Portrait of a Nineteenth Century Blind Woman
Audioscript by Katie Fraser Carpenter
“We regret to report the death of Miss Mary Ingalls.”
On October 17, 1928, an elderly blind woman named Mary Amelia Ingalls died in a small rural community in South Dakota. Her obituary in the local newspaper was brief: “Miss Ingalls passed away at the home of her sister, Mrs. D.N. Swanzey. She suffered another stroke a few days before her death, after a year of ill health following former strokes. Funeral services will be held at the Congregational Church Friday at two o’clock.” No one, other than her friends and relatives, was particularly interested in Mary’s life, in her story. Yet just four years later, her name was known to people all across the country, and she was loved by thousands and thousands of young girls, some of whom aspired to be just as good and kind and sweet as she was, though most preferred her mischievous and much livelier younger sister, the one who always forgot to wear her sunbonnet, was crazy for horses, and got into all kinds of scrapes.
That sister was named Laura. Laura Ingalls Wilder, the celebrated children’s author. Laura’s fictionalized accounts of her childhood experiences on the western frontier, hand-written in soft pencil on lined yellow paper, eventually filled seven books. The story they tell is as much Mary’s as Laura’s, though the first book in the Little House series was published four years after Mary’s death.
Laura begins her first book with a description of a three-room cabin in the Wisconsin woods, where the two sisters were born and where they lived when they were very young, with all their cousins and aunts and uncles nearby. Then the girls left Wisconsin to travel the High Prairie with their parents in a covered wagon, heading into the wilderness; and they danced amidst the prairie blossoms in Minnesota and Iowa and Kansas. They lived in cabins built of logs and a sod house dug into the side of a river bluff and in a house made of “boughten boards” still smelling sharply of pine—and in a wagon, under the stars.
The West was still wild in the 1870s, and Laura wrote about wolves and panthers and bears in the Wisconsin woods, of conflicts between European Americans and Native Americans in the Indian territory, of town building and of the railroads that crept through the country. She wrote about the fires that raged across the prairie, winters when the snow piled higher than the house, and a terrible plague of locusts that devoured every green thing in their path and turned the fertile prairie into dust. In fact, it’s been said that more people learned about the American frontier from reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books than from history classes in school.
But the charm of the books, and their timeless appeal, lies in their depiction of a warm and loving family, of the ordinariness of days. The books have never been out of print, and they have spawned biographies, companion books, TV shows, pageants, conferences, and, most recently, a splashy, song-filled Broadway musical play. Laura’s words tell what’s important to a child –holiday celebrations, squabbles with siblings, splashing in the creek bed and sliding down haystacks, the fun of making a button necklace for a baby sister, the brief intense pleasure of a stick of peppermint candy. She describes a good-natured, generous father who told wonderful stories and was strong and brave and could protect his family from any menace; and a mother who was loving and kind, but who made her daughters mind their manners and do what they knew was right. Each of the first four books ends the same way. It’s night, a fire blazes in the hearth, Pa plays the fiddle, and the girls slowly drift off to sleep. Homesteading in the 1870s was hard work, and Laura chronicles the hardships fairly, but what the reader remembers is the warmth of family ties.
The Mary who emerges from the pages her sister wrote is practical, studious, cheerful, and almost painfully good, a paragon of virtue. When there are chores to be done, Mary stays inside to help Ma, but Laura prefers to run around outside with Jack, the family dog. Mary obeys the rules; Laura tests their boundaries. When the girls are told not to wade in the pond, even though the water looks so cool and inviting, Mary holds back, but Laura wades on in—only to have her legs covered in blood-sucking leeches. One day the girls find spilled beads, red and blue and white and green, in the dust of an abandoned Indian camp. Their baby sister Carrie crows in delight when she sees the bright colors and reaches out for them.
Laura stirred her beads with her finger and watched them sparkle and shine. “These are mine,” she said.
Then Mary said, “Carrie can have mine.”
Ma waited to hear what Laura would say. Laura didn’t want to say anything. She wanted to keep those pretty beads. Her chest felt all hot inside, and she wished with all her might that Mary wouldn’t always be such a good little girl. But she couldn’t let Mary be better than she was.
So she said, slowly, “Carrie can have mine, too.”
Mary was thoughtful and gentle, more like Caroline, their mother. Laura was a scrappy tomboy, her father’s “little half-pint of cider, half drunk up.” The differences between them helped Laura understand who she was and who she wanted to be.
“She could not see even the brightest light.”
When Mary was fourteen and the Ingalls family lived on the banks of Plum Creek in Minnesota, she contracted scarlet fever. Her mother and sisters Carrie and Grace were sick too, but they recovered. Mary didn’t. “It settled in her eyes,” Laura wrote, “and Mary was blind.”
