1853 – Opening Doors For The Visually Impaired.

Our story actually begins on March 2, 1829 when the New England Asylum for the Blind was first established in Boston. Soon, other such schools became a priority throughout the east, and in 1837, the Ohio Institution for the Education of the Blind – now known as the Ohio State School for the Blind – opened in Columbus, becoming the first public school in the nation devoted to the education of the visually impaired.

Born on May 10, 1823 near Cortland, Ohio, Samuel Bacon lost his vision in a bout with scarlet fever at age 11. In 1838, Samuel became one of the first students at the Ohio State School for the Blind, and once there, he progressed rapidly. With the help of the teachers in Columbus, Bacon enrolled at Kenyon College in nearby Gambier, Ohio – attending from 1844 to 1846 – regularly walking the 50+ miles to and from campus!

At Kenyon, Samuel studied Greek, Latin, and French, becoming known as an excellent mathematician with an outstanding memory. In 1846, he returned to Columbus, where he taught briefly before leaving for Illinois in 1847. 

Determined to seek his fortune in the west, Bacon only made it as far as Galena, Illinois, where he heard of plans by the State of Illinois to open a new school for the blind. Moving to Jacksonville (west of Springfield), he founded the Illinois Institution for the Education of the Blind (1849), around the same time of his marriage to his wife, Sarah Graves. Bacon was head teacher in Jacksonville for one year before moving on, in 1850, to teach at the much larger School for the Blind in St. Louis.

While visiting friends in Keokuk in the summer of 1852, Samuel was approached by a group of citizens who had heard of his work in establishing the school for the blind in Illinois. It was their hope that Bacon would start a similar school in Keokuk. Encouraged by their enthusiasm, Samuel rented a house in the southeast part of town and began his school in September, 1852, with his first students: Mary Bushnell, John Stafford, William Adair, Mary Trimble and John Bonn. 

By December 1852, the word about Bacon’s success in Keokuk had spread to the state capital in Iowa City, and with the backing of several state legislators, including future Governor James Grimes, on January 18, 1853, the Legislature passed a bill establishing the state-sponsored Asylum for the Blind. Bacon was immediately named the school’s director, and after relocating to Iowa City in March, the school opened on Monday, April 4, 1853 – offering a free public education to all visually impaired Iowans across the state. Which now, brings us to our rare postal cover…

(JP-001) Mailed from Iowa City – most likely in February 1853, this rare postal cover is from the Board of Supervisors of the newly-formed Iowa Asylum for the Blind. It’s a recruiting circular – sent around the state of Iowa – inviting visually-impaired Iowans to come to Iowa City to receive a free public education. Interestingly enough, this cover is addressed to a small community – Lancaster – in Keokuk County – near Bacon’s first school in Keokuk.
According to school records, the Board of Trustees appointed Prof. Samuel Bacon as the Principal, T. J. McGittigen – Teacher of Music, and Mrs. Sarah K. Bacon (Samuel’s wife) – Matron, and twenty-three pupils were admitted during the first term. The school provided both an academic education on topics ranging from geography to music, and vocational and trades training in weaving, broom making, chair caning, needle & bead work.

In his first report, made in 1854, Bacon – wanting to avoid the impression that the school was a hospital or a poorhouse – insisted that the name be changed from Asylum for the Blind to that of Institution for the Instruction of the Blind. This was done in 1855, when the General Assembly made an annual appropriation for the College of $55 per quarter for each pupil. This was subsequently changed to $3,000 per annum, and a charge of $25 as an admission fee for each pupil, which sum, with the amounts realized from the sale of articles manufactured by the blind pupils, proved sufficient for the expenses of the school during Bacon’s administration.

As the institution gained prestige, interest in it increased significantly, so in 1856, with the attendance topping 50 students, the Governing Board requested more space. School officials and legislators looked into expansion, and Bacon wanted the school to remain in Iowa City, believing that the students needed to be a part of a larger community and that materials and services would be more easily obtained here.

Through the efforts of Captain Thomas Drummond, editor of the Vinton Eagle, the community of Vinton met the necessary requirements of land and money, so despite the objections of Professor Bacon, the commission met at Vinton in May, 1858, and selected a site – a gift of 55 acres of land donated by J.W.O. Webb of Vinton. A fighter for his students, Bacon often found himself in conflict with politicians, but apparently this decision to move the school out of Iowa City so angered him, he turned in his resignation – effective at the end of the 1861-62 school year. The new school site in Vinton (see pics above) remained the home of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School until 2011, and has now been replaced with more-localized education programs based in numerous locations throughout the state of Iowa. Read more here.

As for Samuel & Sarah Bacon and their three children – Mary, Henry & Charles, they moved on, eventually ending up in Nebraska City, Nebraska, where once again, the good professor met with the state legislature, convincing them of the need for a state-sponsored school for the blind. According to records, $10,000 in state money was raised, and Bacon, of course, became the school’s first superintendent (1875), making the institution, at the time, the western-most residential school for the blind in the country.

At age 54, Bacon retired (1877), spending the rest of his life on his farm outside Nebraska City. Amazingly, over his long career in education, Samuel Bacon founded three state-sponsored residential schools for the blind and visually impaired – Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska – and was, deservedly, named to the Hall of Fame for Legends and Leaders of the Blindness Field in 2021.

Samuel Bacon died – age 85 – in 1909, and is buried with his wife, Sarah K. Graves Bacon (1826-1893) – age 67 – at Wyuka Cemetery in Nebraska City, Nebraska.

Steve Gettel – Superintendent of Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired – says this about Professor Samuel Bacon and his work in Iowa…

Forward thinking in its vision and design, the academic, vocational and music curriculum (in Iowa City) supported Bacon’s belief that students should be educated, productive, well-rounded, have friends and hold their place in society. Today, more than 600 students across Iowa receive educational services because of Samuel Bacon’s confidence in a mission. His words are paraphrased in our mission statement today when we say: Our purpose, our mission is to enable Iowa students who are blind (and) visually impaired to function as independently as possible in all aspects of life.

Sally Schreiner – Administrator of the Nebraska Center for the Education of Children who are Blind or Visually Impaired – said this…

Bacon’s motto was: Not just a living, but a life – meaning you go beyond academics and you help students, who are blind, to create the life they have ahead of them when they are done with school. That has stuck all these years.

Here’s a tip of the old hat to Professor Samuel Bacon – for his amazing contribution to Iowa City and our entire state.

Click here to access our list of stories of those who have made a difference in this call for Unity Through Diversity…

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Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Ohio Institution for Education of the Blind, HMdb.org

Timeline – Advocacy – The History of Blindness in Iowa

Education: Iowa Braille School- Vinton – Founding of the School, The History of Blindness in Iowa

Samuel Bacon, Hall of Fame – Leaders and Legends of the Blindness Field

Iowa Braille History, IBSSShistory.com

The Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School (IBSSS), Benton County IAGenWeb Project

Iowa College For The Blind, Vinton, Benton County, IAGenWeb Project

Hall of Fame status for man who founded first Iowa school for the blind in 1852, O. Kay Henderson, Radio Iowa, December 23, 2021

Prof. Bacon Is Summoned Hence, Iowa City Daily Press, February 15th, 1909, p 4

Blind School Makes Its Mark On Nebraska History, Dan Swanson, December 13, 2018, SandhillsExpress.com

Sarah Kemper Graves Bacon, Find-A-Grave

Samuel Bacon, Find-A-Grave

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