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By Kristi Sprinkle, Intranet Developer and Unofficial Historian for TSBVI, Austin, TX

Abstract: This article describes some of the interesting moments in the 150-year history of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Key words: School for the Blind, history, sesquicentennial, advancements

Editor’s Note: We are currently celebrating the Sesquicentennial of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired—150 years. This history is being preserved in a museum being created on campus. At a recent sesquicentennial assembly, some interesting highlights discovered in researching these years were presented to the TSBVI staff by Kristi Sprinkle, who has taken the role of campus historian. In place of Dr. Phil Hatlen’s usual article from TSBVI, we have chosen to print the text of Kristi’s presentation.

To understand the significance of the year 2006 for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, you’d have to understand where we came from—not necessarily the buildings we lived in, but the kind of people we were and what our predecessors did.

When Elisha Pease, Texas’ first governor, took office, there were few schools for the blind in the Southwest and, in fact, only a handful in the US—less than 20. But in Texas, we had a great opportunity when Governor Pease established our public school system, and in 1856 we, as well as the School for the Deaf and the Insane Asylum, were created, even though there were less than 1800 people living in Austin at that time. In November of 1856, we rented the house now known as the Neill Cochran House on San Gabriel St., six blocks from the Capitol. This was our very first home.

It was at that house that the first pupil arrived, one Robert McKeachern, on December 29th of 1856. As a 17-year old teenager, Robert couldn’t get away with much, as he was under the thumb of not only the Governor’s personal physician—who became our first superintendent, but also his wife. By the end of the school year in 1857, the school had a total of seven students and one teacher. In comparison, today, TSBVI serves almost eight thousand students through on-campus instructional programs and outreach services across Texas.

By 1860, we were living in the new home for the Institute—a place of our own at the corners of Red River and 19th Street—a city block now owned by the University of Texas. At this time in our history, the Superintendent was our maintenance man, and was responsible for maintaining the grounds, including working on the pipes and trimming the hedges. If you can imagine Dr. Phil Hatlen mowing the campus lawns, or painting the dorms, then you might have a clear picture of what was expected back then.

But other roles at the school would also seem a bit odd to us today, however necessary and proper they were 150 years ago. For example, the principal, even into the late 1930s, was also the superintendent for Sunday school. It was mandatory that each student attend chapel every day as well as church on Sunday. And teachers were required to help with Sunday school with no extra pay.

In the early days, even on the current campus, the matron made sure that students followed the rules and kept to their schedule of activities while in the dorms. There were no Residential Instructors, but “housemothers” who often had charge of 15 to 18 pupils each. At this time, the Superintendent disciplined every misbehaving student. It was usually his job to notify the parents of the child’s mischief. For example, a 1923 letter to one parent went like this:

Dear Mrs. West:

Your letter of October 17th was received yesterday and I have made inquiries in regard to the matter. There was nothing much the matter. Maude Harris, a friend of Frances’, told Frances that Edna Brown said that Louise Wilson said something about her. On investigation, it seems that Louise Wilson didn’t mention Francis, but said something about Maude Harris. So it seems there is no reason in the world for Frances to get excited or worked up. In fact, Maude Harris is not right bright, and so it seems there was nothing really serious as I feared when I received your letter...

Yours sincerely,

Superintendent EE Bramlette.

Teachers did not have an easy job, either. They were responsible for escorting the students on all off-campus visits, and often went home with the students to help them with their studies and report to the parents. There were two resident teachers for each dorm. These teachers also taught regular classes at the school, while having to look after the students in the dorm after hours and on Saturday and Sunday. For these extra duties, they were compensated solely by free room and board.

Other jobs on campus emerged over the years, as well. The “transportation guy” was the one who polished the buggy and took care of the horses, including making sure the barn was mucked out, the animals were fed, and the horseshoeing was done. He would also make sure that the mules, donkeys or horses of the travelers from El Paso were fed and tended. When the trains arrived in the 1870s, this person would meet the students at the train station and escort them to TSBVI. Often TSBVI would pay for the return trip of the guardian who escorted the student to Austin.

In the early 1900s, the school’s farmer was the ultimate job coach, getting students to help him and supervising boys who wanted to learn about gardening, poultry or hog raising as a means of making a living when they left TSBVI. On the land behind our current location, our farmer grew 225 bushels of corn, 6 tons of oats for livestock, 6 tons of sorghum cane for molasses, and 2 tons of hay. He also tended various 6 to 10-acre gardens, and with student help, grew beets, English peas, mustard, radishes, onions, tomatoes, squash, lettuce, snap peas, shallots, okra, cucumbers and cantaloupes. Although the school wasn’t self-sufficient after the move to our current location, these gardens and the farm greatly reduced the school’s food budget.

