by Peggy Chong
From the Editor: Peggy Chong is an amateur historian who loves digging through boxes of old records and bringing to life the men and women whose challenges and accomplishments have shaped and built the society we have inherited. What you will read here has involved countless hours of study, thought, and perseverance, and I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed editing it. Here is a bit of Peggy’s story, but, more important, here are the stories of countless men and women who have helped create the opportunities we have today.
I became involved with the National Federation of the Blind in Minnesota at the age of fourteen. I was young and naive and felt that I could change the world. By the time I reached thirty I felt that changing even my own family's views on blindness was an impossible task. About this time the NFB of Minnesota's offices were being remodeled, and we needed to clean house and rid ourselves of some of the old stuff. I was put in charge of this project. I went through old files and boxes, tossing old records and such, but occasionally I stopped to read a few items. Some of these I found myself reluctant to discard and returned them to the files.
When the NFB of Minnesota was beginning to think of what to do to celebrate the organization's seventy-fifth anniversary in 1995, I thought I would go through the records again and write a few articles about our long and uninterrupted history as an organization of and for the blind. Over a three-and-a-half year period many of the blind leaders from the past, who died long before I was born, came to life for me through our records. They gave me a different perspective on my views of blindness and the impact of the organized blind. These men and women, through what they left behind, showed me what a difference they had made in my life. With much less than we have today, they lived lives that created so much for me, for my fellow Minnesotans, and, in fact, for all blind Americans.
They had no financial assistance from the government, they had little education, they did not have white canes or dogs when they traveled by themselves. Yet some of Minnesota's blind men and women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lived successful lives by any reasonable standard.
Since my courtship with those original records, I have made it my special project to educate blind people about our rich history so that we can learn and continue to build on the successes of earlier generations. Because of the founders of the NFB of Minnesota, I have gained a new outlook and have found new energy to work on issues affecting the blind of our country. As the seventy-fifth anniversary of the National Federation of the Blind approaches, I stop to remember how far we have come and reverently remember those who helped to start the organization we love and value today. I also offer to them a silent prayer of thanks, for I know they have made possible some of the wonderful opportunities I enjoy and all too often take for granted.
One of the seven organizations that made up the newly-formed National Federation of the Blind in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in November of 1940 was the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind, MSOB. Each of the representatives at that meeting was there by design, since each established organization represented there had already made a difference in their home state.
Minnesota had already established itself as a hard-working organization of the blind, with much progress to show on behalf of people in its state. The Minnesota State Organization of the Blind was born in December, 1919, with several blind businessmen who met in the back of Charles T. Gleason's music store. By 1940 the MSOB had built a home and center where blind people could live by themselves without restrictions. They had passed welfare laws securing a minimal income for the blind in the state. The MSOB was responsible for legislation that established the state agency for the blind and statewide home teaching services. White cane ordinances had already been passed in many communities, recognizing the right of blind people to travel freely in the places where they lived.
The blind men and women in 1920 who created the MSOB were piano tuners, weavers, and salesmen. They reached out to the many small groups of the blind across the state, asking that they join in making life better for the blind statewide. Unfortunately none of these small groups wanted to band together to work on issues outside their social club or small communities. Most of these groups were led by sighted people, but the MSOB resolved that it was going to be led by the blind themselves.
Unlike many other states, by 1920 Minnesota had already elected a blind man, Thomas Schall, to the US House of Representatives and would later elect him to the US Senate. Senator Schall was the first blind person in the state to use a dog as a travel tool. Blind children such as Evangeline Larson were being taught in the St. Paul public school system. The state legislature had already set money aside for scholarship funds for blind college students if they studied law or music. Public libraries in three of the larger cities had Braille collections. Adult rehabilitation classes for older blind people started in 1907 and were being taught during the summer at the school for the blind in Faribault. Those classes often had thirty-five students, both men and women, attending. Many of those who took the lead in the MSOB in the beginning were graduates from the school for the blind, either as young people just starting out or from the summer adult programs.
But much still needed to be done. Limited yet progressive efforts for the blind were happening in Hennepin, Ramsey, and St. Louis counties, but nothing was coordinated or consistent, nor did these efforts spread from city to city or county to county. Many communities had rules that forbade a blind person from living or traveling alone. If they could rent an apartment, it had to be on the first floor of a building. Banks would not give a home or business loan to a blind person, since bankers assumed that a blind person would be unable to succeed at business and pay it back. Land and building owners would not rent business space to a blind person, the purported concern being they might burn down the building through their ineptitude. Employers felt they had no jobs that a blind person could do for a regular wage. Interestingly, however, they would hire blind people to canvas neighborhoods and businesses, walking by themselves, carrying and selling their pre-paid products on commission.