All that long time, week after week, when she could still see a little, but less every day, she had never cried. Now she could not see even the brightest light anymore. She was still patient and brave.
Her beautiful golden hair was gone. Pa had shaved it close because of the fever, and her poor shorn head looked like a boy’s . . . Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them.
Years later, when Laura’s daughter, Rose, suggested to her mother that the story of Mary’s blindness be omitted from the family saga, Laura flatly refused. Everything the family did after that point, she said, was in some way affected by Mary’s blindness.
After Mary’s blindness, the roles of younger and older sister reversed, and Laura became Mary’s guide and her guardian. Her father asked her to be “Mary’s eyes,” and so, wherever they were, Laura kept up a running commentary the moment Mary asked, “See out loud for me please.” Here’s how Laura described the view from the inside of a passenger car, so Mary could see it, on the family’s first trip on a train.
“Both sides of the car are windows, close together,” Laura said now. “Every window is one big sheet of glass and even the strips of wood between the windows shine like glass, they are so polished.”
“Yes, I see,” and Mary felt over the glass and touched the shiny wood with her fingertips . . .
She tried to tell Mary how fast the telegraph poles were going by. She said, “The wire sags down between them and swoops up again,” and she counted them. “One—oop! Two—oop! Three! That’s how fast they’re going.”
“I can tell it’s fast, I can feel it,” Mary said happily.
Several biographers have suggested that Laura’s skills as a writer developed because of her sister’s blindness. Laura had to put what she saw into words, to choose the right words, the perfect words, so that Mary could see with her mind’s eyes. If so, what a marvelous gift for one sister to give the other.
“Think of being able to study and learn–oh, everything!”
Education mattered in the Ingalls family. Both parents were avid readers, and the family treasured its small hoard of books. They subscribed to various newspapers and magazines, including The Youth’s Companion, a magazine for young people. Mary’s mother, Caroline, taught school in Wisconsin before she married a man with a “wandering foot.” Caroline taught her daughters at home for many years, whenever there was no school in the vicinity, and she was determined that her girls would have a formal education, especially her eldest, who loved to learn.
But sending girls to college? Educating a blind child? This was a rather enlightened attitude in the nineteenth century. In 1874, an article in Harper’s Magazine noted that the blind “rapidly and inevitably gravitate lower and lower in the scale of humanity.” A Philadelphia newspaper said blindness doomed children “to a gloomy and comfortless and despondent condition.” The 1880 census, which would have included Mary, reported a population of nearly 50,000 blind individuals and classified the blind with other “defective persons”—“the insane, the feeble-minded, the deaf and dumb.”
But if many people in the 1880s still equated blindness with ignorance and inability to learn, this was not so in the Ingalls family. Mary was expected to do her chores and to continue her studies, just as if she were sighted. Laura read the textbooks out loud, and Mary memorized pages and pages of poems and stories, of history and geography. She could do math sums quicker in her head than Laura could by writing the numbers down. Mary loved school; she always had. “There’s so much to learn,” she said. “I always wanted to go studying, on and on.”
Then the family heard a remarkable thing from a Methodist minister who rode the circuit and occasionally preached at their church.
“I don’t know whether you and Brother Ingalls know that there are colleges for the blind. There is one in Iowa.”
Ma took tight hold of the edge of the dish pan. Her face startled Laura. Her gentle voice sounded choked and hungry. She asked, “How much does it cost?”
“I don’t know, Sister Ingalls,” Reverend Alden answered. “I will make inquiries for you if you like.”
Ma swallowed and went on washing dishes. She said, “We can’t afford it. But perhaps, later, if it doesn’t cost too much, we might somehow manage, sometime. I always wanted Mary to have an education.”
The Ingalls family struggled to pay bills and was often in debt. How could it be possible to send a child to college? But Caroline and Charles put money aside, whenever they could, stashing it in a red leather pocketbook Caroline kept under the mattress of the bed. Charles often worked at jobs that paid a regular wage, but the family lived as if they were still self-sufficient farmers, eschewing any luxuries, even holding on to Mary’s college fund through a dark cold winter when prices for necessities were sky-high. That winter, they tore their fingers twisting hay into sticks to burn for warmth, but Mary’s college fund remained untouched. Laura worked for a seamstress one summer, earning twenty-five cents a day, spending twelve hours basting men’s shirts. She contributed her wages to the red pocketbook.