There were other items we made in the interest of self-sufficiency. Girl students took sewing classes from our resident seamstress to make dresses for themselves and for the entire school. The students also made shoes for the residents of the school. The industrial arts pupils made brooms, selling them door-to-door here in Austin as well as to other state institutions.

So instead of placing students in local businesses as we do today, many of our students learned a trade at the school. Basket weaving, bead work, sewing, gardening, animal husbandry, piano tuning, musician training, chair caning, mattress making (with locally grown cotton) and broom making. One year, we made and sold 15,000 brooms.

In the late 1860s, after the Civil War devastated the Texas economy, we relied on the businessmen who were on our school board, some of whose names can still be found on the streets and monuments that dot the Austin landscape. Lewis Hancock, the namesake of Hancock Center and Hancock Drive, built the first and longest standing golf course in Texas. He also owned an Opera House where many of our students were graduated while Hancock was on our board of trustees.

Then there were the Littlefields of Littlefield Hall, Littlefield Mall, and Littlefield Fountain fame. George Littlefield was a cattle and land baron who owned one of the first banks in town—a bank that would also hire a famous local writer and scoundrel named William Porter (aka O. Henry). George Littlefield was on our board with Lewis Hancock in 1874. He donated the original 40 acres for the building of the University of Texas and was one of the first trustees there, as well.

During the forty years following the Civil War, the superintendents for our school emphasized vocational skills. These leaders also believed in physical education, and every student was required to participate in physical fitness on a daily basis. This was usually a recommendation from the physician on staff—and in the formative years of our school, that physician also happened to be the superintendent. Again, can you imagine Dr. Hatlen doing a tonsillectomy on one of our students? Dorm F and Dorm C were once used as emergency hospitals. Things have certainly changed.

Finally, by the turn of the century TSBVI superintendents were hired more for their educational background than for their skills as a physician or as a man of the cloth. We kept the vocational skills training, but reading, writing and arithmetic—and keeping up with the kids in public school—seemed more important. The routine of a child circa 1905 went like this:

  • 6:00 A.M. - rise for an hour for exercise;
  • 30 minutes for breakfast;
  • 30 minutes to study and 30 minutes of chapel (including a lecture from the superintendent about the current events of the day);
  • 8:30-12:30 classes were held followed by an hour for lunch;
  • 1:30-5 P.M., classes again;
  • 5:00 an hour of recreation in open air, only a half hour for supper, and then two hours for study and preparation for classes;
  • at 8:45 P.M., students were allowed to retire for the evening.

Wednesdays and Sundays were mandatory bathing days. There was no contact between the boys and the girls at any time unless supervised by an adult at the school. Mail to and from the opposite sex was forbidden and grounds for dismissal from the school—as was tobacco chewing and smoking, especially for the girls.

The school’s cook and assistant received goods fresh from local farmers, baked bread, and produced things like buttermilk and butter. Large quantities of fruit, such as peaches, were bought and canned before we had refrigeration, supermarkets, and even before Amy’s Ice Cream. Because the school had no refrigerators until 1930, ice was brought in from local icemen, one of whom was Mr. Zilker, of Zilker Park and Gardens.

There are those who will tell you that this school once had a famous visitor named Helen Keller. But there were others of local fame who were quite influential in our world. A local black leader named Norris Cuney Hare was unrelenting in his battle to create a place like ours, but for underprivileged black children. Despite never having been elected to any state position, this man almost single-handedly pushed through the Legislature the bill that would create the Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind colored youths on April 5, 1887. This institute remained open until 1943, when it combined with the state orphan home in Corsicana to create the Blind, Deaf and Orphan School in Austin, where Norris Cuney Hare’s daughter taught music and wrote about their lives.

In 1965, during the struggle for equality for all people, the Blind, Deaf and Orphan School disbanded and its teachers and pupils joined our current schools for the blind and deaf. It was from the Blind, Deaf, &Orphan School that TSBVI attained longtime administrator Matthew Caldwell, as well as other fine teachers and staff.

In the early 1980s, the students and staff of the TSB Deaf-Blind Annex became part of our main campus, abandoning the old Confederate Widows Home on 38th Street. Along with the students and staff, impaired students, including those with multiple disabilities.

Because of the hard work of the staff through the years, and because we have had leaders with vision, TSBVI is now recognized as one of the top schools in the country. So we are not just celebrating the school’s history, but the future of every child that has passed and will ever pass through TSBVI. We are celebrating every person who has ever worked here including those that do right now. I think we are all worth celebrating and are all important to this school and to its ongoing history. So Happy Birthday, everyone! It’s time to celebrate.