Families who had blind people were held financially responsible for them. Those blind people whose families could not or would not help support them found themselves cut off from family and friends and placed in county poor farms, where they were often the victims of many crimes and scams. In many ways adult blind men and women at the beginning of the twentieth century had fewer rights than a sighted child in the family.
With so much to do to improve living conditions for the blind, the MSOB created a long-term strategic plan. Their first priority was to build the Industrial Home and Center for the Blind. Their second was to introduce and support legislation that would improve the lives of blind people in their own and future generations. Their third priority was to establish a loan program for blind people who wanted to start their own businesses.
The Industrial Home for the Blind was opened in 1929. It provided affordable living space and a workshop for blind people in the metro area. It was located at 1605 Eustis Street in St. Paul. The sound fiscal management of the property and organization allowed it to announce to its members in 1935 that it was debt free. The addition of a building to provide more living space, an auditorium, and more was completed in 1949.
The Building Committee was established at the first meeting of the MSOB and began its work immediately. At the 1920 Minnesota State Fair the MSOB members distributed fliers explaining the organization and the need for a place where blind people could live and work. The fliers asked for financial support to start the fund to purchase land and build the Industrial Home and Center for the Blind.
In 1920 Frank Hall, the first chairman of the Welfare Committee, began a nationwide investigation of legislation affecting the blind. His committee also contacted the blind of every state where statutes had been passed, to discuss how well the laws served their needs. Were these laws practical and effective, or did they limit the options of those they were meant to serve? Learning from others, they adopted a statewide legislative strategy that they hoped would advance the cause of the blind without repeating the mistakes that had been made in other states.
As mentioned earlier, a loan committee was quickly established with funds being provided by blind members of the organization. Money was given to Frank Jordan, who established his rug and mat-making business. Frank hired many blind people. William Schmidt also received money from the organization to start a business. The contract did not specify a monthly amount to be paid but obligated him to pay a percentage of his gross sales. His idea to put vending machines in more than office buildings was such a success that he contributed many times the amount loaned to him by the organization.
When we look at the people who made up the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind, it is easy to see why they were eager to build a national organization of the blind and how much they contributed to it. Here are some brief snapshots of the pioneers from Minnesota who helped build the organization we have today:
Charles Gleason (1866-1932), known as C. T. Gleason, was a blind chiropractor, piano tuner, and business owner. C. T. lost his wife of eleven years in 1919 and was forced to give up custody of his children to his in-laws. He became the organization's first vice president at the first convention of the MSOB on May 27, 1920. Piano tuning was a very profitable profession for him. Around 1914 C. T. got a contract with the school for the blind in Faribault to work with its graduates and adults who became blind later in life. His job was to train them to be successful piano tuners. Gleason, a successful blind piano tuner himself, had established a successful enough business to have his own store on University Avenue in the Midway area of the city. He was so well known in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that, when people learned of a person who had gone blind, they would reach out to Mr. Gleason to help the newly blinded person. His contacts with students from Faribault gave him a unique look at the plight of the blind across the state. Charles felt that the blind themselves were much more likely to address the real issues of blindness than the well-meaning sighted people leading the mutual aid societies and service- providing agencies across the state.
By 1919 he had found many other successful blind businessmen who felt as he did. They, too, had experienced the discrimination and stigmas facing the blind of Minnesota. He proposed an organization of the blind, providing it office space and all of his contacts for the first decade of its existence, laying the foundation for the MSOB.
Frank Finsterbach (1854-1937) was the first president of the MSOB. A father of three children, none of whom made it past their seventh birthday, he and his wife Anna had the necessary time to devote to the new organization. He was the driving force behind the building of the Industrial Center and was central to making it a residence as well.
Blind from his early childhood, in 1880 Frank was teaching music at a school in Red Wing. He married Anna Smith, an artist with her own shop on Portland Avenue in Minneapolis. After they married, the couple moved to Minneapolis, and by 1886 he began teaching music from their home. Frank was an accomplished musician and would play organ or piano for private parties and in eateries around town. Frank was also a published poet.
Besides his interest in building the Industrial Home, Frank worked hard on a national effort to bring the Robins bill to a vote. If passed, it would set up a bureau to oversee vending stands and snack bars for blind people.
