Hidden History: Deaf education helps early settlers cope with silence on the prairie – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Hidden History: Deaf education helps early settlers cope with silence on the prairie

Photo of the printing class from History of the Kansas Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, 1893.

Perry Barnes and his wife Lizzie, like others anxious to take advantage of the newly opened Sac and Fox reservation lands, moved to Osage County in 1866. However, Perry and Lizzie were unlike other settlers – they were both deaf and non-speaking.

Perry and Lizzie settled south of Osage City. While they were different than other settlers, Perry and Lizzie were also not like many other deaf individuals at that time. Both had been educated at schools for the deaf, and Perry had even taught at one. Because he was given a chance at education, Perry became an avid reader and also a successful farmer and stockman.

Even though Perry and Lizzie left Osage County by 1870, evidence of his time here remains, the name of the creek adjoining their property became known as Mute Creek.

Educational possibilities for the deaf in Kansas started with the Kansas Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in 1861, which was only a small house school in Baldwin City at that time. While the founders desired to impact area deaf children, it was quite some time before their services would be made more widely available. And so, the deaf of the Kansas interior at the time were left adrift in society and few had the knowledge of how to best meet their needs.

In some cases, deaf individuals were cared for at the county poor farm or floated about. One young Burlingame boy was reported in 1883 to have been given a bottle of whiskey and a cigar as he wandered the neighborhoods.

National Deaf History Month is recognized and celebrated every year from March 13-April 15 to recognize the accomplishments of people who are deaf and hard of hearing. 

The deaf school became established in 1866 at Olathe and reached a period of growth and outreach in the 1880s, when it changed its name to the to Kansas Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. At this time it and began working on integrating deaf students into society instead of merely separating them from it.

The school in Olathe offered free tuition to students and did not charge for board or clothes washing, which put an education within the grasp of most young deaf or hard of hearing people. Students were accepted as early as age 8, enrolled for a 10-year course of study. The school year ran from September to June, and the students would board at the school during that time. At the end of the term, the students often would be carpooled (for a fee) back to their homes across the state.

Within a decade of growth for the school after its expansion in the 1880s, the school doubled in size. There were 17 teachers in the literary departments, and trades like cabinet making, shoe making, harness making, printing, and baking were taught to the boys, and home skills or the arts to the girls.

Ads ran in Osage County newspapers promoting the school, and many families started to take advantage of the offer. Among the first students from Osage County to attend the deaf school in Olathe were Constance Morell, of Osage City, and Fred Allen, of Burlingame.

Like many at the school, Constance was not born deaf, but due to accident or illness, lost her hearing when she was about six. Her parents first sought out assistance from a doctor in Atchison to no avail. She began attending the institute in Olathe in 1887 and excelled in the art of drawing and painting under the direction of teacher Jessie Zearing, an Osage City native.

Zearing was not deaf, but had a passion for the deaf community. Also working at the school was Grace Bauman, also a resident of Osage City and a hearing person, who worked first as a visitor’s guide and later as an elementary teacher. The women were paid $550 and $450 per year, respectively for their service. Both Miss Zearing and Miss Bauman, even after their teaching years at Olathe, continued in deaf education, teaching many more students.

The deaf school created large displays for the 1893 World’s Fair, called the Columbian Exhibition for its celebration of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. The Columbian Exhibition was important because it debuted some of the world’s most revolutionary inventions and concepts, one of which was its attention to highlighting the accomplishments of the Kansas school for the deaf. Three departments of the school were represented in exhibits: industrial, artistic, and regular classroom work. Constance Morell submitted a pencil drawing of baby shoes for the school’s displays at the fair. Her piece along with other items from the school such as photographs, baked goods, examination papers, and other pieces of art were displayed on a large oak stand with an inclined top. Constance’s drawing was the only item from Osage County to be submitted that year.

Fred Allen, of Burlingame, attended the school 9 1/2 years, 6 1/2 years of that time worked in printing office at the school. Shortly before his graduation, he became very ill and did not finish. Fred, however, was determined. As soon as he recovered from his illness, he tried to get a position in a printing office, but could not find one unless he started on the pay of the printers level which would not have been enough to pay his board bill.

In April 1894, Fred approached William H. Mundy, known to Burlingame residents as “Cripple Harry,” in search of a position as a printer.

Harry was born with his own obstacles to overcome, facing weakness in his legs and very little use of his limbs except on rare occasions. Manual labor was difficult for Harry, but he was determined to find a remedy to the lonely days and a lack of education because of his ailments. Before long, he started publishing two papers in Burlingame.

Because of Harry’s condition, he did not really want to hire Fred. Adding to his frustration was that Harry did not know sign language, and the written notes that were required for communication wore him out due to his neuralgia and rheumatism. In the end, though, Harry realized that with his own ailments he could not use the printing office well, or sell enough to keep his enterprise afloat, and hired Fred on a trial basis.

The match was ultimately a successful one. Harry wrote the columns, Fred set the type, and then Harry edited the proof sheet. Within eight weeks, the pair had published eight papers. An inspired Harry felt better than he had since he had become ill. Fred’s sister assisted in communication between the pair where needed.

Fred showed himself to be a valuable asset in the paper business and eventually went on to work at both the Burlingame Enterprise and the Lyndon People’s Herald.

Many students influenced by the increase in education for the deaf have left their mark on Osage County and beyond. For some it was a place name speaking to the challenges they faced in communicating with their neighbors. For others, it was their untold determination and unheard impact that set the tone for life in Osage County.

Sketch by Jessie Zearing, formerly a teacher at the Kansas Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, and Osage City resident, published in the Kansas City Star, Feb. 25, 1897.

Photo of the art class from History of the Kansas Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, 1893.


wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.


One Response to Hidden History: Deaf education helps early settlers cope with silence on the prairie

  1. Jennifer Barnhart says:

    Love this story!

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