Vinton School for the Blind
Mary Ingalls Era 1877-1889
Mary Amelia Ingalls was born in Pepin County, Wisconsin, on January 10, 1865. Her father was Charles Ingalls, a pioneer farmer, who later homesteaded near DeSmet, Kingsberry County, South Dakota Territory. Mary had become totally blind at the age of fourteen, due to what was then classified as brain fever, a general term used to encompass a span of diseases. Some speculate that it was actually scarlet fever that caused Mary’s blindness. On November 23, 1881, at the age of sixteen, Mary Ingalls was enrolled at the Iowa College for the Blind.
After Mary became blind, younger Laura spent many hours reading aloud to Mary and helping her memorize what was regarded as pertinent material. Since there was no school for the blind in South Dakota, the decision was made to send Mary to the school in Iowa, which was referred to them by a traveling missionary. Making a living was a constant struggle for the Ingalls family; money was scarce due to crop failures and illnesses. Laura helped to provide the necessary tuition for Mary by basting shirts for a total of twenty-five cents for a twelve-hour work day. An indication of the prevalent adaptability of the family can be noted in the fact that although blackbirds had devastated the family crops, Mary and her parents ate fried blackbirds during their long train ride to Vinton. They were determined to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to provide Mary with the best type of education available.
Typically student arrived in Vinton by train and were met at the depot by a horse-drawn bus. New students would enter the Main Building through a back door which was near a comfortable, well- lighted sitting room used by the Principal. Although steam heat had been installed, its frequent ineffectiveness made the wood stove in that room a welcomed source of heat for the new arrivals. After a conference with Mr. Carothers, new students were frequently presented to Lorana Mattice, the highly competent blind teacher whose warm, friendly manner soon put them at ease. Parents were encouraged to stay with their newly enrolled child the first few days, until the child began to get acquainted with the new surroundings.
The school made an impressive appearance to newcomers. The north and south wings of the school with their long verandas, and the even longer veranda across the back of the building, commanded an outstanding view. A gravel path led from the stone gate to the front porch with its wooden steps. A stone wall between two and three feet high fronted the east edge of the campus. All of these, along with the curving cinder driveway and the many trees and shrubs, helped create the distinctive image.
When Mary enrolled, the school curriculum consisted of twelve years. Courses were divided into five general classifications and were identified as follows: Primary – 2 years; Second Primary – 2 years; Intermediate – 2 years; Junior – 3 years; and Senior – 3 years. In 1887, the categories were restructured into the familiar numbered grades, first through twelfth, with a separate for the irregulars [adult] students enrolled for only industrial courses. During Mary’s first year, the school population consisted of ninety-four students, forty-two males and fifty-nine females. Ages in the regular grades ranged from six to twenty-nine years, while those enrolled for only the industrial classes ranged between twenty-two and sixty-seven years of age.
Departmental offerings were extensive and included the following:
Spelling, arithmetic, grammar, history, geography, physiology, natural and mental philosophy, algebra, rhetoric, chemistry, zoology, raised print, New York Point, literature, civil government, political economics, plane and solid geometry, and botany.
Vocal, harmony, piano, pipe organ, violin, guitar, flute, clarinet, and cornet.
Brooms, mattresses, hammocks, fly nets (for horses), cane seating, piano tuning, carpet weaving, sewing, knitting, and bead work.
Examinations were consistently held on the last Friday of every month and the last Friday of every quarter. Final exams, covering the entire year, were conducted during the last week of school. Advancement into the next grade was based upon the student achieving an average of 60% or more in the class standing. If a student failed to achieve the 60% standing after six years, they were considered a candidate for dismissal. Absolutely no allowances were made for sickness or absences.
Mary’s academic achievements were exceptionally high, and her performance in music was considered above average.
