VINTON — While the future of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School building remains unresolved, there’s no question it has had a profound effect on thousands of students through it’s 160-year history — none more famous than Mary Ingalls, older sister of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House” books.
So, as folks in Vinton hope to preserve the historical significance of the school, they’ve formed the Mary Ingalls Society. Plans are to have re-enactors lead tours through the facility, to hold a pageant next summer, to update the third-floor school museum and to get the word out about the significance of this unique school.
“We thought this was a little gem that no one has publicized,” says Don Eells, who grew up in Vinton and, along with his wife, Gwen, donated $500 seed money to the organization because Mary Ingalls’ name has attracted visitors. ” A group of Japanese tourists came one time and they were so interested, snapping pictures and asking questions.”
“It’s a wonderful facility with this wonderful history,” Gwen adds.
So I sat down with them and other folks interested in preserving the school — Nancy Beckman who is leading the society’s formation, former student Robert Spangler, former teacher Mike Hibbs, and current secretary Pat Barr.
The school began as the Asylum for the Blind in 1852 when a Keokuk man, blinded in a hunting accident, opened his home to four blind boys. It moved to Vinton a decade later when the community donated land and money. Old Main was constructed for $20,000, dormitory wings were added a decade later and the name changed to the College for the Blind (1872), the Iowa School for the Blind (1929), and then IBSSS (1951).
As the residential program has become more home/community based for students, the state has considered closing the school. A decision has yet to be made.
Mary Ingalls, 16 and two years blind, enrolled in 1881. She graduated in 1889 at age 24 when 177 students lived here, then returned to DeSmet, S.D., where she lived with her parents. She died at 63 in 1928, four years before her sister’s first book was published.
A copy of Mary’s diploma (the original was found among Laura’s keepsakes) hangs in the main hallway, ledgers prove she was a good student and a commencement program says she recited the essay, “Bide A Wee and Dinna Weary,” which is Scottish for “Stay a while and don’t worry.”
“Robert Burns was a favorite of her father’s,” Nancy says. “A lot of the songs Pa played were Burns poems. We don’t know if this was a Burns poem she read or an essay she wrote.”
But, the message is clear. The Mary Ingalls Society hopes folks come and stay a while.
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