Carl A. Ianora (1886-1943) was an immigrant from Italy. He earned money as a musician. In the mid-1920s he got a job as a door-to-door envelope salesman for the Northern States Envelope Company. Carl was at the first meetings of the MSOB. He and his wife Mary had an apartment at the Piedmont in St. Paul for many years. Not only did he sell envelopes, but he also tuned pianos on the side. While Carl was not prominent as an organizational leader, his involvement is evidenced by his service on many committees and by the investment of his own money nurturing the fledgling organization.
Frank Hall (1888-1971) was elected to the MSOB board of directors in 1920. He too was a successful piano tuner. After marrying in 1913, he was able to buy a home on Xerxes Avenue South in Minneapolis, where they raised their three children—quite an accomplishment at that time. He led a protest at the State Capitol in 1939, where over sixty blind people waved placards protesting the cut in welfare payments to the needy blind of the state, a young program that the MSOB helped to start. He had a comfortable life and could have stayed at home raising his family, but he and his sighted wife both knew that their success was not based on Frank's efforts alone. They felt that it was their duty not only to be an inspiration to other blind people, but also to use his position to educate the public and the social workers about the abilities of the blind when given an opportunity. At the 1940 founding meeting of the National Federation of the Blind, Frank was the delegate from the MSOB.
Otto Gray (1868-1950) was born in Germany and blinded later in life. He became a broom salesman in Minneapolis and was another of the founding members of the MSOB in 1919. He and his wife Mary owned a modest home on Blaisdell Avenue in Minneapolis. He was president of the MSOB in the 1930s and held other offices in the organization over the decades. In 1935 he had the new Talking Books and the record player demonstrated to the state convention and at several meetings of the MSOB. He felt the members should know about this new way of reading but felt strongly that it was just a fad and would die off soon.
Torger Lien (1899-1988) graduated from the school for the blind in 1917. He and his brother Peder, although not members until the late 1920s, held offices and served on many committees in the MSOB. After high school Torger went to the Twin Cities and worked as a peddler or salesman for many years. After his years of selling and traveling independently, Torger went back to the school for the blind during the 1930s and taught the students how to travel independently. As an independent traveler he served as a positive role model for the students. Torger, who had been traveling with a cane before there were professional travel teachers, instructed students in the art of crossing the street with the cane down on the ground, while the professionals were telling their blind clients that they should hold the cane straight out in front of them to let drivers know they were blind. Torger had no certification, but he was one of the first blind people to teach travel to blind students, a concept some still find controversial today. One of Torger's favorite pastimes was the identification of birds, and he taught many blind children how to listen and identify the calls of the many birds that live in Minnesota.
Walter E. Maine (1892-1956) had been adopted by a distant family member as a very small child. He was educated at the school for the blind and began his piano-tuning days under the tutelage of C. T. Gleason at his piano store. Walter was at the first meeting to form the MSOB. He went on to be elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind in 1950, but from 1941 on he was active on the national level, attending almost every national convention, bringing back information and new ideas to better the blind in Minnesota. Walter Maine was traveling alone by bus to San Francisco, California, in June of 1956 on his way to the national convention when he became ill. He made it only as far as Salt Lake City, Utah, where he was hospitalized and died ten days later.
Lillian Frendin (1892-1954) was the daughter of Swedish immigrants who divorced when she was a baby. Her mother, who was a hairdresser, made a comfortable living for the family that included Lillian's grandmother. By the time she was in her early twenties, Lillian's mother and grandmother had passed away, and Lillian was on her own. She worked as a masseuse for over thirty years. At the time of her death she left over $2,000 to the MSOB. She was the first woman elected to the board of directors in 1924 and was president from 1928 to 1930.
In other states white canes were being used to allow blind people to travel on the streets without sighted guides. In 1926 Lillian brought one of these canes to the board of directors. They were all so impressed with the device and technique that she spearheaded the crafting of language to create the white cane ordinances in Minnesota. She promoted the use of the much-longer white cane (extending to the sternum) among the members of the MSOB. Travel was important to Lillian. For years she would gather groups of blind members and travel on the busses and trains to many communities across Minnesota to raise funds and promote the organization. When a bill was introduced nationally that would allow a blind person to travel with the assistance of a sighted person for the cost of one fare, she spoke out against supporting such a bill, since she felt that this would lead to blind people being refused travel if they did not have a sighted person accompanying them. Whatever short-term financial benefit there might have been to this well-intentioned legislation, her concerns were proven correct. Future generations would find themselves fighting for the right to ride by themselves, with bus drivers and station attendants declaring they must be accompanied by a sighted person.