Records indicate that Mary was absent during the 1887-1888 school year due to illness or lack of funds; although this is not definitely known. She was sick during the latter part of her twelfth grade year; her absence the year before perhaps had a bearing on her difficulty with Math Review, as suggested by her final year’s grades. Students were also graded on deportment (conduct), and Mary received 100%, the highest of anyone in her class. School apparently came easily for her, due to her innate ability and hunger for learning, as well as the positive attitude for education that was a part of her family heritage.
The school day schedule that prevailed during Mary Ingall’s years in Vinton was structured through the use of bells. From the time of arising to the time of retiring, bells would ring to signal the end of one period and the beginning of the next. A typical schedule, reconstructed from descriptions by Adelia Hoyt, probably resembled the following:
7:45 An academic class
8:45 An academic class
10:00 An academic class
11:00 An academic class
1:00 Industrial, Music and Physical Training
Interspersed throughout the day was time allotted to practice music. Older students were expected to practice two hours daily, younger ones one hour. Students were usually free to choose their own pastime during the one hour preceding supper. After the chapel session at 7:00 p.m. students were divided into groups based on age, and teachers would read aloud from books that met with the administrator’s approval. Studying and additional music practice comprised the rest of the evening until the retiring bell. All students were expected to be silent after 9:30 p.m. Teachers were assigned to monitor the halls to maintain the silence. It was not always maintained, however, for enthusiastic students often had whispering sessions, delighting in the sharing of their daily activities, confidences and reactions to personnel.
The high school subjects that Mary studied were on a college level, a plan rigidly enforced by Mr. McCune, the head administrator. High scholastic standards were accepted as matter-of-fact. Essay, poetry, and music contests were given considerable emphasis, with students vying with one another on a competitive level. A prize, available from the Retta Rath Foundation, was frequently awarded to contest winners. Retta Rath, a student who died at the school in 1880, had bequeathed $500.00 to be used at the discretion of the college. The foundation formed provided the funds for the contest with prizes of $12.00 and $8.00 for the first and second place essays and $10.00 for the best musical rendition. Many students worked hard to be among the prize winning group.
A variety of skills were taught in the industrial department. Broom making was ranked first among the trades. But students were reminded that although their skills might not provide an individual living, they would contribute to a total family income. Piano tuning was just beginning to be introduced as an industrial trade. Mr. McCune believed that with poor roads and limited transportation, it was not yet an ideal trade even though “blind persons may become experts, and exceptional ones may [even] become good repairers.”
The industrial training that Mary was required to take included sewing, beadwork, knitting and general work, probably hammock and fly net tying. All girls had to spend one hour a day with the sewing teacher, usually taking the class for six years. A reference by Mr. McCune stated that the impatient teacher was out of place in such a class, because pupils often spent six months just learning to thread a needle. Having completed sewing, or failing to learn it, the girls were then required to spend the hour in the fancy work division, such as knitting or beadwork. Mary’s fingers were quick to master new skills, and when she returned home after her first year at I.C.B., her family was amazed at her beautiful beadwork.
There was no gymnasium during the 1880’s. A part of the daily schedule was for students to assemble in the Chapel for exercises after 4:00p.m. The Chapel was located on the third floor of the north wing, excluding the narrow “T” section that juts out from east to west. Under the guidance of the head lady teacher, students did a variety of exercises accompanied by music. Exercises were planned according to the students’ ages and included “Free Gymnastics”, working with dumbbells, rings and wands, and marching.
A favorite pastime was walking with a close friend or in a group. Countless hours were spent walking up and down the halls, strolling on the expansive verandas, ambling along the gravel front walk and around the cinder oval drive behind the Main building. Only a minimal amount of outdoor play equipment was available, mainly swings. Younger students spent many happy hours in a long boat-shaped structure called a Rock-a-Way, usually located on the west veranda. Boys and girls had limited or no association depending upon their age and grade level. Play areas were either scheduled at different times or at different places on the campus.
