Current location:

You are here

Iowa Home for Sightless Women

Primary Tasks

    Secondary Tasks

      The Iowa Home for Sightless Women was established in 1915 after many years of fundraising efforts by alumni of the Iowa School of the Blind and by prominent women in Des Moines, including former first lady Mrs. Warren Garst, Mrs. Frank C. Waterbury, Mrs. Channey Artis, and Adelia Hoyt, who was blind. The home was to give blind women a way to make some money and provide them with a residence.  As noted in the article below, the home was to be an alternative to the poor houses where many blind women who had no family or sources of support would be forced to live.
      The article below was researched and written by Peggy Chong, an independent researcher.
      "Home for Sightless Women"
      By Peggy Chong
      The Home for Sightless Women opened in Des Moines Iowa, on September 1, 1915. But that is not the beginning of the story of the Home. For many years, blind men and women tried to establish a Home for the Blind in Iowa to live and become self-sufficient. Their hope was to build a home, run by the blind, where each could start their own business or have a place to bring in work for themselves in order to earn their own way and become self-sufficient.
      Through the Alumni organization, known as the Iowa Association of the Blind (IAB), from the College for the Blind in Vinton, (now known as the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School), they met with some success in the early 1890's. But, the state-run home quickly became a problem for the blind who lived there and for the state as well. The Industrial Home for the Blind in Knoxville, Iowa was run by sighted persons with a broom shop where most of the residents were only allowed to work for meager wages. The IHB was closed in only eight years. But, this did not stop those dedicated blind men and women from trying again.
      In 1904, the Iowa Association of the Blind filed a complaint with the State of Iowa hoping to prevent the buildings in Knoxville that had once belonged to the IHB from being changed into the Hospital for the Inebriates. They once again asked that the state build a home for the industrial pursuits of the blind of Iowa. They also asked that the $5,700 raised by the blind of the state and given to the State of Iowa for the home be returned to them. Their calls for support of the blind fell on deaf ears.
      In August of 1907, several blind people from the IAB filed incorporation papers with the Polk County Recorders office to form a new organization with only one purpose. The Home for Sightless Women Association was born in Des Moines. The group hired D. C. Newton to travel the state and to solicit funds from businesses and individuals across the state. Many of the blind men and women of the Association for the Blind also solicited the communities they were visiting as volunteers. Later, Phalla Hinckley, also blind, took to traveling across the state during several months of 1913, to raise the necessary funds for the home.
      As late as 1911, the Alumni Association tried again to ask the state legislature to appropriate money for a home for blind women to live and to work. The Iowa State legislature never appropriated any funds towards this effort that year or any other. At the beginning of the 20th century, very few nursing homes in Iowa allowed blind women in as they were felt to be too much work for the staff. If blind women did not have family to care for them, many ended up in poor houses where they received no assistance at all.
      This lack of concern by the state lawmakers caused the blind to begin raising money for another home for the blind on their own. The first contribution for the Home for Sightless Women was $10 made by Ella Eaton in 1907.
      In 1912, the Aid Society for the Home for Sightless Women was formed. It consisted of several of the blind women who were hoping to build the home as well as many of the prominent women of Des Moines. This group acted as an advisory board and major fundraising component to the Home for Sightless Women Association. The first was run by the prominent sighted women of the area and some of the blind people. The latter was run by the blind of Iowa. Its President for many years was L. E. Howard, a successful piano tuner and musician in Des Moines. Adelia Hoyt, member of both groups, blind herself, traveled in many of the university women circles and was able to draw in many of the city's prominent women to help build the committee and raise funds for the home. The two groups met together many times at various locations around the city including the Central State Bank.