All the sacrifice, Laura often reflected, was right and necessary, because it was for Mary, by far the best of them, the most worthy. Mary never complained about her blindness or used her handicap as an excuse in any way. She did her chores every day, making the beds and washing the dishes just as well as Laura could. She cared for her younger sisters, who thought she told the best stories. When Grace, the youngest, wanted to sit in Mary’s lap, Ma objected because “You’re a big girl now and too heavy”; but Mary replied quickly, “Oh no, Grace. I like to hold you, even though you are a big three year old girl.” Laura complained about the mending she had to do, but Mary spent hours on it, even when there was no more kerosene for the lamps. “The dark doesn’t bother me,” she said happily. “I see with my fingers.” During a three-day blizzard, which kept the family all inside, Mary stayed busy braiding a rug from strips of woolen cloth. She asked her mother to sort the piles of cloth by color, and as she sewed, she imagined the rainbow she was creating.
No matter how hard she tried, Laura admitted to herself, she could never be as good as Mary was. “Mary was truly good. Then for the first time Laura wanted to be a schoolteacher so that she could make the money to send Mary to college. She thought, “Mary is going to college, no matter how hard I have to work to send her.”
In 1881, at the age of sixteen, Mary enrolled in the Iowa College for the Blind. She was to spend seven years there.
“Mary was in college, where she so wanted to be.”
Caroline and Charles Ingalls accompanied their daughter on the train to Iowa, four hundred and fifty miles away. When they returned home, they reported to Laura, Carrie, and Grace that the school was a fine place, a big brick two-story building standing on a hillside at the edge of town. Wide verandas surrounded the school on three sides, and the view—for the sighted—was spectacular. They met the principal and several of Mary’s teachers, whose warm, friendly manner put them quickly at ease, They also met Mary’s roommate, Blanche Howard, and liked her very much; she was a “lively sort of girl.” Mary passed the demanding entrance exam—as her family had expected. She was happy and excited, Mary’s parents said, and especially looking forward to learning to play the organ.
The school had to be highly organized to function well—and it was. Every room was kept spotless. Activities were organized into chunks of time, and the ringing of bells signaled time’s passing. Students were expected to rise at six o’clock and be in chapel for the morning program by seven fifteen. In the mornings, students attended academic classes, while the afternoons were set aside for music, industrial classes, and physical training. For one hour before dinner, students could choose their own activity—but they were expected to do, not just sit. For the girls, that usually meant walking around the grounds, arm and arm; they couldn’t see that spectacular view, of course, but they could feel the sunshine and the wind on their faces and smell the flowers and shrubs in the carefully- tended garden. Dinner was precisely at five thirty, and the day ended with chapel at seven. Before bed, the students gathered together by age to listen to teachers read aloud from books approved by the principal—not so much for entertainment as “for the purpose of directing the thought into healthful channels.” At nine thirty, all were expected to be in bed and absolutely quiet, and teachers guarded the halls to make sure this was so.
The superintendent of Mary’s school, Thomas McCune, was only thirty years old. He was a bit of a free-thinker, and some of his new methods might have shocked educators back east. He believed it was counter-productive to separate boys and girls because such strictness led to “clandestine meetings among the older students.” He even encouraged dancing—though this probably meant some sort of folk or group dance rather than partner dance. He also worked to change the school’s curriculum, preferring the training of children be “along general educational lines rather than industrial training for the adult blind.” This was because, he explained in his annual report, “the individual with a trained mind would always be able to maintain himself.”
In that annual report he also announced his intention to “reduce as much as possible the difference between this school and schools for the sighted.” He wanted no coddling or pity; he wanted his students to view themselves as competent and capable of doing whatever they chose to do. In contrast to previous practice, he let the students to walk to town and to purchase items for themselves. He held fire drills regularly, and he expected the students to find their own ways out of the building. He insisted that all students acquire both social skills and practical skills, so that they could, upon graduation, fit it more comfortably in a sighted world.
In 1885, the National Commissioner of Education declared that the “Iowa school for the Blind was furnishing a higher grade of instruction than any other similar institute.” Mary’s grades were consistently excellent. School came easily to her, and she felt guilty that she didn’t have to work as hard as some of the others. Students were also graded on their good conduct (called deportment), and Mary’s average, over seven years, was, not surprisingly, 100%.
Mary could choose from several academic courses consistent with what was offered at schools for the sighted, including history, geography, physiology, natural and mental philosophy, algebra, rhetoric, chemistry, zoology, literature, civil government, political economy, plane and solid geometry, botany, and various classes in music, both vocal and instrumental. She enrolled, that first year, in political economy (economics), literature, and higher mathematics. She also took the required reading class for new students, in which she was taught to read raised print and New York Point, a raised-dot code similar to braille.
