After leaving Burr Oak, Iowa, in 1877 the Ingalls family returned to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. In the winter of 1879, Mary became seriously ill. She complained of a terrible pain in her head and ran a high fever. A doctor came by train to the Ingallses' home in Walnut Grove. He diagnosed Mary's illness as brain fever. As a result of her illness, Mary gradually lost her eyesight, and on the day when Mary could see no more, Pa said that Laura must now see for Mary by describing in words what she saw with her eyes.
Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, Vinton, Iowa, in the 1800s.
Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School entrance as it looks today.
--Photo courtesy of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, 1002 G Avenue, Vinton, Iowa 52349 http://www.iowa-braille.k12.ia.us
On November 23, 1881, at the age of sixteen, Mary Ingalls was enrolled at the Iowa College for the Blind in Vinton, Iowa. Ma and Pa accompanied Mary to Vinton, and they were met at the depot by a
horse drawn bus which took them to Mary's new school. During Mary's first year at Vinton there were ninety-four students at the school. Mary's academic achievements at the school proved to be exceptionally high and she excelled in music.
Records show that Mary was absent during the school year of 1887-1888, perhaps because of illness or lack of funds. One of the areas the school graded was conduct, and Mary received a 100%, the highest grade in her class.
Mary Ingalls during her years in Vinton, Iowa.
--Photo from the collection of the Herbert Hoover Library (RWL #17)
A typical schedule probably looked like this:
7:45 An academic class
8:45 An academic class
10:00 An academic class
11:00 An academic class
1:00 Industrial, Music and Physical Training
The Ingalls Home in De Smet
--Photo courtesy of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, 105 Olivet Ave., Box 426, De Smet, South Dakota 57231 http://www.discoverlaura.org
Various times throughout the day were set aside for the students to practice music. Mary would have been expected to practice for two hours each day. Mary's family wanted her to continue practicing music at home, and, with Laura's salary from the Perry School and some money Pa had saved, Pa purchased a pump organ for Mary.
Students were usually allowed to do what they wanted during the one hour before supper. There was a chapel session at 7 p.m. after which students were divided into groups based on age and a teacher would read aloud from a book. The rest of the evening was comprised of studying and additional music practice. Students were expected to be silent after 9:30.
The high school subjects Mary studied were at a college level. Students competed against each other in essay, poetry and music contests. Prizes were often awarded to students with prizes of $12.00 and $8.00 for first and second place essays and $10.00 for the best musical rendition.
Horse fly nets (hanging on wall below window) were placed on the backs of horses. As the horses moved, the nets swung back and forth and brushed off the flies
--Photo courtesy of the Living History Farms, 2600 111 th Street, Urbandale, IA 50322 http://www.livinghistoryfarms.org
The school offered many courses in the industrial department. Mary would have been required to take sewing, beadwork, knitting and general work, such as making hammocks and horse fly nets.
All the girls spent on hour a day with the sewing teacher. Having completed sewing the girls were required to spend the hour doing more fancy work such as knitting or beadwork, and Mary was quick to master these new skills.
Every day after 4 p.m. the students met in the chapel for exercises, which consisted of "Free Gymnastics," working with dumbbells, rings and wands, and marching.
Fire drills were held periodically during Mary's time at Vinton. If everyone managed to clear the building within three minutes after the fire alarm rang, classes would be cancelled and students would have free time for the remainder of the day.
Most rooms at the college consisted of two beds with two students to each bed. Older students were allowed to choose whom they shared their bed with. All students were required to care for their living quarters. They were also required to change their clothes once a week and take a bath every Saturday.
The meals were plain, yet adequate. The girls sat on one side of the dining room, the boys on the other. The school had strict table manners. If a student stained the tablecloth, he or she was removed from the table and the rest of the students at the table were forced to eat from an oil cloth, due to their irresponsibility in preventing the untidy accident.
Mary graduated in June, 1889, at the age of twenty-four. She was one of eight in her graduating class.
Pa built this house on Third Street in De Smet in 1887. The home is a museum and is open to the public.
After graduation Mary returned to De Smet to live with her parents. There she did housework, made clothes for Carrie and Grace, pieced quilts, netted hair nets and hammocks and continued her bead work. She wrote letters and poems in Braille using a grooved slate. Mary remained in De Smet, living with her parents and then her sister, Grace, and Grace's husband, Nate Dow. Mary died in 1928 while she was visiting her sister, Carrie, in Keystone, South Dakota.
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum