Ingalls Wilder's Family & Friends
for Homeschoolers & Teachers
House Crafts & Activities
from the Books
House on the Prairie Television Series
Walnut Grove, Minnesota
Burr Oak, Iowa
De Smet, South Dakota
Spring Valley, Minnesota
Malone, New York
Cuba, New York
Keystone, South Dakota
West Branch, Iowa
House in the Big Woods
Little House on
On the Banks of Plum
By the Shores of
Little Town on the
These Happy Golden
The First Four Years
West From Home
On the Way Home
House on the Prairie Television Series
to Walnut Grove
Vinton School for the Blind
Mary Ingalls Era 1877-1889
Mary Amelia Ingalls was born in Pepin County, Wisconsin, on January 10, 1865.
Her father was Charles Ingalls, a pioneer farmer, who later homesteaded
near DeSmet, Kingsberry County, South Dakota Territory. Mary had become
totally blind at the age of fourteen, due to what was then classified
as brain fever, a general term used to encompass a span of diseases. Some
speculate that it was actually scarlet fever that caused Mary's blindness.
On November 23, 1881, at the age of sixteen, Mary Ingalls was enrolled
at the Iowa College for the Blind.
After Mary became blind, younger Laura spent many hours reading aloud
to Mary and helping her memorize what was regarded as pertinent material.
Since there was no school for the blind in South Dakota, the decision
was made to send Mary to the school in Iowa, which was referred to them
by a traveling missionary. Making a living was a constant struggle for
the Ingalls family; money was scarce due to crop failures and illnesses.
Laura helped to provide the necessary tuition for Mary by basting shirts
for a total of twenty-five cents for a twelve-hour work day. An indication
of the prevalent adaptability of the family can be noted in the fact that
although blackbirds had devastated the family crops, Mary and her parents
ate fried blackbirds during their long train ride to Vinton. They were
determined to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to provide Mary
with the best type of education available.
Typically student arrived in Vinton by train and were met at the depot
by a horse-drawn bus. New students would enter the Main Building through
a back door which was near a comfortable, well- lighted sitting room used
by the Principal. Although steam heat had been installed, its frequent
ineffectiveness made the wood stove in that room a welcomed source of
heat for the new arrivals. After a conference with Mr. Carothers, new
students were frequently presented to Lorana Mattice, the highly competent
blind teacher whose warm, friendly manner soon put them at ease. Parents
were encouraged to stay with their newly enrolled child the first few
days, until the child began to get acquainted with the new surroundings.
The school made an impressive appearance to newcomers. The north and
south wings of the school with their long verandas, and the even longer
veranda across the back of the building, commanded an outstanding view.
A gravel path led from the stone gate to the front porch with its wooden
steps. A stone wall between two and three feet high fronted the east edge
of the campus. All of these, along with the curving cinder driveway and
the many trees and shrubs, helped create the distinctive image.
When Mary enrolled, the school curriculum consisted of twelve years.
Courses were divided into five general classifications and were identified
as follows: Primary - 2 years; Second Primary - 2 years; Intermediate
- 2 years; Junior - 3 years; and Senior - 3 years. In 1887, the categories
were restructured into the familiar numbered grades, first through twelfth,
with a separate for the irregulars [adult] students enrolled for only
industrial courses. During Mary's first year, the school population consisted
of ninety-four students, forty-two males and fifty-nine females. Ages
in the regular grades ranged from six to twenty-nine years, while those
enrolled for only the industrial classes ranged between twenty-two and
sixty-seven years of age.
Departmental offerings were extensive and included the following:
Spelling, arithmetic, grammar, history, geography, physiology, natural
and mental philosophy, algebra, rhetoric, chemistry, zoology, raised print,
New York Point, literature, civil government, political economics, plane
and solid geometry, and botany.
Vocal, harmony, piano, pipe organ, violin, guitar, flute, clarinet, and
Brooms, mattresses, hammocks, fly nets (for horses), cane seating, piano
tuning, carpet weaving, sewing, knitting, and bead work.
Examinations were consistently held on the last Friday of every month
and the last Friday of every quarter. Final exams, covering the entire
year, were conducted during the last week of school. Advancement into
the next grade was based upon the student achieving an average of 60%
or more in the class standing. If a student failed to achieve the 60%
standing after six years, they were considered a candidate for dismissal.
