FARMINGTON — Before the 1990s, orphan trains were a largely forgotten piece of history, said Jimmy Miller, president of the Aztec Museum Association.
And then in 1995, PBS "American Experience" aired an episode about orphan trains, a program that from 1854 to 1929 transported orphans, as well as abandoned and homeless children, from the East Coast to homes in the Midwest.
"That, almost by itself, turned this issue into a major issue," Miller said.
On Saturday, the Aztec Museum is hosting "Riders on the Orphan Train," a presentation by Alison Moore and Phil Lancaster.
Like Miller, the husband and wife, who live in Dallas, Texas, did not learn about orphan trains in school and didn't find out about them until about 17 years ago.
That's when they began to research the trains that every summer carried children mainly from New York City to rural communities across the country.
Since then, Moore, a former assistant professor of English and creative writing at the University of Arizona, has written books about the orphan trains. Lancaster, a musician, composed the music for a program the couple now presents on the orphan trains.
The Aztec Museum hosted the couple's presentation two years ago.
Miller said the event was a huge success. Organizers planned for 50 to 75 attendees, and more than 100 people showed up for the event, causing the museum association to run out of food. The people who came after dinner ran out still willingly paid full price to enter, Miller said.
Miller said two people who attended the presentation two years ago had family members who had ridden on the orphan trains.
During the orphan train's 75 year existence, more than 250,000 youth rode the trains to "anywhere the railroads went," Miller said. When they arrived, an adult would usually be waiting to take them to their temporary home.
"The farm life was the most often used location or setting," Miller said.
Some of the children were later adopted by families, while others rode the train year after year.
Miller said the trains began to decline in use during the Progressive Era, which started in 1890 and lasted until 1920. That's when cities began to develop programs for the homeless, including an early version of foster care. The need for the orphan trains decreased until the program faded from existence.
Miller said the "Riders on the Orphan Train" presentation is both entertaining and emotional.
The last time the presentation came to Aztec, Miller said, "there wasn't a dry eye in the house."
"I think it was the neatest event that I've ever witnessed in Aztec," he added.
IF YOU GO
What: “Riders on the Orphan Train” presentation
Dinner: A barbecue dinner provided by Spare Rib will start at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Show: The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village, 125 N. Main Ave, Aztec.
Cost: $20 in advance, $25 at the gate. Cost includes dinner and show.
More info: Call 505-334-9829.