Like all the students, Mary also had to take industrial classes, so she could be self-supporting, if need be, or at least contribute to the family income. Every girl was required to spend an hour a day with the sewing teacher. If she completed the course to the sewing teacher’s satisfaction, she was enrolled in the fancy work division, which included knitting and beadwork. Other classes for girls were weaving, cane seating, and broom making. Mary’s fingers were quick to master new skills, and on her first trip home, she brought pretty beaded bracelets for Carrie and Laura. Laura marveled at her sister’s ability to create the bracelet’s intricate pattern. “Some seeing person puts the different colors in separate boxes,” Mary explained blithely. “Then we only have to remember where they are.”
“It was such a joy to have Mary back home.”
Mary had not been either coddled or pitied by her family, and they thought she was fairly independent before she went to college. But when she returned home for a visit, after eight months away, they were amazed.
“Weren’t you afraid to come all by yourself on the cars?” Carrie asked.
“Oh no,” Mary smiled. “I had no trouble. We learn to do things by ourselves, at college. It is part of our education.”
She did seem much more sure of herself, and she moved easily around the house, instead of sitting quiet in her chair.
She enjoyed telling her family about a trick she and her friend Blanche had pulled on a store clerk when they purchased a handkerchief. The prank sounds much more like Laura’s idea of fun than Mary’s, so perhaps, as Laura had admired and tried to emulate her older sister as she grew up, Mary had been admiring Laura’s liveliness and sense of fun.
“[Blanche] can see colors if they are bright, but the clerk didn’t know it. We thought it would be fun to mystify him, so Blanche signaled the colors to me, and he thought we could tell them by touch. I knew by the feeling that it was good silk. My, we did fool that clerk!” and, remembering, Mary laughed.
She showed off her slate and stylus, and demonstrated how she used them to write her own letters.
So Mary didn’t really need Laura any more, not the way she used to, and that made Laura “so happy that she felt like crying.”
Laura and Mary took a walk cross the prairie, the night before Mary had to leave to go back to school. Like any contented college student, she saw a life full of possibilities. “Maybe I’ll be a teacher,” she told Laura.” Or maybe I’ll write a book.”
The next summer, Mary had her heart set on new adventures. She didn’t want to come home. She wrote her parents to ask if it was all right for her to stay with her friend Blanche for the summer. Reluctantly, they agreed, still wanting the best for their eldest child and pleased by this opportunity, even though they would miss her terribly. Laura felt that nothing would ever be right again.
The next year, when Mary returned home, she discovered that Laura was to be married, and Mary regretted the summer they didn’t have together. “I didn’t realize that anything would ever change, here at home. I felt it was always here, to come back to.” Now their childhood was over, and Laura would have her own home. “I’ll never see so well with anyone else,” Mary said.
Mary graduated from the Iowa College for the Blind on June 12, 1889, one of eight in her class. At the commencement exercises, she wore a white dress, and she recited a poem written by Robert Burns; she’d always loved the Robbie Burns songs her father played on his violin. Then, in the same year South Dakota became a state, she returned to the little town on the prairie, to live with her family in the new house her father built with her in mind.
The Little Town on the Prairie
Laura’s father finally decidec to stay put by the shores of Silver Lake, when Laura is twelve years old, settling in a town called De Smet, South Dakota. The town still exists, though Silver Lake has vanished, and hundreds of trees, some over a century old, now dot the treeless prairie that Mary and Laura knew. The population of De Smet, in 2010, is just over a thousand people, which is about the same as it was at the turn of the twentieth century. Back then, the town existed to serve the farmers in the region. Today, its biggest industry is tourism. Thousands of Little House fans flood the area in the summer months. They tour the Surveyor’s House, the Homestead, the house Pa built on Third Street, the Congregational Church, the schoolhouse and more, all of which were reconstructed or restored in the 1970s. On weekend evenings in the summer, townspeople perform an outdoor theater production of “The Long Winter.” The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum preserves hundreds of the family’s possessions—among them are the organ the family bought for Mary; quilts, rugs, and beadwork that Mary made; and books printed in braille, New York Point, and raised letters that Mary could read with her fingertips.
The Third Street house, where Mary was to live the rest of her life, was spacious and comfortable. It was a typical Victorian home, with dark furniture, lace curtains, and flowered wallpaper, quite unlike the little cabins where the family had lived before. Mary’s bedroom, one of five, was on the first floor so she didn’t have to navigate the twisting stairs. Dozens of cupboards and closets, divided into neat compartments, provided a place for everything—and everything was always put into place. In the back yard, a network of ropes ensured that Mary could easily find her way to the garden and the various outbuildings.
