More on Ten Sisters

In reenactment, sisters play games.

In reenactment, sisters play games.

Ten Sisters: A Story of Loss and the Triumph of Family Bonds

Imagine the closeness of sisters who grew up sleeping 10 in a bed, who took care of one another in their two-room rural home when their parents were too distracted by money problems or disagreements to nurture their children, who combed each other's hair, took baths in the creek, climbed trees, picked apples, walked to a one-room schoolhouse and had what they thought was a happy childhood in Paradise Township, Ill., despite having little in the way of material things.

Then imagine the 10 girls walking with their mother and father into the Coles County courthouse in March 1942, and slowly realizing that it was the last time their family would ever be together.

Ten Sisters: A True Story, available Feb. 1 from American Public Television, tells the story of the mysterious courthouse proceeding that separated the 10 daughters of Glen and Ruth Waggoner from each other and their parents. The local documentary, produced by WILL-TV's Tim Hartin, paints a heart-wrenching picture of the inseparable sisters being torn apart as they cling to each other at the courthouse. Going immediately to live in foster and adoptive families, in an orphanage and in the case of one girl, with relatives, the sisters never saw their home again.

The sisters have spent the last 65 years regaining the closeness they once shared, and the documentary is as much a triumphant story about their work to become a family again as it is a story of childhood loss.

Actors portrayed members of the Waggoner family to re-create scenes from the sisters' childhood. These segments are woven with interviews of the sisters and old photos to dramatize their story. Filmed in Charleston, Le Roy, Mahomet, Philo and Sidney, the reenactments show the fun, love and caring in the family as well as troubled family finances, arguments between the parents, and the state social workers who played a role in the break-up of the family.

The sisters wrote a book about their childhood, also titled "Ten Sisters: A True Story," in which each sister authored a chapter about her recollections. Hartin said he was hooked on the story when he saw the photos of the sisters on the book cover.

On the front is a photo of the 10 sisters on the steps of the courthouse just before they are separated. On the back are the sisters as older adults after they've found each other again. "The pictures tell the story of the universality of family. I was really captivated by them," Hartin said.

Hartin and producer/writer Alison Davis Wood interwove the 10 sisters' stories into one narrative. The documentary tells some stories that aren't in the book, some that the sisters had considered too painful to reveal, others that just came out in the course of interviews. "What was interesting is that when some of the sisters saw various parts of other sisters' interviews, they'd say, 'I didn't know that!' " Hartin said.

Doris Wenzel, the youngest of the 10 sisters, said the sisters have always been surprised at the interest their family's story has generated. "I'm so pleased for my sisters. The book we wrote and this documentary give us a voice. We didn't become lost in time, and lots of children do become lost."

Ten Sisters: A True Story was made possible, in part, by a grantfrom the Illinois Humanities Council and the University of Illinois Chancellor's Office.

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