Absolutely no allowances were made for sickness or absences.
Mary's academic achievements were exceptionally high, and her performance
in music was considered above average.
Records indicate that Mary was absent during the 1887-1888 school year
due to illness or lack of funds; although this is not definitely known.
She was sick during the latter part of her twelfth grade year; her absence
the year before perhaps had a bearing on her difficulty with Math Review,
as suggested by her final year's grades. Students were also graded on
deportment (conduct), and Mary received 100%, the highest of anyone in
her class. School apparently came easily for her, due to her innate ability
and hunger for learning, as well as the positive attitude for education
that was a part of her family heritage.
The school day schedule that prevailed during Mary Ingall's years in
Vinton was structured through the use of bells. From the time of arising
to the time of retiring, bells would ring to signal the end of one period
and the beginning of the next. A typical schedule, reconstructed from
descriptions by Adelia Hoyt, probably resembled the following:
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
Interspersed throughout the day was time allotted to practice music.
Older students were expected to practice two hours daily, younger ones
one hour. Students were usually free to choose their own pastime during
the one hour preceding supper. After the chapel session at 7:00 p.m. students
were divided into groups based on age, and teachers would read aloud from
books that met with the administrator's approval. Studying and additional
music practice comprised the rest of the evening until the retiring bell.
All students were expected to be silent after 9:30 p.m. Teachers were
assigned to monitor the halls to maintain the silence. It was not always
maintained, however, for enthusiastic students often had whispering sessions,
delighting in the sharing of their daily activities, confidences and reactions
The high school subjects that Mary studied were on a college level, a
plan rigidly enforced by Mr. McCune, the head administrator. High scholastic
standards were accepted as matter-of-fact. Essay, poetry, and music contests
were given considerable emphasis, with students vying with one another
on a competitive level. A prize, available from the Retta Rath Foundation,
was frequently awarded to contest winners. Retta Rath, a student who died
at the school in 1880, had bequeathed $500.00 to be used at the discretion
of the college. The foundation formed provided the funds for the contest
with prizes of $12.00 and $8.00 for the first and second place essays
and $10.00 for the best musical rendition. Many students worked hard to
be among the prize winning group.
A variety of skills were taught in the industrial department. Broom making
was ranked first among the trades. But students were reminded that although
their skills might not provide an individual living, they would contribute
to a total family income. Piano tuning was just beginning to be introduced
as an industrial trade. Mr. McCune believed that with poor roads and limited
transportation, it was not yet an ideal trade even though "blind
persons may become experts, and exceptional ones may [even] become good
The industrial training that Mary was required to take included sewing,
beadwork, knitting and general work, probably hammock and fly net tying.
All girls had to spend one hour a day with the sewing teacher, usually
taking the class for six years. A reference by Mr. McCune stated that
the impatient teacher was out of place in such a class, because pupils
often spent six months just learning to thread a needle. Having completed
sewing, or failing to learn it, the girls were then required to spend
the hour in the fancy work division, such as knitting or beadwork. Mary's
fingers were quick to master new skills, and when she returned home after
her first year at I.C.B., her family was amazed at her beautiful beadwork.
There was no gymnasium during the 1880's. A part of the daily schedule
was for students to assemble in the Chapel for exercises after 4:00p.m.
The Chapel was located on the third floor of the north wing, excluding
the narrow "T" section that juts out from east to west. Under
the guidance of the head lady teacher, students did a variety of exercises
accompanied by music. Exercises were planned according to the students'
ages and included "Free Gymnastics", working with dumbbells,
rings and wands, and marching.
A favorite pastime was walking with a close friend or in a group. Countless
hours were spent walking up and down the halls, strolling on the expansive
verandas, ambling along the gravel front walk and around the cinder oval
drive behind the Main building. Only a minimal amount of outdoor play
equipment was available, mainly swings. Younger students spent many happy
hours in a long boat-shaped structure called a Rock-a-Way, usually located
on the west veranda. Boys and girls had limited or no association depending
upon their age and grade level. Play areas were either scheduled at different
times or at different places on the campus.
