by Peggy Chong
From the Editor: Peggy Chong is addicted to history and loves to share her addiction. What she makes clear is that not only have there been big personalities in history who were blind, but many a man and woman made comfortable places for themselves and others through doing the average job in the average place of business, though it may be with some very different techniques. Blind business owners did not start with the creation of the Randolph-Sheppard program, though it has helped many to become successful entrepreneurs. Here’s what Peggy has to say about Allen, a man who provided not only for himself but took on the role of the manly provider for his mother, wife, and nieces.
Allen J. Hurlburt was born in 1852, in Clarion County, Pennsylvania. He had limited vision from a young age. His family thought little about it, not having finances to see a doctor. Little Allen behaved the same as his twin and older siblings by completing chores, climbing trees, and getting into trouble. His family expected Allen to behave as a normal child, and he did.
As a small boy, when he heard a mechanical sound, he had to touch it and know how it worked. He was inquisitive and encouraged to do so by family and friends. When an adult was repairing a piece of equipment, little Allen was there to “help.”
In his teens he found a discarded mouse-infested clock. Allen took it home, cleaned it up, and took it apart. He studied how the insides worked. He adjusted, repaired, replaced parts, and also repaired the exterior woodwork. When he got the clock back together, it ran perfectly for decades.
At nineteen Allen was sent to the Pennsylvania Institution for the Blind in Pittsburgh to learn a trade as a blind man. Already skilled in the mechanical arts, he needed to concentrate on the musical parts of piano tuning and his blindness skills. He learned to type on a print typewriter and to read and write in Braille. These skills were important for correspondence with customers and to keep his own financial records.
In two years, Allen was sent out into the city of Philadelphia to tune pianos at first under the school’s tutelage. When he built up a reputation and his own client base, he went out on his own.
His repair shop, where he fixed clocks, sewing machines and anything else mechanical a customer brought to him, was the headquarters for his piano tuning business. Soon tuning became the lesser of his income as the area was flooded with blind and sighted piano tuners.
In 1880, his father passed away in Muscatine, Iowa, where the majority of his family had moved years before. Allen moved to Muscatine to care for his mother. When he arrived, he found a niece also in need of a home. Quickly, Allen set out to establish a new business in Muscatine. Much of his days were spent traveling the town and meeting potential businessmen. Many said Allen was the first young blind person seeking to do business there. The first several months were difficult for him. Everyone was nice but did not give him any work because they had no faith in the blind man. He tried the music stores, offering to tune and repair their musical instruments. His offers of services as a carpenter and clock repairman were gently refused.
Then one day things began to change, and Allen tells how he began to build his reputation in these words: “A dealer, who had refused to give me his work before, sent word that he wished to see me at his store, and of course, I lost no time in making the trip. When I entered, he said, “I just must have some tuning done; what price will you make me?” I said, “Let me tune a piano first, and we will talk price afterward.” To this, he readily agreed, but said “If agreeable to you, I would like to watch the job.” I said that nothing would suit me better. So, he watched for a time but soon went forward to his work. When I was through and he had tried the instrument out, he asked what kind of a bargain we could agree upon. He knew everyone in the city who had a piano, so it was finally agreed that he should get the work, and I would do it on a fifty-fifty basis.”
News spread quickly of Allen’s ability. The owner of the second music store approached Allen and asked if he would work for him as well. There were only two music stores in town that sold and repaired pianos. Having no exclusivity agreement with the first man, Allen agreed. For the next twenty-two years, Allen worked for the second man at a much better percentage.
Being a carpenter, a mechanic, and a tuner, he offered the full range of tuning services. He outlined in a letter his skills and abilities as a tuner thus:
“Having gone into the business to win, I made my repair department to include the complete re-stringing, pinning, hammering, and felting of both square and upright pianos including all sorts of case, bridge, and sound board repairs and the remodeling of old actions. In one instance, I replaced an entire set of ivories and sharps. This, by the way, was on a Steinway piano, and all have given excellent satisfaction. I have mentioned this chiefly for the benefit of my tuner friends who I trust will at least find it interesting reading.”
Allen did not travel with a cane or a dog guide. He walked to his jobs, to church, and ran his errands by himself. Before there were many automobiles in Muscatine, Allen was seen riding a bicycle around the town. He used sound cues and the ruts in the streets to guide him and his bike.
On April 8, 1885, Allen married Ellen M. Fintel. They had five children. Allen bought a small home at 312 East Eighth Street for his wife and growing family. His mother and nieces lived with them, sometimes for years. In 1900 he built a 1,600+ square foot home on the same lot. Still standing in 2010, it was a large two-story home that accommodated Allen’s family, mother, and other relatives who came to live with them.
The corner lot and the space in the back to have a home workshop made it ideal. His workshop included many tools and machines. Some he bought, but many he made for himself, adapting them to best suit his needs as a blind woodworker. Allen adapted a skill saw that he felt held as much practical service to the sighted as the blind. He shopped this and many of his inventions around to the factories in the area. Each said the inventions were very good and maybe even better than what they had, but they did not purchase any or offer to make and assist him in selling them.
Other inventions included a sustaining pedal that he replaced on some of the piano’s he repaired. He put a backspace key on his typewriter. Around the house were examples of the many improvements made by Allen. His only regret was that he did not have the time and money to put into his inventions to make them pay off.
In his seventies he worked less as a piano tuner. He spent more and more time in his workshop at home. The couple had taken on the raising of two of their grandchildren after their mother Edna, his youngest daughter, had passed away. So retirement was not an option. Repairs of small mechanical equipment brought in money, but his tinkering and invention on a steady basis in his home workshop took away much of the profits.
Looking back at his life, he credits his self-confidence that helped him to build his own business. He thanked his parents for allowing him to explore, take chances, and fail. On his death in March of 1928, Allen had twenty-five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His son, Paul and grandson Allen L. became woodworkers/carpenters, influenced by Allen. Thus concluded a normal and perhaps an extraordinary life, one in which blindness played a part but definitely was not the characteristic that defined Allen or those who depended upon him.
Editor’s Note: Peggy writes: If you would like to schedule a presentation contact me at [email protected].
You can read more of my books at https://www.smashwords.com.