Theodore Hohs (1887-1956) grew up in Minnesota. By age seventeen he was out on his own, working as a machinist. In 1905 he was a barber. He married Clara Hagel and the couple started housekeeping and had a daughter in 1914. Not long after Theo became blind, he lost his business, his home, and his wife. He reached out to C. T. Gleason, who helped him transition from the sighted world to the blind world. Theo moved just down the street from the Gleason music store and began work as a door-to-door salesman for any place that would give him the opportunity. He was one of the founding members of the MSOB who wanted to improve the opportunities for those blinded later in life. Sadly, he was never able to recover financially after becoming blind, and was barely able to support himself on his own. He worked through the 1940s as a canvasser or salesman, selling brooms and other items made by the workshop at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. He also sold products made by the blind at the Industrial Home for the Blind. This made him enough money to afford to rent a room in someone's home.
Edwin Anderson (1902-1951) was an older graduate from the school for the blind in Faribault, who owned and operated a furniture repair shop in his hometown of Alexandria, Minnesota. This was a skill he learned while attending the school. Edwin was not an official leader in the MSOB per se, but frequently when blind people came to the MSOB saying they didn’t know how to handle keeping accounts, they were sent to work with Edwin at his store.
Eleanor Bentzine Harrison (1897-1984) served on the national board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind from 1955 to 1959. Born blind and educated at the school for the blind in Wisconsin, she was the wife of MSOB founding member Paul Harrison (1892-1982), a successful piano tuner.
Paul and Eleanor lived a comfortable life, owning their own home on Washburn Avenue South in Minneapolis. They could have been content to sit back and enjoy their success, yet for more than four decades, they served on committees, held many offices, and did the work that needed to be done in the organization. The couple retired to Wisconsin.
Christopher Easton (1878-1958) was born in Persia to a New York missionary and graduated from Princeton College with honors and a degree in sociology. He was a sighted man with drive. He was employed as the director of the New York Metropolitan Hospital’s Tuberculosis Infirmary on Blackwell's Island. He was well known and successful in his field, honored for his research and the programs he introduced for the containment and elimination of tuberculosis in the United States. He was the superintendent at Randall's Island Sanitarium in Pittsburgh and then became the director of tuberculosis education work in Minnesota by 1908, overseeing its growth and influence.
Christopher was appointed to the Federal Board of Vocational Rehabilitation. He had offices at the state capitol in order to have close contact and influence with lawmakers who would determine the funding priorities and legislation for those afflicted with TB. In 1927 Christopher lost his sight and some of his hearing in an accident. Almost immediately he lost his job, his prestige, and his usefulness in the eyes of his friends, employers, and those colleagues he had worked with over the past thirty years. Now he found himself treated like the tuberculosis patients he had once served. This was a major change in his life. His wife, a nurse, was now the breadwinner for him and their two children.
Christopher joined the MSOB soon after the onset of blindness and was elected to the board of directors. He brought his expertise in public health laws and policies to the organization. For several years he wrote letters for the organization to state officials and participated in state conventions, helping to direct the resolutions of the organization and the crafting of language in its legislative proposals. He secured the privilege of using Free Matter for the Blind when shipping materials in Braille, and this was a tremendous benefit for the MSOB and its home for the blind.
He was appointed to the Washington County Welfare Board in the summer of 1937 as a representative of the MSOB. When the Minnesota welfare legislation was declared invalid by Social Security in 1938, Chris, as part of the legislative committee that worked hard on the welfare legislation, took it personally. He wrote lengthy letters that were printed in the Minnesota Bulletin of the MSOB to defend the work that had been done by the legislative committee.
These are some of the historic figures who have provided me with a model for how to live my life and who have given me inspiration. I write this to show my gratitude and to say a word of thanks to these and so many others who brought wisdom, energy, talent, and foresight in forming the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind.
Making a charitable gift can be one of the most satisfying experiences in life. Each year millions of people contribute their time, talent, and treasure to charitable organizations. When you plan for a gift to the National Federation of the Blind, you are not just making a donation; you are leaving a legacy that insures a future for blind people throughout the country. Special giving programs are available through the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).
Points to Consider When Making a Gift to the National Federation of the Blind
Benefits of Making a Gift to the NFB
Your Gift Will Help Us
Your gift makes you a part of the NFB dream!