      These sighted women would have garden and cocktail parties with their friends and raise money from their guests for the Home. Mrs. E. P. Woreaster lived at 2320 East 14th Street. She held a garden party for the Aid Society on August 8, 1912 that was most successful in its fundraising efforts. That same year, Mrs. Warren Garst who lived at 4001 West Grand Avenue did the same.  Being the wife of a former Iowa Governor, she had a lot of influence in Iowa to help her become one of the Aid Society's best fundraisers during the first few years. Mrs. Channey Artis, 1051 17th Street, Des Moines often opened her home to the Aid Society for meetings and functions. She served as a media spokesman for the Society in the newspapers across the city and state. Mrs. Frank C. Waterbury was the Treasurer. She lived at 51st and Ingersoll Avenue and had many of the contributions that came from across the state sent to her home. Mrs. Ralph Plumb, held a "ladies" luncheon at the Harris-Emery Tea Room in September of 1915. Only 12 guests were invited to the exclusive event. Other prominent women who made contributions of time and talent, as well as treasure, included; Mrs. J. D. Whisenand, Mrs. David H. Buxton, Mrs. Byron S. Henry, Mrs. C. E. Hunn and Mrs. George E. King
      The Aid Society for the Home for Sightless Women would meet separately, at the homes of the society women to plan activities, conduct business and educate new recruits. Many of the meetings were fundraisers in and of themselves.
      The Home for Sightless Women Association held its own fundraisers as well. Each year, for several years in the 1910's and 20's, the blind of the state would donate rugs, baskets, embroidery, knitting, aprons, towels and other goods made by the blind of the state. Many years, Eva A. Whitcomb would coordinate the efforts, gathering the goods and overseeing the sale. A week long fundraiser would be held in the Wilkins Brothers store, on the third floor. Each year, the store would donate the space and help promote the bazaar in the papers. Articles were placed in the newspaper asking for funds to be sent to Eva Whitcomb, 1202 28th Street.
      The ten room house that became the first Home for Sightless Women was purchased in January of 1914, at a cost of $6,200. It was located at 1424 30th Street, at 30th and Forrest Ave, near Drake University. The mortgage was paid off on March 1, 1914, but there was much more fundraising to be done to ensure that the Home could be self-sufficient. Applications for residency at the home were already coming in and the Aid Society redoubled its efforts to bring this project about.
      Just as the predicament of the blind was not important enough for the state lawmakers to act on the blind's requests for aid, the home was not newsworthy enough to have articles in the news areas of the paper.   Rather any reference to the Home for Sightless Women was in the Society section of the newspapers and highlighted the efforts of the society women and not the cause of the blind.
      One exception to this was when the neighbors of the Home for Sightless Women tried to prevent the opening of the home. Eighteen residents of the neighborhood of 30th and Forest went to the Des Moines City Council to protest the home. They said that such a home and the infirmed that would live there would lower their property value. The city council gave the matter to the City Law Department. No further action was recorded in the newspaper about the matter.
      The Home opened on September1, 1915. Nine women became residents of the home that day. Eva Whitcome, who had been working on the establishment of the home for over a decade, was named its superintendent. This became her home as well. The overall community was very generous to the new neighbors on the day of the opening. Guests brought gifts of food, flowers, dishes and items such as a sewing machine, electric vacuum cleaner, lawn mower and more.
      The neighbors by and large proved to be very supportive of the home. In October of 1918, the Rev. D. J. Bunce, who lived at 1511 30th Street, hosted a donations party at his home. Guests were asked to bring a gift for the Home. Food, clothing and household goods were gathered together at the Rev. Bunce's home. Then after refreshments, they all walked down to the Home for Sightless Women and presented the gifts the residents and staff.
      In the early years, those that wanted to enter the Home for Sightless women had to pay an entrance fee of $500. This entrance fee meant that a resident would have a lifetime home, medical care and burial costs covered.   The fee in no way covered all of the expenses of running the home. Private funds established and supported the operation of the Home for many years.
      In the first couple of decades of the Home's existence, it was the gathering place for many visits and meetings of the blind. Teachers from the school for the blind would come and stay for a few days or a few weeks, visiting their former students and attending meetings of the meetings of the blind of Iowa, held in Des Moines.
