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Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Catherine Fay Ewing, Children’s Home Pioneer

The hill behind the former Children’s Home complex in Marietta offers a serene view of the area. Breezes rustle the leaves of giant oak trees towering over the site. A mowed clearing with a chain link fence seems out of place. A plaque identifies the site as a burial ground for children who died while residents of the Home.

 It is a poignant reminder of the Children’s Home’s  (Children Services today) role in providing good homes for neglected, abused, or orphaned kids. A courageous local woman started the Washington County Children’s Home - on her own -  and helped pioneer the Children’s Home concept in Ohio and beyond. 

Catherine Fay Ewing from Marietta College Special Collections

Catharine Fay Ewing (1822 -1897) attended the Marietta Female Seminary, and became a missionary among the Choctaw Indians in the west. The work was stressful, though her faith sustained her. Alcoholism and domestic violence were rampant. While there, an adopted two-year-old girl died when she was thrown down the stairs during a drunken argument. That event was a powerful motivation for Catherine. She said, “…the desire and purpose had arisen in my heart to have a home where I might care for such orphaned and homeless children. After this every effort was directed toward that object….” She returned to Marietta.


As a single female, Catherine would be challenged to change prevailing attitudes in male dominated institutions. She would not be denied. With savings and a modest inheritance, she purchased land in remote Lawrence Township near Moss Run. A two room cottage would become the first “Children’s Home.” Next she needed to find the children who needed protection and get authority to care for them.


Orphans then were housed in the Washington County (Ohio) Infirmary alongside drunks, the mentally ill, and indigent people. There were 26 children there. She approached the infirmary trustees. They were surprised to hear from this unknown woman with a utopian proposal. She recalled matter-of-factly, “I…got their consent to give me the children at $1 a week. They agreed to provide (some) clothing, and pay one half the doctor's bills, …” On April 1, 1858, Catherine Fay Ewing took in 8 children under 10 years of age, including four infants. It was difficult, but “the Lord provided wonderfully for us.” Soon she was caring for over 20 kids.

Image of first Children’s Home, attributed to Washington County Ohio Historical Society


Her efforts were applauded by many. But others, especially her neighbors, were suspicious and hostile. Some thought she was in it for the money. Others did not want the home’s presumed misfits mingling with their kids. They wanted her out. “There were threats and vandalism. Our gates would be opened at night, and hogs and cattle let in upon our garden and fields. Our chickens were often killed. Once when I went away to take one of the children to a home, I found when I came back that all but eight of our 60 chickens were dead.” Undaunted, she stayed. Other neighbors offered support. 


August of 1860 was a low point. Diphtheria struck. Catherine was sick first; barely able to move. Her hired girls left, and no one else would work, fearing contagion. One night several children were sick; Catherine knew one was near death. She sent one of the boys to a neighbor’s house asking for help. The neighbor refused, saying it was Catherine’s job and “she should do it.” Catherine was despondent and started sobbing. One of the older boys hugged her and said, “God can take care of us.” Indeed He did; soon Dr. Beckwith and his wife appeared to assist them. 


Catherine’s Children’s Home survived and thrived. Due to hers and local officials’ efforts, the Ohio legislature passed a law in 1866 allowing for the public support of homes for orphaned children in Ohio, the first legislation of its kind in the United States. A new Washington County Children’s Home was completed. In 1867, 33 children from Catherine’s home were transferred there. 

It was Catherine Fay Ewing’s faith, dedication and sacrifice that paved the way for much improved care for children.



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