McCune was innovative for his time in regard to the socializing of boys
and girls. Under the previous administrator, boys and girls were strictly
controlled. Although they attended the same classes, they were required
to sit on opposite sides of the classroom, and all conversation was forbidden.
Such strictness often led to "clandestine meeting among the older
students." McCune, on the other hand, believed it to be more normal
for the two sexes to know each other and initiated coeducation as it was
"understood in schools for the sighted." Students were still
not permitted to associate during school hours but were allowed to become
acquainted and mix during holiday parties, committee and society work,
and on the playground, occasionally. McCune also encouraged dancing, an
activity done during a half-hour intermission of the Saturday evening
meeting of the Literary Society. It is doubtful whether the dancing was
of a one-to-one nature. More likely it was a type of folk or group dance
similar to square- or line-dancing. Those who showed no interest in dancing
spent their time visiting with one another. All social interaction, in
any event, was done under the close supervision of a dormitory officer
or teacher. Many deep friendships developed through the planned social
activities, some of which resulted in marriage after graduation. Mary,
however, did not choose to marry.
Fire drills were held periodically while Mary was in school. If everyone
managed to clear the building within three minutes after the fire alarm
sounded, Mr. McCune would reward the group by cancelling classes for the
remainder of the day, with his permission to seek whatever reasonable
amusement they preferred.
Most students' rooms were furnished with two beds with two students assigned
to each bed. The beds had "wire bottoms" (springs) with mattresses
stuffed with either wool or husks." Bed linen was usually changed
weekly. Older students were allowed to choose their bed partners. They
were also required to care for their living quarters with matrons assisting
whenever help and guidance were needed. All students were required to
change their clothes once a week and take a bath each Saturday. A half-hour
period was assigned to each individual for that purpose. Teachers supervised
and assisted with the bathing of younger children or even with any older
students who were careless in carrying out the bathing requirements.
Meals during the time Mary attended I.C.B. were plain, yet adequate.
A planned weekly menu was repeated quite consistently, which meant that
students could predict fairly accurately what would be served at a given
meal. Usually, Mr. McCune and always a housekeeper or matron were present
at every meal. The girls sat on one side of the dining room and the boys
on the other, with sixteen students to each table. Preceding each meal,
a blessing was said.
Records show that Mr. McCune placed strong emphasis on students developing
acceptable table manners. Each table group was responsible for keeping
their table neat and clean. Any student who stained the tablecloth was
immediately removed from the table; those remaining had to eat from an
oil clothe, due to their irresponsibility in preventing the untidy accident.
Greasy fingers were not tolerated. Each student was expected to use an
oblong shaped slice of bread to assist in locating food and preventing
spills from the plate. Older students were expected to furnish their own
table napkins, but the school supplied napkins for the younger children.
Records show that Mary Ingalls was never a behavior problem. Disciplinary
measures were frequently needed, however, for many students. Corporal
punishment was not permitted. One of the more common disciplinary measures
was to have the misbehaving student sit apart from the rest of the group,
either in the hall or in the library, although one teen-age boy was sent
home for using profanity.
Mary graduated, at the age of twenty- four, in June, 1889. She was one
of eight in her graduating class which consisted of five females and three
males. At the commencement exercises, she recited a Robert Burns essay
entitled "Bide a Wee and Dinna Weary." After graduation, Mary
spent most of her remaining life living in the family home in DeSmet,
South Dakota. Mary and her mother were highly active in the church, and
Mary taught Sunday School classes. After her father's death, she made
fly nets which helped supplement the family income. When her mother died
in 1924, Mary then lived for a brief time with her sister, Grace, whose
home was near DeSmet. Later, she went to live with her sister Carrie,
at Keystone, South Dakota. On October 20, 1928, at the age of sixty-three,
Mary died of pneumonia and was buried in the family plot near DeSmet.
She did not live long enough to know that her sister, Laura Ingalls Wilder,
would immortalize the family through her writing of the Little House books.
Gleanings from Our Past, A History of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving
School, Vinton Iowa, Pgs. 23-29. Published by The Iowa Braille & Sight
Saving School 1984. Copyright 1984 by Iowa Braille & Sight Saving