Meet the woman who devoted her life to raising hundreds of kids during the Depression, WWII

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ERIE, Pa. – Imagine baking birthday cakes, sewing costumes and helping solve math problems for hundreds of kids. The matron of a long-ago Pennsylvania orphanage did just that for 25 years, until her death in 1949.

Bess Fall was determined to be a mom to the children at the former B’nai B’rith Orphanage, and was equally determined that they would grow up in a “family home.”

She and her husband knew that life in an orphanage could be difficult.

Fall grew up in a Philadelphia area orphanage after her parents died in a fire at the family’s Colorado home when she was 9. Her husband, M. Garson Fall, was raised in an orphanage in New York.

“We both knew what life in an orphanage was,” Garson Fall told the Erie Daily Times – now called the Erie Times-News, a USA TODAY Network paper – on April 6, 1940. “In those days they were stern, and believed implicitly in the ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ adage. Life in an orphanage then was not simple. Strictness was the rule, and boys and girls had a tough life when they were forced into an orphanage.”

Together, Garson and Bess Fall worked to provide a real home for children when they were hired as superintendent and matron of the Jewish orphanage in Fairview, a township just outside of Erie, Pennsylvania, in July 1924. They remained on the job for a quarter-century.

“(Bess Fall) devoted her entire life to being a ‘mother’ to orphaned and underprivileged children,” according to her obituary in the Erie Daily Times.

Fairview’s largest ‘family’ home

The B’nai B’rith Orphanage was opened in a large private home on July 4, 1912, in Fairview. A permanent facility, with an administration building, utility buildings and “cottage”-style dormitories, opened in August 1914 on 95 acres of farmland just outside of town. A gymnasium, auditorium and infirmary were added later.

The children at the orphanage attended local schools and were encouraged to visit friends in Fairview and to bring classmates “home.”

“We thought their place was pretty nice,” a Fairview native told local historian Sabina Freeman. “They had a modern facility for the time … running water and electricity.”

Freeman, of the Fairview Area Historical Society, did extensive research on the orphanage for a local newspaper column and for a 1997 article for Pennsylvania Heritage magazine.

Bess and Garson Fall helped the children with their homework in the evenings and encouraged them to participate in the orphanage baseball team, scout troop and musical groups. The children also tended their own small gardens and spent their free time as they liked.

“Boys’ and girls’ homes have piano, radio and phonograph, and games such as chess and dominoes,” the Erie Daily Times reported on Aug. 25, 1930.

“On Saturday nights, there is always a full length talking movie shown in the library, and no youngster’s birthday passes unless there is a fine cake and candles. Holidays are real feast days,” the Times reported on April 6, 1940.

Summer activities organized by Bess and Garson Fall included dances and picnics with baseball games, tennis matches, horseshoes, volleyball, wheelbarrow races, sack races and lighted-candle races, with prizes for the young winners, according to the July 16, 1940, issue of the Erie Daily Times.

Winter activities included snowball fights, snowshoeing and snow forts.

There also were eight-week summer camps at the orphanage for Jewish children from Erie. Albert Straus, a retired industrial designer originally from Erie and now of Baltimore, attended the camp in 1944 and 1945, when he was 7 and 8 years old.

“It really was an adventure, and a heck of a lot of fun,” said Straus. “I learned how to shoot basketball and learned how to swim in the lake at Fairview. There were a lot of sports.”

‘Kid-oriented’ and caring

Straus remembers the Falls as “very kind” and “very kid-oriented.”

“Bess Fall ran the kitchen, and was a good cook. I remember one of her rules was that we had to eat three bites of everything on our plates before we could be excused from the table,” Straus said.

Erie Daily Times Publisher John J. Mead Sr. was among the guests at the orphanage for a dinner with entertainment by the “children’s banjo and mandolin orchestra” and a children’s vaudeville-style show, the Times reported on Aug. 25, 1930. Mead was impressed.

“I want to say that (the children) have a better home than I had when I was a youngster and they have better educational advantages than I enjoyed,” Mead said.

Besides attending school, the children at the orphanage learned Hebrew in classrooms at the home and also studied agriculture, cooking, carpentry and other skills to prepare them for jobs when they left the orphanage at age 18, or later.

“No boy or girl ever leaves unless the (the Falls) have a definite idea where he is going and know what his chances of employment and future possibilities are,” the Erie Daily Times reported on April 6, 1940.

Bess Fall also was an assistant nurse at the orphanage and helped a number of orphans to study nursing.

“‘Ida,’ class of 1935, remembers that Bess Fall not only made her (nursing) uniform and hat, but also gave her money for shoes and books. Others were helped in similar ways,” Freeman wrote for Pennsylvania Heritage.

A ‘magnificent’ home run by ‘very nice people’

Walter Harf, 93, of Erie, remembers Bess and Garson Fall as “very nice people.” Harf and his family regularly visited the B’nai B’rith Orphanage.

“It was just something we did on Sundays. We went to the orphanage to say hello to some of the children and maybe leave a little something there,” Harf said.

The facility’s annual reports meticulously detailed gifts to the orphanage though the years, including “ice cream and watermelons,” “two sweaters,” “10 caps and two scarves” and “two gold bracelets for girls and two gold signet rings for boys, to be awards of merit.”

The orphans were “very well taken care of,” Harf said. “We had an annual dinner at the temple in Erie where we invited youngsters from the home to be with us. They came in shirts, ties and jackets.”

“If you ask me, the B’nai B’rith Orphanage is more like a home, a real father and mother home, than it is an institution,” wrote Tom Sterrett in a 1929 column for the Times. “The kids out there don’t have that institutionalized look – that trained fire horse manner. They seem to be happy and carefree.”

“Raised in orphanages themselves Mr. and Mrs. Fall have eliminated all of the bad features in the institutions they knew as children and substituted in their stead a general policy of kindness, which has won for them the love of their charges and the respect of their superiors,” the Times reported in 1940.

Bess and Garson Fall had two children of their own, sons Garson Jr. and Irwin.

“It was said that Bess may have favored the (orphaned) girls a little more than the boys, maybe understandably since she had two boys of her own,” Freeman said.

The orphanage was home to between 50 and 60 children most years. But in time, those numbers dwindled, to only a handful by the time Bess Fall died at age 55 of cancer on April 20, 1949.

Garson Fall ran the institution for a short time after his wife’s death. The orphanage closed later that year. The only remaining orphanage building is the boys’ dormitory, which most recently housed the Towne Terrace Inn.

Follow reporter Valerie Myers on Twitter: @ETNmyers.