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Helen Keller’s birthplace

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A pilgrimage of wonder and respect

By Marilyn Jones

A modest white clapboard house on the edge of Tuscumbia was home to Captain Arthur H. Keller, his wife Kate Adams and their toddler, Helen, who was born June 27, 1880. Their lives were happy and idyllic until, at the age of 19 months, Helen was stricken with a severe illness that left her blind and deaf.

At the age of six, Helen Keller was a hard to control, angry child when her parents decided to take her to see Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. Because of this visit, Helen was united with teacher Anne Mansfield Sullivan on March 3, 1887.

If you have seen the play or movie “The Miracle Worker” by William Gibson or read Keller’s autobiography, you know that at the water pump in back of this house, Anne steadily pumped cool water into one of Helen’s hands while repeatedly tapping out an alphabet code of five letters in the other, over and over again.

Suddenly Helen understood: “W-a-t-e-r” meant the cool something flowing over her hand. By nightfall, she had learned 30 words; within six months she knew 625.

Visiting Ivy Green

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Entering the home where Captain and Mrs. Keller, Helen, Anne, and the couple’s other children lived looks as if any one of them could be found sitting around the dining room table or resting by one of the fireplaces.

Built in 1820, only one year after Alabama became the 22nd State of the Union, the main house is of Virginia cottage construction. There are four large rooms on the first floor divided by a hallway and three rooms upstairs.

A half dozen visitors are welcomed this day by docent Mary Eubanks who tells the story of a little girl lost in darkness, who was rescued by the determination and creativity of her teacher and by her own intelligence and willingness to engage with the world.

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Eubanks points to family furnishings and decorative accents, photographs and other treasured mementoes as she leads the group along the hallway past the parlor, dining room, master bedroom and into a room now used as a museum. Guests are invited to go upstairs to the boy’s room, a trunk room, and Helen and Anne’s bedroom.

After a brief self-guided tour of the second floor and museum, guests exit through a small gift shop into the back yard. Here is the famous water pump where Helen learned her first word, setting her on a path of higher education and fame.

Also on the tour is the kitchen building and the cottage where Helen was born. Later Anne used the cottage as a school for Helen.

The Shoals Master Gardeners designed, built and maintain the flower beds on the grounds. According to Betty Balch and her husband Dennis, who often work in the garden, the flowers and shrubs chosen were mentioned in Helen’s writings about her childhood home.

Helen’s Life

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By the age of 10, Helen had mastered Braille as well as the manual alphabet and how to use a typewriter. At age 16, she could speak well enough to go to preparatory school and eventually to college. In 1904 she graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College. Anne stayed with her through those years, interpreting lectures and class discussions to her.

Helen dedicated her life to improving the conditions of blind and the deaf-blind all over the world and brought hope to millions of people.

She died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, just a few weeks before her 88th birthday. During her remarkable life, Keller stood as a powerful example of how determination, hard work and imagination can allow an individual to triumph over adversity. She was a respected and world-renowned activist who labored for the betterment of others.

If you go:

Since 1954, when Helen Keller’s birthplace was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has been a shrine to the “miracle” that occurred in a blind and deaf seven-year old girl’s life and a place of homage to this remarkable woman.

A production of “The Miracle Worker” is performed on the grounds of Ivy Green Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m. from June 5 through July 11. It chronicles the lives of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.

Ivy Green is located at 300 North Commons Street West in Tuscumbia. Tours are offered Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and December 24, 25 and 26. Admission is charged.

For more information call (256) 383-4066 or www.helenkellerbirthplace.org.