McCune was innovative for his time in regard to the socializing of boys and girls. Under the previous administrator, boys and girls were strictly controlled. Although they attended the same classes, they were required to sit on opposite sides of the classroom, and all conversation was forbidden. Such strictness often led to “clandestine meeting among the older students.” McCune, on the other hand, believed it to be more normal for the two sexes to know each other and initiated coeducation as it was “understood in schools for the sighted.” Students were still not permitted to associate during school hours but were allowed to become acquainted and mix during holiday parties, committee and society work, and on the playground, occasionally. McCune also encouraged dancing, an activity done during a half-hour intermission of the Saturday evening meeting of the Literary Society. It is doubtful whether the dancing was of a one-to-one nature. More likely it was a type of folk or group dance similar to square- or line-dancing. Those who showed no interest in dancing spent their time visiting with one another. All social interaction, in any event, was done under the close supervision of a dormitory officer or teacher. Many deep friendships developed through the planned social activities, some of which resulted in marriage after graduation. Mary, however, did not choose to marry.
Fire drills were held periodically while Mary was in school. If everyone managed to clear the building within three minutes after the fire alarm sounded, Mr. McCune would reward the group by cancelling classes for the remainder of the day, with his permission to seek whatever reasonable amusement they preferred.
Most students’ rooms were furnished with two beds with two students assigned to each bed. The beds had “wire bottoms” (springs) with mattresses stuffed with either wool or husks.” Bed linen was usually changed weekly. Older students were allowed to choose their bed partners. They were also required to care for their living quarters with matrons assisting whenever help and guidance were needed. All students were required to change their clothes once a week and take a bath each Saturday. A half-hour period was assigned to each individual for that purpose. Teachers supervised and assisted with the bathing of younger children or even with any older students who were careless in carrying out the bathing requirements.
Meals during the time Mary attended I.C.B. were plain, yet adequate. A planned weekly menu was repeated quite consistently, which meant that students could predict fairly accurately what would be served at a given meal. Usually, Mr. McCune and always a housekeeper or matron were present at every meal. The girls sat on one side of the dining room and the boys on the other, with sixteen students to each table. Preceding each meal, a blessing was said.
Records show that Mr. McCune placed strong emphasis on students developing acceptable table manners. Each table group was responsible for keeping their table neat and clean. Any student who stained the tablecloth was immediately removed from the table; those remaining had to eat from an oil clothe, due to their irresponsibility in preventing the untidy accident. Greasy fingers were not tolerated. Each student was expected to use an oblong shaped slice of bread to assist in locating food and preventing spills from the plate. Older students were expected to furnish their own table napkins, but the school supplied napkins for the younger children.
Records show that Mary Ingalls was never a behavior problem. Disciplinary measures were frequently needed, however, for many students. Corporal punishment was not permitted. One of the more common disciplinary measures was to have the misbehaving student sit apart from the rest of the group, either in the hall or in the library, although one teen-age boy was sent home for using profanity.
Mary graduated, at the age of twenty- four, in June, 1889. She was one of eight in her graduating class which consisted of five females and three males. At the commencement exercises, she recited a Robert Burns essay entitled “Bide a Wee and Dinna Weary.” After graduation, Mary spent most of her remaining life living in the family home in DeSmet, South Dakota. Mary and her mother were highly active in the church, and Mary taught Sunday School classes. After her father’s death, she made fly nets which helped supplement the family income. When her mother died in 1924, Mary then lived for a brief time with her sister, Grace, whose home was near DeSmet. Later, she went to live with her sister Carrie, at Keystone, South Dakota. On October 20, 1928, at the age of sixty-three, Mary died of pneumonia and was buried in the family plot near DeSmet. She did not live long enough to know that her sister, Laura Ingalls Wilder, would immortalize the family through her writing of the Little House books.
Gleanings from Our Past, A History of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, Vinton Iowa, Pgs. 23-29. Published by The Iowa Braille & Sight Saving School 1984. Copyright 1984 by Iowa Braille & Sight Saving School
More on Mary Ingalls
Mary Ingalls Biography
Newspaper accounts of Mary’s blindness
Mary Amelia Ingalls Obituary