I’d been waiting to get the pictures in this for awhile. I finally got the photos edited today. I’ve got an update from my visit yesterday which I hope to have up soon, but I wanted to show the starting point.
There are three places in Iowa with strong connections to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Burr Oak, Iowa, is where the Ingalls Family lived from 1876-1877. West Branch, Iowa, is the home of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum which holds the Laura Ingalls Wilder/ Rose Wilder Lane papers in its collections. The Iowa College for the Blind in Vinton, Iowa, was where Laura’s sister Mary Ingalls attended and graduated.
Between the closing of the residential program for blind students and the damage inflicted on the building by a massive straight line wind storm, followed up by a terrible rainstorm later that week while the roof was heavily damaged, there have been a lot of questions about the fate of the building. I was particularly worried about the fate of the museum, which is located on the third floor of the building in what used to be the boys dormitory wing, directly under the attic.
The Iowa Regents granted the money to put on a temporary roof, but have yet to come to a decision over whether they will commit funds for a permanent roof or to make a decision what else will happen to the building. (Check for more current information on this in the update.)
A friend, Nancy Obermueller, a member of the Benton County Women’s History Committee, invited me to attend an event being held in the school’s auditorium. It was the a showing and promotion of an oral history project from the 1980s, now having been edited into a documentary.
Article about project:
The finding aid for the collection:
To buy a DVD of the montage “Her Own Story” send a check for $15 +$2.30 S&H to Her Own Story or B.C.W. History Project at this address:
Benton County Women’s History Project
The main speaker was curator, Iowa Women’s Archives, housed at the University of Iowa, Kären M. Mason. Since they wanted some advice by Mason on their records which are scattered through the school in several different locations it was a little different than the tour people normally get. Besides getting to go through the facility and seeing the museum, the library, etc. We also got to see the records and where they are kept. Pat Barr was a very knowledgeable guide and even though this wasn’t my first trip to the school, I got a much better look around than we normally do, even getting to go into some of the tunnels and getting some information about how the other buildings scattered around the campus were related to school.
First, the unlooked for good news. While pretty much everything in the attic (which I didn’t see) was destroyed, the third floor itself fared much better than I thought it would. Apparently a cement barrier had been put in place between the attic and the ceiling of the third floor because when the school was built the Vinton Fire Department didn’t have equipment that could reach that high. The cement was added as fire preventative.
A similar cement cap saved much of the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City, Iowa, when an improperly used torch set off a fire in the dome of that structure a few years ago. (Translation maybe we should bring back the cement cap, it seems to save buildings.) In this case, the cap kept the drenching downpour, that hit the Friday after the roof was damaged on the previous Monday ,and several subsequent storms before the temporary roof was put in place, from directly impacting much of the museum and other rooms on the third floor.
Water did make it into some of the rooms and some artifacts were damaged directly by water. Other artifacts were damaged when huge fans were put in windows to force air through and speed drying and by being exposed to prolonged high humidity. The fans were in place when I stopped in September 2011. Plaster and ceiling tiles fell in several places. Photos fell off displays and I don’t think the humidity did a lot of good to anything. However, as I was really expecting the entire museum to be wiped out I was immensely pleased that about 80% of the museum was untouched or at least just slightly more shopworn from when I last saw it a few years ago.
The registration book and grade ledgers that they had for Mary (not all have been located for the years she attended) escaped unharmed. The registration book had been in the museum, but I think it had been removed and put with the ledgers before the windstorm. They are safely kept in a records room with the Mary pages marked, on one of the lower floors. So my worry about their condition was for nothing.
I was also pleased that the school had saved a lot more records than I originally thought. Previously when I talked to people at the school, they didn’t seem to think they had saved much. However, having gotten to go through with Pat Barr I was very pleasantly surprised by how many records and photographs they have. Unfortunately most are not overly accessible. They need to be centralized, organized, and put in a room that is more public accessible, but they seem to have an interest in working towards that goal and bringing in experts and grants to do so hopefully they will be in better shape soon.
I was also pleased to learn that there was a local group who wants to keep the school going as the central location for services to mainstreamed blind students around the state. That is its current role, for instance library books in Braille are shipped to blind students that have been mainstreamed into their local schools and teachers with specialized training that work with main streamed students across the state make their headquarters there. . However, the Vinton group is also interested in promoting the school as more of a tourist attraction. A lot of the building, besides the damage from the storm, just needs a good cleaning out and basic maintenance that I think are on hold until they decide what to do.
If the school closes completely, I doubt it could keep going merely as a museum, but I think it would be an excellent candidate to be a multi-use facility, perhaps with some of the former dormitory rooms turned into a bed and breakfast. Would you pay to spend the night at the school where Mary attended? It’s being used by the local AmeriCorp unit now and I could see it being used by other groups as a conference facility too.
The one piece of bad news I got was a bit of a Trojan horse. At first I was excited when Pat told us she’d had a gentleman come through who had a whole book of information about Mary at the school and after talking with two former students had come up with was likely one of the rooms Mary stayed in. However, the more she talked, the more I realized the book must have been Mary Ingalls on Her Own by Elizabeth Kimmel Willard, the pen name for Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. It’s one of the HarperCollins spin-offs of characters in the original series. Kimmel presents Mary as a sort of spunky Laura lite and the book doesn’t seem to reflect a lot about what is known about how the school operated at the time. In the book, Mary is sent upstairs by herself without any training is expected to locate her own dorm room and mistakenly gets in a custodian’s closet instead. He gives her directions from the closet and the room location is based on the location of a custodian closet and these directions. It’s possible Kimmel had some source for the story of Mary going into the wrong room that I don’t know about it. Or that Kimmel somehow had tracked down which room (which were unnumbered during Mary’s time) was Mary’s, when the Blind School, which has been very proud of and careful of its Mary records, doesn’t have. However, I really don’t think so. So a room identification based on that story of Mary losing her way and the one spot in the school where it would fit best probably isn’t very accurate. However, it was in the girls dormitory side of the building and had as good a chance as any other of the rooms on that side of being one she stayed in at some point. The room they have identified is room 216.
Other than that I had a great time on the tour. I learned a lot more about the history of the building and how it has been used in the recent past. I hope to get back over there soon. I’d like to spend some time digging further into its history. I’d also really like to visit their restored train depot and the historical society proper. This trip I took a quick spin downtown and their murals are all still in great shape. I hope that you make the trip to Vinton soon.
Contact Pat Barr at the School for the Blind before you come for a tour.
A video showing some of the exterior damage to the school last September is here: