News From 1867

The Vinton Eagle
Wednesday, August 7, 1867
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From the Fairfield Home Visiter.

IOWA BLIND ASYLUM

By Charles R. Wilkinson

Probably every Iowan knows that his State numbers among her public institutions a State University, a Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home, and institutions for the education of the Blind, Deaf and Dumb, as well as an Insane Asylum. And yet very likely, not one in a hundred, should he visit the Eastern States, and there be asked the location of these institutions their object, the number of their inmates and the system adopted for their instruction or regulation, could give any satifactory account of these noble monuments of the benevolence of a great people.

The recent national war, by concentrating upon itself all the energies of the fifty thousand brave and gallant men who went from our borders, with one great end before them, and by keeping the minds of the people at home in doing all possible to help forward the common cause, and when they had done what they could, standing in anxiety to see the result of the momentous struggle—this national war well nigh caused these institutions to be forgotten by most of the people of Iowa.

But they have grown and prospered silently, but steadily and surely, apart from the din of war, and now it should be the desire of every citizen to help, by his countenance and interest, to make these the exponents of all the humanity and Christian civilization of this commonwealth, worthy of young, but wealthy and powerful Iowa. And So, Mr. Editor, I would ask the interest of your readers in a brief notice of one of our public institutions.

"The Institution for the Education of the Blind," now located at Vinton, Benton County, both because it is less widley known than some other institutions, and because it is calculated to benefit a class generally, but by no means correctly, deemed desperately unfortunate, and render them contented and even beneficial members of society, deserves to be noticed by the public.

Having, during the past year, enjoyed some peculiar facilities for becoming acquainted with this institution, and learning its history, I propose to give a short sketch of its objects, and the working of its educational system, as seen in an actual visit, and I ask you reader to get into the stage with me at Cedar Rapids, and submit to a six hours’ ride up the Cedar Valley, a most lovely section of prairie country. As we pause a moment on the summit of this Hill, we see the town of Vinton, four miles north-west of us lying lazily in the warm spring sunlight, on the banks of the Cedar River, a little of whose silver line we see, and then it is lost behind a high bluff and we know its course only by the heavy "timber" which fringes the stream. About a quarter of a mile south-west of the town, you see a three-story stone building of a cream color, surmounted by a cupola or low tower, situated on a knoll of the prairie and forming a prominent object in the landscape—it is the Blind Asylum. Now as we descend this slope, we lose sight of Vinton and the Asylum, and while we complete our journey, I will tell you something of its

HISTORY.

The institution was established at Iowa City in 1853, in pursuance of an act of the Fourth General Assembly at its December session of 1852, and was under the superintendence of Samuel R. Bacon, a blind men, the originator of the scheme, until 1862. During Mr. Bacon’s administration of affairs, the institution maintained a good standing for the educational facilities it afforded, and the musical entertainments given by the pupils are yet pleasantly remembered by the citizens of Iowa City. In the spring of 1862 Mr. Bacon was succeeded by the Rev. Orlando Clark, a gentleman of fine address and much ability.—During the summer, the present building at Vinton had nearly approached completion, and by the act of the Eighth General Assembly, its removal had been authorized, and September found teachers and pupils entering on the usual year’s work, in a new and elegant, though ill arranged building, which had been erected for their accommodation at a cost of about 50,000—a spirit of speculation probably induced the removal of the Institution, for it is not claimed, at least that we have heard, that this place has any advantages of climate or beauty over Iowa city, and it is certainly more difficult of access, being 25 miles from any railroad station. However here the fall term began in unfinished rooms, and the walks of the pupils were interrupted by heaps of rubbish outside.

The Asylum continued on the even tenor of its way, under the care of Mr. Clark, until the fall of 1864, when he resigned his position, and was succeeded by the Rev. Reed Wilkinson, under whose management the affairs of the school have prospered as usual, but who will go out in the fall, having tendered his resignation to take effect at the expiration of the present academical year. But our stage is standing at the gate of the Asylum and we will alight and walk up to

THE BUILDING.

