Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway: Vinton, Iowa

Vinton, Iowa doesn’t have much to do with Laura Ingalls Wilder, but it is “related” to her. Laura’s sister, Mary, went blind in the spring of 1879 at the age of fourteen as the result of a serious illness. She no longer could attend any of the regular schools.

The Ingalls family had recently moved to DeSmet in Dakota Territory. Her father, Charles, was a resourceful man who found helpful colleagues such as attorney, Visscher V. Barnes, who began to work to find resources for Mary to attend a blind school in a neighboring state.

In a series of letters to the secretary of the Dakota Territory, Mr. Barnes described Mary as a young and intelligent lady who ought to be provided for in some way. He described Mary’s parents as unable to make much provision for either treatments or education. He also inquired about territorial laws that might apply and would assist the Ingalls in sending Mary to a school for the blind.

The Iowa College for the Blind in Vinton accepted the contract with the governor of the territory to educate its blind students between the ages of five and twenty-one. The paperwork was begun to certify that Mary was blind and unable to obtain an education in Dakota Territory and that she was entitled to the benefits of a school for the blind for the term of five years. Mary carried the signed documentation with her when she traveled to Vinton, Iowa, and entered the blind school in November, 1881.

Mary actually attended the blind school in Vinton until 1889 after the territorial council extended the number of years each blind student was entitled to schooling. Laura described the change in Mary’s behavior and contentment in her her book These Happy Golden Years. After Mary had been at the blind school for two years, she made a visit home on the train by herself and “moved easily around the house instead of sitting quiet in her chair.” She was “gay and confident.” Mary learned how to do many things at the blind school such as sewing, knitting, beadwork, read books in Braille, and play the organ. When Mary finally returned to DeSmet in 1889, she used her newfound skills to help earn money for the family. She played the organ at her church for many years.

We visited the town of Vinton, Iowa, yesterday. Over the years The Iowa College for the Blind (which opened in 1852) had become the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School then the Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired. In the fall of 2011 the school no longer had a residential component after a violent storm with straight wind speeds of over 110 miles per hour damaged the building significantly. Shortly after that storm the blind school closed. Visually impaired school-aged children now received specialized instruction in their local school.

There are several buildings on the campus. Since 2008 the newer buildings are the North Central Region headquarters for the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).

Here are a few pictures of the main building. Although I couldn’t find any corner stone or date on the building, after doing some research online, I’ve come to the conclusion that this building was the original building where Mary attended (minus some of the “newer” additions which are obviously constructed of different materials). At any rate, Mary Ingalls definitely was in the blind school on this site.

This is the front. I couldn’t get the whole building in one picture, so the next two photos are also of the front.

These last two photos are of the back of the building. If you look closely, you can see the additions that were constructed with different building materials.

Here are some photos of the downtown area. Some of the buildings are quite old. One building even has the date 1875 on it, so that building would have been there when Mary Ingalls was attending the blind school.

Look closely at the top of this building for the date.

Vinton also had a square and a courthouse that was beautiful. There was a restored 1856 Vinton courthouse bell on display in front of the present courthouse that was built in 1905.

Front of the courthouse.

Side of the courthouse.

That’s about all for Vinton, the Iowa College for the Blind, and Mary Ingalls. We had a lovely afternoon visiting there.

There are three more places along the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway I still need to visit: DeSmet, South Dakota; Independence, Kansas ; and, Mansfield, Missouri. I visited Mansfield back in the 1980s, but after visiting all these other places this summer, I will definitely have to go back. DeSmet and Independence will probably have to wait until next summer as we are already working our way back south to Missouri. However, there are a couple more stops on our way there.

So, for now ….. “On the Road Again!”