Man shares story of growing up in orphanage

WILLMAR -- For the Milo and Lyla Anderson family, this year's summer vacation is both a homecoming and a history lesson. Milo and Lyla celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary over the weekend in Spicer. They gathered family, friends and almost ...

WILLMAR -- For the Milo and Lyla Anderson family, this year's summer vacation is both a homecoming and a history lesson.

Milo and Lyla celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary over the weekend in Spicer. They gathered family, friends and almost everyone in their wedding party to celebrate the special occasion.

For their daughter, Dawn Johnson, and four of their six grandchildren who traveled from LeCajon, Calif., with them, it's a history lesson. Years ago, Grandpa Milo was Maxfield Abrahamson, an orphan at the Bethesda Homes orphanage north of Willmar.

Born on June 6, 1924, Maxfield was the youngest of three children. In 1928, his parents were divorcing and the children were taken in by an uncle and aunt, who had their own children and were also caring for the grandparents. It soon became apparent that the three children were taxing the family's resources.

"There were four or five children in that family, plus grandma and grandpa," he said. "We were just extra."


On July 31, 1928, Maxfield and his two sisters, Mary Ann and Millicent, went to live at the orphanage. He remained there until the orphanage closed in 1939, but the impact on his life continues on. He wants to share that history and impact with his family.

"It's important for the grandchildren to see where their grandparents grew up," he said Friday. "It's a history lesson."

The family spent part of Friday visiting the site of the orphanage, very near Eagle Lake Lutheran Church north of Willmar and their grandparents' farms on opposite sides of Eagle Lake. This is the grandchildren's first visit to their Minnesota roots.

"It is good for them to see where our roots begin," Milo Anderson said, noting that on Sunday, the family would be worshipping at Eagle Lake Lutheran, the church where he attended and was confirmed while he lived at the orphanage.

"The new church is on the bean patch at the orphanage," he said, relating that the orphans all had chores to do, the little ones pulling the weeds from the vegetable gardens.

The Bethesda Homes orphanage and neighboring senior home were supported by a 240-acre farm, an apple orchard and large vegetable gardens. Anderson remembers rising at 5 a.m. to milk dairy cows on the farm. While he was in the eighth grade, he was the janitor for the nearby District 36 school, which meant he got up early to clean the floors, start the stove and get fresh water for the school day.

However, it wasn't all work and no play. There is a twinkle in his eyes while he tells stories of releasing the bats from the attic of the orphanage into the second floor living space. The boys took mighty swings at the frantic, flying bats while the girls screamed. He also recalls fishing on Green Lake and going to Willmar High football and basketball games, courtesy of the local Kiwanis Club.

Anderson describes his time at the orphanage as a "wonderful, Christian upbringing."


"We were very well disciplined, we learned how to work, so there was no problem to find work when we left the home," he said. "We were well treated at the orphanage."

After the orphanage closed in 1939, he moved to Minneapolis and graduated from John Marshall High School in Minneapolis in 1943. He was drafted into the Navy and was a radarman. His company's mission was to intercept enemy aircraft to protect the Marines while they captured islands in the South Pacific. He was in the invasion of the Marshall Islands.

After the war, he was discharged from the military and attended Augsburg College. It was then that he decided to change his name from Maxfield Abrahamson to Milo Anderson. He chose Anderson because the matron of the orphanage, Alice Anderson, was a mother to him. He chose Milo because it was much shorter than Maxfield.

His family had moved to the West Coast and settled in Los Angeles. He followed, attended the University of Southern California for several years and then moved into the aeronautical field. He graduated from San Diego State University in 1957 with an engineering degree. His life's work was in aeronautical engineering.

He met Lyla through a friend who had moved to San Diego to work at the Lutheran church where he attended and sang in the choir. They married in 1956. Lyla and Milo Anderson grew up on opposite sides of Eagle Lake. The two had probably met at some point in their childhood.

Lyla Anderson recalls attending school with Milo's cousins and remembers attending "Bethesda Homes Day" when the family went to the orphanage for the day for a program put on by the children and a picnic lunch. "I suppose I saw him there," she said.

Back to the history lesson for the next generation. "This is fascinating for the kids to see where he grew up. They have never had the opportunity to do that," said their daughter Dawn.

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