by Peggy Chong, Albuquerque, New Mexico
My articles are often about blind people who passed on a long time ago. Although many have left a mark on our lives, sometimes little remains of their histories, where they lived and worked or the places they built. When thinking of historical sites related to blind people, we tend to think of the schools for the blind, Homes for the Blind, agencies (both private and public), or maybe Coupvray, France–the birthplace of Louis Braille. For me, a vacation based on the hidden, yet rich, history of the blind of the United States takes a whole different turn. We have many choices, some almost unknown.
Let’s head southwest into New Mexico. First, we will travel to Las Vegas, New Mexico. We remember Owen Shillinglaw, a blind man who grew up there and opened his own lumberyard and also sold gas and coal. Located at 700 Railroad Avenue in Las Vegas, Shillinglaw Heating and Plumbing has recently gone out of the hands of Owen’s descendants, but the business still bears his name.
Owen had a birth defect that made blindness, which occurred when he was in high school, the least of his physical disabilities. Determined to make a future for himself and not be dependent on his family, he worked hard for others in lumber yards until he bought his own. Over the years, his small business became a major enterprise in Las Vegas, causing him to employ not only those in the community who were the best at plumbing and the like, but many members of his family to help with the promotion and the books, while he went out on jobs, public relations events and negotiations that brought in new accounts and projects.
Owen died at work, of head injuries after an accidental fall. Because his death was so unexpected, the firm brought family from Minnesota to keep up with the orders and jobs that Owen had already secured. His niece still lives in Las Vegas.
While in Las Vegas, you can stop by the old Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Engine 1129 on display at Grand and Mills Street. Owen was one of the prominent men who raised money to bring the old engine to Las Vegas and restore it. The intersection today is much more traveled than it was back when the engine first came to town, but there is an area to pull over, park and read the plaque.
Then it’s off to Roswell and to the Elizabeth Garrett house (102 South Lea Avenue). Ask any New Mexican, native or just an immigrant, to sing the New Mexico State Song, and you are likely to get some hemming and hawing–and maybe some humming. I had to look up the words, having not yet committed them to memory. Some will actually know that it is called O FAIR NEW MEXICO, and those who do can usually tell you that it was written by the daughter of Sheriff Pat Garrett, the lawman who shot Billy the Kid.
But few will know that Elizabeth Garrett was blind, taught at the New Mexico School for the Blind, gave music lessons in her home and much more. Her residence is currently a private home and not on any formal tours. However, on a trip to Roswell, it is close to many of the other tourist attractions and known to many of the tour guides in the area who can direct you to the house, which Elizabeth Garrett had built for herself.
Over in Texas, make a stop at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston. There we find the Earl Carl Institute for Legal and Social Policy, established in 1992 and named after Earl Carl, the blind, black law professor and founding member of the law school.
Carl led a quiet life, but with his strong civil rights convictions and education, will and drive, he made changes to the biased and discriminatory laws of the country. The Institute works to educate law students on advocating for change and providing leadership in shaping public opinion.
Staying in the south, our next stop is the birthplace of Helen Keller, Ivy Green. The plantation is located at 300 North Commons Street West in Tuscumbia, Alabama. The museum is open year-round, six days a week. It is closed on Sundays and any holidays, and the price of admission is only $6. A tour of the grounds and the buildings is available.
During the last week of June, the museum hosts a Helen Keller Festival that in 2014 included weekend performances of the play, THE MIRACLE WORKER. For more information, check out their website at www.helenkellerbirthplace.org.
Now moving up to the New England area, we meet John B. Herreshoff of Rhode Island. He was the oldest of four blind siblings from a large family and became the most famous. John loved building boats and, after he lost his sight in his teens, the family encouraged him to continue.
By the age of 22, he had formed his first company to build yachts. John managed the business and was in charge of promotion, contracts and the like. He brought in many of his other talented siblings and extended family, all of whom had grown up around boats, to help improve the company’s designs and to take the lead in boat and submarine construction. From there, the Herreshoff name became known worldwide. Many of the yachts that won the America’s Cup were Herreshoff boats.
A museum that is more than just a building honors the Herreshoff boats. Here, in part, is what their website has to say:
THE HERRESHOFF MARINE MUSEUM/AMERICA’S CUP HALL OF FAME is dedicated to the education and inspiration of the public through presentations of the history and innovative work of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company and the America’s Cup competition. The Museum, bordering beautiful Narragansett Bay, in Bristol, Rhode Island, is one of the nation’s most important historic maritime treasures. We regularly host classic yacht regattas, sponsor symposia on classic yacht design and restoration, and operate an outstanding sailing school for youth and adults. We celebrate excellence in design, innovation, education, and technology. Immerse yourself in exhibits about the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, the America’s Cup, and the fabulous people and yachts that gained fame around the world. Participate in our extraordinary events and expand your horizons. Visit, join, and be a part of a great tradition.
During the summer, the museum is open seven days a week. Check their website at www.herreshoff.org for special events. During the fall and spring, they are open five days a week and close during the winter months. The museum can always be open for a special tour anytime during the year if you call 401-253-5000 to make arrangements. Currently, the museum does not have material in an alternate format, but they are working on it.
The Museum is located at One Burnside Street, at the corner of Hope Street (Route 114) and Burnside Street in Bristol, Rhode Island, one-half mile south of the center of Bristol and one-and-a-half miles north of the Mount Hope Bridge. The Museum is a 25-minute drive from Providence, Newport, or Fall River.
As we know, blind people are a cross section of society. Some led normal lives, like Owen Shillinglaw. Some were famous because of their blindness, like Helen Keller. Some were famous because of the contributions they made to an industry, like John Herreshoff.
We all should celebrate and remind ourselves that, although so many blind people throughout history led sad, frustrating or mostly undocumented lives, there is much to celebrate from those blind people who took advantage of the chances they found–or made.
By reminding ourselves and society in general that these people did exist and were blind, we may be able to reduce the unemployment rate of blind people and also to encourage those going blind later in life to stretch their wings.