"The last thing Mary ever saw was the bright blue of Grace's eyes as Grace stood holding to her chair, looking up at here. After that, Mary was blind."
Laura Ingalls Wilder, unpublished memoirs
Mary Ingalls, Laura's older sister, lost her sight from an illness that seemed to involve scarlet fever, meningitis (a brain infection), and a stroke. Mary's blindness was a tragedy for the entire family, not only ending Mary's hopes for the life she had imagined, but giving her parents a burden of sorrow for those same dashed dreams for their daughter.
There's little doubt Mary's blindness, and the injunction to Laura from her parents to "see" out loud for Mary, helped hone Laura into the writer she became. Also the work and sacrifices made by the entire family on Mary's behalf helped shape Laura into the person she became. She, clearly, felt a burden of guilt for having the bright future and options for her life that had been snatched from Mary. On Mary's part, the vistas and horizons of the western prairies Laura described were seen only in her mind as her world became limited to sitting quietly in her rocking chair, hesitant to even move freely about their little houses.
Hope for Mary came to them when they heard about a college for the blind in Vinton, Iowa. From then their goal became sending Mary to that college to get the education that otherwise would be impossible for her.
If Charles and Caroline Ingalls sound pleased in the scene where Laura describes their return from Vinton after leaving Mary there, it's no surprise upon seeing the school and the town. It is lovely and peaceful. The school is on attractive grounds on quiet side streets. The town, itself, being off major highways and interstates, retains much of the charm and atmosphere it would have had when Mary was there. Pa and Ma Ingalls must have been relieved and gratified to see this fine location and school where they'd be leaving their daughter.
Mary Ingalls attended the school for eight years, until age 24. According to biographer William Anderson, she spent at least one year at home during her education, possibly because of ill health. He also reports she spent considerable time in the school's infirmary. Mary suffered her entire life from the after-effects of the illness that took her sight. At one point, years later, her father took her to St. Paul for surgery on the nerves in her face which caused her severe pains of neuralgia.
At the school in Vinton, Mary studied across a wide range of subjects, getting a good education in the classic areas of study--mathematics, English, history, etc .--but also in areas that made life without sight easier. Laura noted that Mary moved about the house more confidently and easily after attending the school. Mary also made life-long friendships at the school which kept her in contact with a wider world after she returned to De Smet and her parent's home.
We traveled to Vinton, Iowa September 9, 2010 returning to our home in Minnesota from a trip east. The Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School is still in operation in the pleasant town of Vinton. The buildings in which Mary Ingalls took her classes are still being used. Founded in 1852, the school's future is only now in doubt, with discussions taking place as to whether to discontinue the school or not.
Vinton, Iowa is not difficult to reach if you are passing through that part of the state. The highways are good and Vinton is not far off an excellent 4-lane highway, I-380.