      In 1920, Eva still lived in the Home. She must have not received much of a salary for her title as she had to ask the Polk Co. Welfare board for financial support in May of 1916. Mrs. John Cisna was the matron.    Four other women were living in the house at that time: Miss Bessie Parker, Hennis Thies, Amanda Burnhart, and Mary Harter.   Bessie was the youngest "inmate" of the Home at the age of 32. Eva was 55 at the time. All the other women were in the 60's or 70's, making this more of an old persons’ home, not a place to help start ones career.
      By 1928, the home had established an endowment fund of $18,000 that helped to support the home. The Home itself also was receiving funds from the City of Des Moines Welfare board. The endowment fund was made up of generous contributions from such places as the estate of Mrs. Eliza Westbrook of Murray, who left $1,000 for the Home in her will in 1921. Of course, each year, the Iowa Association of the Blind contributed funds for the home.
      In 1928, the President of the board of the Home for Sightless women L. E. Howard, a blind piano tuner in Des Moines, told the press that the Home had many applications from women across the country that wanted entrance into the home. But the home could not accommodate many of the requests.
      The first recorded matron was Miss Ella Phillips from Davenport Iowa. She took the post in April of 1917, but only lasted about one year.  In 1918, Catherine Cisna became the matron at the Home for Sightless Women. She served in that position for 15 years until her death in April of 1933. Catherine was 70 at the time of her death. She had been an instructor at the College for the Blind in Vinton and was much loved by the women she taught. Catherine was blind and served as a role model for the women. One of the last matrons, in the mid 1960's, was Mrs. George Patterson.
      By 1934, the home had many more residents than it could accommodate. This may have been due to the tough economic times in the state. A much larger home at 2343 East 8th Street was rented from the Iowa Children's Home Society. The rent was negotiated at $1 a year as long as the Home for Sightless Women would care and keep up the property.
      In 1948, the home again moved to 1420 Pennsylvania Ave.    
      Many former teachers and students from the College for the Blind visited friends at the home over the many years.  The home was to be a place where blind women could live and also earn a living. Work was brought in for the blind women to keep them busy and to gain some skills in hopes that they would be able to get out into the job market.
      The Women's Clubs of Iowa helped to raise money for the Home for decades, by selling towels, table cloths and aprons that were made by blind people, many of them, residents of the Home for Sightless Women. The Iowa Commission for the Blind bought sewing machines for the Home for Sightless Women and showed some of the women how to use the machines. The Commission would bring the supplies over for the women to sew and then pick them up when the items were finished. Some of the women employed at this made good income, but no evidence indicates that a blind woman made enough to be self-sufficient. Clubs such as the Hawarden Woman's Club would sell the items made by the blind women at their bake sales and through their businesses each year.
      Other groups that would take on projects and visit at the home included many churches, the Telephone Pioneers, Lions Clubs and school groups. These groups also planned parties and social outings for the residents.
      During the 1960's the Roosevelt Girls Club Service Committee made the Home for Sightless Women a favorite project of theirs. Two Saturdays each month, members of the service committee would come to the Home and visit with the residents. The girls would read for the women, write letters for them, take the residents for walks and run errands. The Roosevelt Girls Club would also put on a party for the residents at the home, during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The girls would also plan a picnic in the spring for the residents.
      But by the beginning of the 1960's, the home had to address the declining enrollment issue. The home needed more money for repairs and such. They decided to allow men to enter the home in 1961. However, this was not enough. By 1967, the Home for Sightless Women was closed and the residents moved into Wesley Acres.  
      Over the years, many prominent Iowa citizens served on the board of directors for the Home for Sightless women. Some of them included, Ross Carroll, President of Des Moines Title co.
      Many of the residents lived at the home for decades. One such woman was Ella Christie. She became a resident of the Home for Sightless Women in 1926. She lived there until her death in October of 1957.  
      Within a decade or so of the Home's opening, the home dropped its high entrance fee. Most of the residents over the remaining years of the Home were not economically secure. They were the women that, had it not been for the home, would have had nowhere else to go and live in dignity.
      Some of the last residents of the home included; Margaret Warren, Rhea Mote, Ethel Dale, and Mary Hoffman.