Nancy Beckman a representative of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School Mary Ingalls Society, spoke at the ceremony transferring ownership of the Braille School from the Board of Regents to the City of Vinton. Vinton in turn has turned the property over to Hobart Historic Restoration of Cedar Rapids to repurpose.

The society hopes to be able to continue to have a place to share the history of the magnificent structure but is unsure of the future plans for the IBSSS Mary Ingalls Society.

However, the presentation and historical value of the place needs to be shared with those wanting to learn of its history. Its most notable resident was Mary Ingalls sister of Laura Ingalls of the Little House on the Prairie book series.

Part of the collection that the IBSSS Laura Ingalls Society has collected includes a letter from the author to the school.

Beckman shared the following history a few weeks ago at the ceremony.

"What we now know as the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School began life in 1852 as the Asylum for the Blind in Keokuk. Its faculty consisted of founder, Samuel Bacon and his wife. There were 3 students. The following year the school moved to Iowa City and by the end of that year had increased from 3 to 14 students. The school remained in Iowa City, which was then the State Capital, until the fall of 1862. The name changed several times the last one being the Institute for the Education of the Blind.

With the need to frequently change locations within Iowa City and student numbers increasing, the decision was made the school needed a permanent home. The state’s General Assembly stipulated that any community wishing to be considered needed to be able to provide 40 acres of land for a campus site and have $5,000.00 available towards the construction of a school building. The legislature would put and additional $15,000 towards the construction.

Thomas Drummond, then the editor of the Vinton Times, spear headed the effort to have school located in Vinton. J.W.O. Webb provided the 40 acres of land and community members donated the $5,000.00. As a result, Vinton won the bid, “so to speak”, and in 1859 construction began on the building we now refer to as Old Main. Lime stone from Butler Quarry north of Vinton and a pine roof were used to complete the 4 story building. In 1862 furnishings and educational materials were moved from Iowa City to Vinton and that fall the first students were welcomed to the new school and by the end of the first year student numbers had raised from 24 to 60.

It should be noted the building was heated with wood burning stoves and fire places as well as being lighted with kerosene lamps. Each student was responsible for their own lamp. With wooden floors and open stairways leading from basement to attic - Fire was always a concern. In 1877 a large water tank was placed in the attic of the main building to be used in case of fire. It was the responsibility of the older male students to keep it filled. Fire drills were held regularly and if students were able to vacate the building in 3 minutes or less there were no afternoon classes that day.

In 1869 the South Wing was completed and became the boys’ dormitory. A steam pump was also installed on campus as the heating source – replacing the wood burning stoves.

Although the School’s name had not been the Asylum for the Blind for years, many people still persisted in calling it that. In fact the street running along the front of the School’s property was named Asylum Street. It was eventually changed to C Ave.

By the end of 1871 the students numbered over 100 and in 1872 the name was changed to the Iowa College for the Blind.

In 1873 the North wing was added to the original building. It housed the dining hall, Concert and lecture halls, and the girl’s residence. The chapel occupied the entire 3rd floor of the wing.

In 1880 an ornate iron fence was installed along the front of the property and remained there until it was dismantled in 1942 and contributed to the call for scrap metal to be used in the War effort. The original wooden stair cases were also replaced by iron ones in continued efforts to mitigate fire dangers.

1881 saw the arrival of Mary Ingalls, sister of Laura Ingalls Wilder, as a student. She remained a student until her graduation in 1889.

The hospital, which is still part of the campus, was constructed in 1905 and the original gym with an indoor swimming pool in the basement was added to campus in 1911.

The current Chapel was added to Old Main in 1913 and the pipe organ was moved from the 3rd floor to its current location.

An Industrial Building and green house were constructing in 1920 and replaced by Rice Hall in 1951. In its “hay day”, the school had a very active industrial program. We have correspondence from people around the state ordering baskets, brooms, rugs or making arrangements to send pieces of furniture by train to be caned or to have caning repaired. At 5 cents a hole for caning, they generated more business then they could handle, and many people waited years to have their project completed.

The Children’s Cottage was added in 1928 and Palmer Hall, named for Superintendent Palmer, was completed in 1937.

In 1929 the School’s name was again changed to the Iowa School for the Blind and in 1951 it became the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, the name it held until its closure.

The current gym and indoor pool were erected in 1961. The School participated with other Schools for the Blind in swimming, track and wrestling. They would travel over weekends for competitions. A former student who was a cheerleader and participated in Track events, tells the story of placing a sign in the bus window that said, “Blind driver, honk so he knows you’re there”. In the 1970’s a Sensory Learning Center was installed under Rice Hall and the interactive playground was added in 1994.

There was an active student newspaper from the 1940s through the early 2000s. We are fortunate to have copies of most of these publications which offer us an up close glimpse of the students’ lives through the years.

In the 1970s a Sensory Learning Center was installed under Rice Hall and the interactive play ground was added in 1994.

So, as you can see, the school never stopped growing and changing to better accommodate its students.

But the school isn’t just buildings. It became part of the fabric of our community. It was a major employer for Vinton as well as surrounding communities and not just for teachers. There were administrators, aids, house parents, tutors, clerical staff, janitorial staff, farm and dairy hands, cooks, laundry workers and bus drivers. Students attended local churches and participated in scouting and FH. The band played in the Vinton Homecoming parades and other community celebrations. Students were seen walking in the community. Some attended classes in the Vinton School system and held work study jobs in the community.

The school has had a long association with the local Lions Club. They assisted in getting the school new band uniforms and having the band march in the Lions parades in Chicago and New York City. They also hosted a Christmas party at the school for many years. I’m sure many residents of Vinton have their own personal memories of the school or their interaction with its students, in some way

Although we are saddened by the closing of the school and its impact on our lives, we are very grateful to know it is going to be in the hands of a company appreciative of this rich heritage and we look forward to it beginning its new life.

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Comments (1)

It was such an important part of Vinton in many ways, not only for educating individuals with visual impairments, but also as an employer of many, the incorporation of the school’s community with Vinton’s activities, indoor pool used for physical therapy for polio victims, and excellent music programs.
By: Cindy Reisser Finch on September 15th 6:27pm

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