Mary occasionally left De Smet—to visit friends or family, and once she went to Chicago for an operation to ease the pain from neuralgia; but for the most part she lived quietly at home, contented with her books and music, visits with friends, and church activities. She loved to read and subscribed to a braille magazine. She played the organ for hours; she loved that too. She offered to play the organ at Congregational Church services—and remained as the church organist for more than thirty years. With her sisters Carrie and Grace, she joined the De Smet chapter of a new non-denominational youth group, the first of its kind—the Society for Christian Endeavor.
Like her sister, Mary was a writer. In fact, she lived in a nest of writers. Her father was not only a skilled storyteller, he also wrote down several entertaining accounts of his trials and adventures. Both parents contributed to a circulating family newsletter that continued for two generations. Carrie, the baby of the Little House years, was to enjoy a flourishing career as a printer and a publisher of newspapers, at a time when few women worked outside the home. Grace, Mary’s youngest sister, kept a diary.
Mary herself composed poetry. Even as a child she had jotted down rhyming lines on her slate and on bits of paper that came her way. Her adult poetry is ornate and thickly detailed, in the style of the time, but it’s really rather good. A poem entitled “My Father’s Violin” includes these lines:
Sweeter by far to my loving heart
Than minstrels of cultured art
Was music from those mystic strings
My father’s hand to give it wings.
Another poem, “The Old Home,” is a fanciful description of the prairie as she remembered it. The visual images are strong and striking, but it’s the personification that most delights the reader:
The prairie rose is blushing
The sun’s kiss on her cheek:
The wind with glee is rushing
In merry hide-and-seek.
The tiger lily’s stalking
The gaudy goldenrod,
The meadowlark is talking
Of shadows on the sod . . .
Many of Mary’s poems mark special occasions and anniversaries; she probably recited them aloud as her contribution to an evening’s entertainment. Others carry strong religious themes, and several of them were published in the Congregationalist church newspaper, The Advance.
Laura had married Almanzo Wilder in 1885, while Mary was away at college, and for a few years, she lived just down the road from the Ingalls home, with her husband and baby daughter. She visited often, but then, in 1894, the Wilders left South Dakota to seek better economic horizons, first in Florida, then in Missouri. Grace lived at home until she married, in 1901. Carrie’s income was the sole support of the small family for a while; but in 1912, she also married and moved across the state. Both girls learned New York point so they could write directly to Mary.
Then it was just Ma and Mary in the Third Street house. They earned money for their few necessities by renting the upstairs rooms, Ma did washing for the neighbors, and Mary wove fly nets for horses, open-weave blankets that, draped over a horse’s back and neck, protected them from annoying insects.. She embellished the nets she by interweaving colored string in careful patterns, no doubt imagining rainbows, just as she did when she wove the braided rug during the long winter.
When the Ingalls ladies were out and about, they were always together. Mary held onto her mother’s arm as they strolled the few blocks to church or to the center of town. Both were beautifully dressed, always fashionable. Mary knew the way so well her footsteps never faltered; tall and slender, she had to incline her head to hear her mother speak.. Ma was short and matronly, much more like Laura than Mary herself.
As Ma aged into her eighties, she was increasingly crippled with arthritis. “I am Ma’s feet, and she is my eyes,” Mary explained blithely, Instead of renting rooms, however, they now shared the house with Grace and her husband Nathan. Ma died when she was 83, in 1924. Four years later, while she was visiting her sister Carrie, Mary suffered a stroke. She died in Carrie’s home on October 17. 1928.
“Let Us Be Thankful”
Invariably, in all seven volumes of her saga, Laura describes Mary as gentle and kind and good. As a teen-ager she wrote these words:
Who is it shakes me
Like a Child
When e’er my spirit
Grow too wild
Who gives reproof in accents mild?
My sister Mary.
Who is it trusts me
And ere she knows what
Who will come quickly
To help me out?
My sister Mary.
When she was sixteen, Mary confessed to Laura that as a little girl she’d been so good only as a way of showing off. “If you could see how rebellious and mean I feel sometimes, if you could see what I really am, inside, you wouldn’t want to be like me.”
But Laura demurred. “I can see what you’re like inside. It shows all the time. You’re always perfectly patient and never the least bit mean.”
Recollections of family members and friends, letters Mary wrote, and her school reports tend to corroborate Laura’s words. Mary seemed to live her life, as one Laura biographer observed, with “quiet satisfaction.” “How good it is to be alive!” she exclaimed in a letter to Laura in 1914. “Let us be thankful that we were born. Let us fold away our fears and put by our foolish tears through the coming year and just be glad.”