Which is situated on a swell of undulating prairie, from which we can look back on the quiet town of Vinton. The house is built cream-colored stone, taken from a quarry some three miles up the Cedar, and three stories in hight, with a ten-foot basement in which are the furnaces, kitchen, dining-room, laundry, &c. The general solidity of the structure, and the simple but tasteful ornamentation of the front in some work, confers credit on the architect who designed and the masons who executed the word. But the interior is so arranged that it had to be cut up into very large rooms, a sad mistake in a building designed to contain dormitories for a boarding school. Ascending the steps of the portico in front, and advancing into a short hall we find on one hand the office and matron’s room, on the other the reception room and parlor. In the reception room is a case filled with some simple and some elaborate specimens of beadwork, made by the young ladies during bead-class hours, the work they do out of class belonging to themselves. As we look on flower vases, "modern" and "antique and hanging baskets of fanciful construction and airiest lightness, and boquets of such natural appearance, that across the room they would invariably deceive a casual glance, it seems almost incomprehensible that object of such beauty should be formed by whose who are deprived of sight, and sometimes the query has arisen within me, "what can the blind not do?" The short hall spoken of, branches off into halls running the length of the building, having at each end staircases leading to the basement, and also that on the left to the boys side of the building—the one on the right or north, to the apartments of the girls—On this first floor is also the chapel, a room about twenty-two by fifty-five feet, and the private rooms of some of the music teachers. Descending into the basement, we pass a hot air furnace, one of four put in by Fuller, Warren & Co. last fall at a cost of three thousand dollars. In one respect, that of safety from fire, these are of great advantage, though they have not been as efficient as was expected in warming the house, owing to some cause unexplained. As the Principal forcibly remarks, under the old system, twenty-seven stoves, some of them tended by partially blind pupils, were twenty-seven chances of having the building destroyed by fire to say nothing of the danger of accidents to the pupils themselves.

Passing now out of the basement to the rear of the main building we come to

THE SHOP.

Where brooms and brushes of every variety, hair-brushes, shoe-brushes, clothes-brushes, broom-brushes and scrubbing brushes, are manufactured in the most substantial and durable style. We shall find only two or three pupils at work, as during the forenoon, most of them, except a few who come to go into the mechanical department only, are in their various classes. This department is under the superintendence of Mr. John Cisna, a blind gentleman, who has been connected with the Institution since its foundation, and most of the time in this position—the shop is a two story brick, constructed in 1865, at a cost of three thousand dollars, and contains excellent storerooms in the lower as well as a commodious shop in the upper part. It is pleasant and interesting to see the different operations here performed and to see them too done as rapidly by men who cannot see, as you or I would do. The material for brooms, Mr. Cisna tells us is raised on a part of the 40 acres of ground attached to the Asylum, but the stock for brushes is purchased in Chicago. The pricipal object is the work-room, however it is not a financial speculation, though sufficient is derived from the sale of brooms and brushes to pay for the materials and have a margin of profit:—but to instruct the male pupils in some mechanical arts, whereby they can in after years, for they do not expect to make a home here, contribute to their own support and the good of society at large.

But a short time is sufficient to watch the operation here, and now let us return and visit a class or two. Under the direction of the Principal we find classes in Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Moral Science, Algebra, Geometry and Arithmetic. In the room of Miss Wilson, we shall find some of the scholars of fifteen years or so, reciting in some of the above branches, but as the methods are not different from those usually adopted in other schools, we need not linger on a description.

As we are walking around, you have heard a constant thrumming of pianos—there are five in the Institution, as music is regarded as a very important part of the education possible to the blind and someting, too, able to afford them great pleasure and occupation. There are two music teachers, Mr. P. S. Slaughter, a young — — — — years, who as a pianist and composer bids fair to become distinguished—if he lives—and Mrs. J. P. Cisna, a blind lady who has charge of the vocal music, and is an accomplished player and beautiful singer, possessing a voice of great compass and power.—It is now band hour, and we find assembled in the chapel or large school room, as the pupils call it a band of some sixteen members among which we count eight violins, two violincellos, and two flutes, two horns, a clarionet and picolo. The preliminary tunning up being accomplished we listen to a variety of music, from a waltz of Bethoven, to variations on "Yankee Doole" by Mr. Slaughter, who is the instructor of the band. Just now sounds the gong for dinner, and, the Superintendent kindly invited us to dinner with his family of sixty scholars, and a seat at the teacher’s table, where the Matron, Mrs. Marton, presides over our coffee with gracious hospitality. Grace being said, a din of conversation commences, that renders it necessary almost to shout to your vis-a-vis across the table, and you would be surprised at such a buzz in the dining hall of the "Tremont" or "Shermon." Dinner over, we may visit the young ladies bead class, under charge of Mrs. Anna Ritgers, a blind lady, and see how deftly their fingers shape these beads and wires into forms of beauty. Let us now climb to the tower, and in this beautiful spring afternoon, look over the beautiful valley that lies at our feet—for miles away on every side we see nothing but rolling prairies, dotted with farm houses and clumps of trees. The most extended view to be had in Benton County, is here presented to us. Decending we will conclude our visit to the Asylum, with an hour’s hearing of the chior, a well trained chior, whose music would beguile us to a longer stay, and when their practice hour is passed we cry like Oliver Twist, for "more." So ends our day at the Iowa Blind Asylum, and let me ask you, friend, have you not supposed it different from what you found it? I have not a merrier or more light hearted and entertaining circle of friends in the world, than those I hope I have here and when you want to pass pleasantly a leisure hour, come again.