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Article updated: 7/26/2013 1:01 PM

Mooseheart to celebrate its 100th anniversary

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It was 60 years ago and he was only 5, but Bill Harvey remembers well the day three men from Indiana's child welfare department came to his home.

He overheard them tell his recently widowed mother that if she didn't start taking better care of her four children, they would be taken from her and put in foster homes.

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Mooseheart's 100th anniversary

Mooseheart-The Child City and School is celebrating its 100th anniversary Saturday with a rededication ceremony, a carnival, tours and fireworks. Mooseheart is on Route 31 between Batavia and North Aurora.
Schedule
9 a.m. Centennial Challenge 100-minute run/walk
11 a.m. Rededication Ceremony, "Recalling 7/27/13"
Noon Dedication of construction at Mooseheart School
Noon Carnival opens
Noon to 4 p.m. Bus tours of the campus
Noon to 4 p.m. Pony rides and petting zoo at the fieldhouse
4 p.m. Rick K and the Allnighters perform in the fieldhouse
7 p.m. American English performs in the fieldhouse
9:30 p.m. Fireworks at the fieldhouse

"We probably would have been split up ... had she not stumbled onto the Moose," Harvey said.

His father, it turns out, had been a member of the Loyal Order of Moose. An aunt asked a local lodge for help. "We've got just the deal for you," they told her.

And so on a cold February day, lodge members drove Harvey, his 7- and 4-year-old sisters, a 2-year-old brother and his mom to Mooseheart -- the Child City and School nestled between the small towns of Batavia and North Aurora.

The history

His is one of about 12,000 such stories that have happened at Mooseheart. The facility is celebrating its anniversary Saturday, 100 years to the day after it was dedicated.

Its mission today is slightly different from when it was founded. Back then, members of the fraternal organization wanted to help the children of members who had lost one or both parents to death. In a time of large families and not much government support, a woman who was widowed could find it difficult to support herself and her children.

The organization bought 1,023 acres of farmland a stone's throw from the Fox River and embarked on a massive building campaign. Mooseheart has its own post office; at one time, its own train station; a school; a field house and stadium; residences; a power plant; a farm; and a lake.

Besides academics, it was designed to teach children industrial, agricultural and office vocations.

Mooseheart was never an orphanage. And in many cases, the mothers stayed on the campus, Harvey said.

His mother, who had just a sixth-grade education, received job training and worked there for 31 years. She filled in as a cook and house matron, then worked in the central laundry.

When Harvey arrived in February 1953, the family was placed for several weeks in a reception hall, where they were evaluated medically and psychologically. The children were than assigned to different home buildings, including two in the Baby Village. The buildings were named after Moose lodges or state associations that had ponied up money to finance them.

"That was kind of a shock to get split up," he said, but his homesickness was alleviated by still getting to see his mother every day.

Skills for life

By the seventh grade, Mooseheart students back then sampled vocations, such as concrete work, machinist, electrician, woodworker, printer, barber, mechanical drawing, beautician, secretary and home economist. Harvey took to mechanical drawing and drafting, and trained in it during high school.

And in 1963, he started dating a fellow student, Sharyn, who would become his wife. She had come to Mooseheart in 1959; her father had died in 1955, and then her mother died of a stroke.

When they graduated in 1965 he followed her back to her home state of Oregon, where she was going to attend nursing school. But both decided that fall to return to Illinois. Through connections with his drafting teacher, Harvey got a job at the Caterpillar plant in Montgomery.

After a short stint in military service, he and Sharon married at Mooseheart's House of God in 1968 and settled down in North Aurora to raise a family. He stayed with Caterpillar his whole career. Sharon eventually went to work for Mooseheart, first in its laundry facility and then at its health center.

And Harvey gave back to the organization, joining the minute he was eligible at age 21. He has served as an officer at the local, district and state level. "I always thought that I owed something back," he said.

Mooseheart today

The welfare of children remains the primary focus of the Moose, although it also runs several retirement facilities.

When Harvey arrived, Mooseheart had about 600 kids, he said. There were 58 in his graduating class. Mooseheart began with 11 children and reached its record enrollment of about 1,400 students in the 1930s during the Great Depression. It currently serves about 250 children.

In the 1960s, the Moose began accepting children from other circumstances, such as those whose parents had divorced or run into financial difficulties. In 1994, it opened its doors to non-Moose children, as long as they were sponsored by a Moose lodge. It has had residents from as far away as Sudan.

The "family house" populations are more stable, with a child likely to remain in one for his entire tenure.

Mooseheart came close to closing -- or at least sending the children to local schools -- in the late 1990s and early 2000s, due to financial difficulties as Moose membership waned. It has plans to allow commercial and residential development on the western half of the campus, where students used to learn about farming, to bolster its bank accounts and make sure it can continue its mission.

But Saturday, it will break ground on a $10 million renovation of the school building.

The Harveys will man the Mooseheart Alumni Association booth at Saturday's celebration. And they remain as grateful today as they were when they were children.

"They (the Moose) actually rescued our family," Harvey said.

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