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About the Collection

Alice Blanch (Bullis) Ayler was one of 150,000 New York children sent west on the Orphan Train (1854-1929) in the hopes of finding a better home. She was born on June 19, 1919, in Roseboom, New York to Charles and Orena Bullis. The family grew to include Pearl, twins Wesley and Lesley, and Elmer. Charles and Orena had a 25-year-age gap and the difference in their life experiences and expectations eventually led to the breakup of the family.

At the age of nine, custody of Alice and the other children was signed over to the Children’s Aid Society. This organization had contracts in the west to place orphaned children with new families, either as an adopted child or in many cases for older children, a worker. It was later discovered that Orena had forged Charles’s signature.

The siblings were separated. Pearl went to a home for handicapped children, the boys to a boy’s home, and Alice to Goodhue Home for Girls. The Home prepared girls with training to aid them in any home that might want to take them in and make them more “adoptable.”

Alice and the boys were sent west and ended up in Kansas. The twins were adopted by Mr. & Mrs. Bankston, who were childless. They renamed the boys Thomas Floyd and Loraine Alan Bankston. Elmer was adopted by a couple but given back once they had their own child. Alice moved from home to home ending up with a family in Marion, Kansas. She remained there until age 17, when she set off on her own. Alice’s time with the family in Marion was difficult, but she met the love of her life, Donald Ayler, while attending school. The high school sweethearts were married on December 24, 1939, and welcomed their first child (Donald Bruce) in July of 1941. Alice had always wanted to adopt a child and in 1947, after years of being denied, the family finally welcomed Ann Lynn.

Alice started college at the age of 50, attending Oklahoma State for one year before transferring to UCO. She graduated with her BA in 1973 and her MA in 1977. She wanted to prove that even unwanted children could achieve success if they chose to. Alice continued to work as a school Psychometrist until her daughter became ill with terminal cancer, when Alice quit work to care for her. Ann Lynn died in 1985 at the age of 39. After Ann Lynn’s death, it took Alice five years to recover the will to return to work. Unfortunately, age had caught up with her and she needed to retire. During her retirement, Alice took a very active role in forming the “Orphan Train Heritage Society of America.”

At the age of 78, Alice was awarded the George Washington Honor Medal in recognition of her work in promoting the advocacy and study of the orphan trains and the children who rode them.

Orphan Train Exhibitdoll in a dress in glass case

This is the doll given to Alice Bullis Ayler, one of the last orphans to ride the rails west in hopes of finding a new and loving home.

As a long time resident of Oklahoma City and a graduate of UCO, Alice has donated her Orphan Train Collection to the University. The exhibit contains artifacts, videos, periodicals, and oral and written histories.

See and learn more about her journey and the fascinating history of the Orphan Train Riders as we display the details of this remarkable story. The exhibit is in Archives & Special Collections on second floor in the library and is open during department hours.