well accepted by everyone. “We kept out of trouble and gained their respect.” School authorities were watchful that there were no incidents of discrimination. One boy, Jerry, a member of the class of 1943, suffered a racial incident at the hands of a fellow student, “but it was never repeated,” he said.

Participation in after-school activities and sports “was a way to get out of chores,” said Hank. His high school activities included class officer his freshman, sophomore and junior years, football, basketball, baseball, assistant business manager of the school year­book, Chemistry Club, the Varsity Club, Hi-Y, Glee Club, High School Operetta, Spring Festival, Dramatics Club, and the annual Literary Contest. With an average of one hundred and ten children in the high school, the full participation of every student was needed to conduct the extensive sports program. and extracurricular activities. “We were jocks!” said James. “You made your own recreation then, and we were all capa­ble.”

Fall encouraged every child to participate as a way to become integrat­ed into the community. It helped prepare each to adapt to life outside the orphanage. He also encouraged the children to be leaders and insisted they do well in their classes. The Home Kids excelled, and they were often selected for special recognition. Joe, a senior in 1941, was elected by the student body as “Best Boy Student” and “Best Boy Athlete.” Another, Thelma, was elected as “Best Girl Student.” The girls were active in after-school clubs, but fewer sports were available to them.

Fall allowed the Home Kids to attend school functions in the evening. Dates for such events were allowed too. Hank remembered that his feelings toward the girls at the Home were “more brotherly than romantic.” He attended his senior prom with a girl from one of the local families. “He was a nice boy,” his date, who still lives in Fairview, remembered. “Very polite.”

“We were allowed to form friend­ships,” said Jerry, who said he had a girlfriend from one of the Fairview families.

Anne, who left the orphanage in 1936, went to several school functions with one of the Home Kids. She also had girlfriends in Fairview and often was invited to supper. Anne had lived in the Home for ten years, until the age of sixteen, when she convinced an aunt to take her in and finished high school elsewhere.

Manners, values, courtesy, good judgment – all were taught at the Home. “We learned all those things, but it was tough,” recall the former students. “We. learned discipline, too.”

“Discipline was a neces­sary evil,” James believes, “but we respected what they were doing for us and generally behaved.” For serious offenses Fall used a hollow bamboo cane to whack fingers and backsides. “Sassing back” drew time in the corner.

Many girls were encour­aged to follow in Bess Fall’s steps and become nurses after leaving the Home. Ida, class of 1935, remembers that Bess Fall not onJy made her uniform and hat, but also gave her money for shoes and books. Others were helped in similar ways.

Upon graduation from high school, Fairview’s seniors always took a trip to Washington, D.C., even during the Great Depression when the class of 1934 lost its savings in a bank failure. Each class worked four years to raise the money so that everyone could make the trip. Individual spending money was earned by the students themselves, mostly through summer jobs picking fruit for local farmers. Jerry dug graves in the nearby cemeteries for extra money. “It was tough, but we were very sturdy kids, very healthy.” Reflecting back, he believes he survived serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II because of his years as one of the Home Kids.

Meals during the Depression and early 1940s sometimes consisted only of what the Home grew and canned. The children were expected to eat everything on their plates. To get rid of food they found tiresome, Hank and Garson Jr. remember smuggling it out in their clothing and throwing it away. Hank also recalls that he and some others occasionally slipped into the orchard at a farm nearby and helped themselves to fruit. The boys could store quite a supply in their knickers.

Serious misbehavior during Garson Fall’s administration was rare. “Only one boy tried to run away, and that was because of a poor report card,” said Garson, Jr. “The children were so well monitored that the townspeople were never bothered by them,” said a former school board member. The same held true during summer 1944, when one hundred European children were housed at the Home for ten weeks. According to the July 6 edition of the Erie Dispatch Herald, these children were in the United States for a summer camp-like experi­ence and were placed there without regard to creed or race. They worked in small vegetable gardens, took enrich­ment classes, enjoyed playtime, and were generally unobtrusive and unnoticed in the community.

During World War II, the number of Home Kids declined. As the extent of the Holocaust was revealed, Jewish families wanted to stay together. About that time, too, psychologists had begun to develop and teach methods for handling children who needed help outside of an institutional setting. The Home’s days were numbered.

In April 1949, Bess Fall died of cancer. Garson was sixty-four years old and the facility wound down and closed. The complex was sold for use as a recreation­al park and enjoyed one season. Fall moved to Harrisburg to work for state government, but returned often to Fairview. In 1951, he served on the committee to honor music teacher Earl Lawrence on his retirement. Fall relocated to Florida in 1968 at the age of eighty-three, and died in 1973. He and Bess are buried in a Jewish cemetery in Erie.

The girls’ dormitory burned down several years ago and the boys’ dormito­ry is now a restaurant and bar. The gymnasium, which once housed a nursing home, is now a storage facility. No matter how the Home Kids remem­ber their time in the orphanage, many attend reunions. The first, held in Pittsburgh in 1989, was sponsored by one of three brothers, a 1943 graduate who resides there. In Fairview, every two years the high school graduates of fifty years and more return for reunions. Each class always has representatives from the Home. They come from as far away as Hawaii and as close as Erie, and have pursued an equally wide variety of careers.

Asked about raising children today, the Home Kids universally agree that children should remain with their parents. If that is not possible, even the most critical among them believes that a benevolent institution similar to Erie County’s B’nai B’rith Home for Children would be acceptable. “They fed us, clothed us, gave us a decent education, and taught us how to behave,” said James.

Indeed, the vision of Isador Sobel had been a foremost undertaking. And the Home Kids remember it well.


For Further Reading

Anderson, Frank. A History of the School District of the City of Erie, 1795-1975. Erie: City of Erie School District, 1970.

Carney, John G. Tales of Old Erie. Erie: Advance Printing and Litho Company, 1958.

Freeman, Sabina Shields, and Margaret L. Tempas. Erie History – The Women’s Story. Erie: Benet Press, 1982.

Miller, John. A Twentieth Century History of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1909.

Reed, John Elmer. History of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Topeka: Historical Publishing Company, 1925.

Spencer, Herbert Reynolds, and Walter Jack. Roaming Erie County, Pennsylvania. Erie: N.P., 1958.


Editor’s Note: The names of former Home Kids interviewed for this article have been changed to protect their privacy.


Sabina Shields Freeman, a resident of Fairview, Erie County, has written three books dealing with the history of Erie County. A member of local historical and cultural organizations and committees, she actively researches regional history. This is her fifth contribution to Pennsylvania Heritage.