A Brief History of the Texas School for the Deaf
By Emily Lewis
No doubt you all would like to know the beginning and early history of our school for the deaf, the pride of the Lone Star State. A deaf man by the name of Matthew Clark visited Austin in the fall of 1856, at which time the Legislature was in session. Mr. Clark was a stranger, having just come to Texas from the north. He inquired of the Legislators if there was a school for the deaf in this State. They answered, "none" and then determined that there should be an institution opened at once.
Governor Pease appointed a board of Trustees consisting of Dr. James M. Litten, Thomas Green, Wm. E. Jones, Francis M. Duffan and Edward Fontaine. They appointed Mr. Clark, the deaf man, to go around to the neighboring counties to see if there were any deaf children, and if so, to persuade their parents to send them to the Institution to be educated. They paid his traveling expenses. On return, he informed them that he had succeeded in finding several deaf children. The writer was one of them. He traveled on horse-back and stopped at her father's house, and stayed over night. On the second day of January, 1857, the school was opened with only four pupils (all boys) enrolled who were temporarily under the care of Mr. Clark. Two of the pupils were grown men. Their names were Darby and Folsom, aged 20 and 21. The other two were young lads.
The Trustees appointed Mrs. Josephine Snyder as matron. She was an accomplished German woman having just come to America from Germany. She had a deaf uncle, therefore she took great interest in the deaf, and gladly accepted the position. As there was no Superintendent or Principal, the President of the Board, Dr. J. M. Litten, temporarily acted as Sup't until one was elected. The Secretary of the Board corresponded with several Institutions of other States, asking for all information that would be of benefit to the deaf. At last, Dr. Harvey P. Peet of the New York Institution influenced the Board to appoint Prof. Jacob Van Nostrand, one of the head teachers of that school, as Supt. The Board asked him if he would come to Texas, and act as Principal of the Institution.
At first he did not like to come to this wild country, but later he felt it his duty to accept the appointment, and left New York City early in the spring of 1857, leaving his wife and only daughter behind. He arrived at Austin about the middle of May.
He came to Galveston by steamboat, and from Galveston to Austin in a stage drawn by four horses. The ride over the rough roads was very tedious, and it took him more than a week to get to the city of Austin, and as there was no bridge across the Colorado, he crossed it in a ferry-boat. The new Superintendent, J. Van Nostrand, was born in the city of N.Y. on the 27th of February, 1814. When young he prepared himself for the ministry, but he changed his mind, and became a teacher in the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, remaining there until he was called to Texas in the year 1857, where he acted as Superintendent, Principal and Steward for 19 years.
In the summer of the following year after the arrival of Mr. Van Nostrand, his wife and little daughter came South. His wife was very delicate and frequently sick. Dr. J. M. Litten advised her to return north, as the climate here did not agree with her. So Mrs. Van Nostrand and daughter went back to New York after making Texas their home for two years.
On the 18th day of May 1857, the writer entered the Institution for the first time, where she found seven boys at school. She was about 12 years old, and refused to stay because she was very shy and afraid of the big boys. She also did not like the looks of her teacher, Mr. Clark, at all, so she went back home with her sister.
Afterward she met Mr. Van Nostrand, fell in love with him, and was willing to stay at the Institution and go to school. Mr. Clark and the pupils did not get along well together, the Board dispensed with his services. Mr.Van Nostrand appointed Mr. James S. Wells, a graduate of his from the New York Institution, as assistant teacher. He took Mr. Clark's class in the fall of 1858. After several years he married Miss Fannie Delespine of Palestine, Texas, she being one of his old pupils. Mr. Wells returned to New York City with his wife, after fifteen years of devoted labor in this Institution. He was a faithful teacher here. He afterwards became a teacher at the Colored Institution for the Deaf, Baltimore, Md. He died July 16th, 1891. He was a true Christian gentleman. At first the location of the present Institution was leased for about one year from a Dr. Jennings. The Trustees took great interest and pride in the management of the school, and were well pleased with the location. They concluded to establish a permanent Institution in this State, and in 1858 paid $5,500 for a tract of land. About 15 acres have been added in recent years.
The buildings have been greatly changed from small frame ones containing four pupils to handsome brick buildings having about 450 pupils. The first school house was very small, having been used as a smoke house by Dr. Jennings, owner of the place. The walls were unfinished and black with smoke, and the floor was rough and black with grease. There were some rafters above which used to hold bacon to be smoked. It was said that Dr. Jennings had many slaves whom he fed on bacon and corn bread. The yard was full of weeds, and bushes, and no flowers were around the houses. The dwelling house was small and low, containing only two rooms, fifteen by fifteen, and a hall, fifteen by eight.
The east room was occupied as a boy's dormitory having four beds, one in each corner. The west room was used as a girl's dormitory, matron's room, and sewing room. There were three other one room-houses outside for the Principal, laundry and kitchen. The Trustees were not able to erect a new building on account of small appropriations given by the Legislature, therefore they had the old houses enlarged. The roofs of both the school house and the dwelling-house were torn off, and two rooms put up above for dormitories. At the close of the civil war, a two story frame house was added to the old one, the upper floor being used as the girls' dormitory the lower as the dining room. A few years before the removal of Mr. Van Nostrand, he had a two story brick house built, the first floor being used as a kitchen, and the upstairs as the girls' study hall. This house is still standing. It is the boys' old hospital. During the war the matron, Mrs. Snyder, seared sheep and carded wool, and cotton, and spun them into thread. Some of the large girls helped with the carding and spinning. The Superintendent had two spinning wheels made for them to use. The matron taught them how to knit socks, stockings, mittens, gloves, and suspenders. Sometimes, she sold the articles in order to get money with which to buy clothing for the girls.
The pupils, when out of school, were employed in plaiting straw and shucks into hats, work baskets, mats, etc. We had the poorest kind of lights to study by at nights, using only tallow candles. Mrs. Snyder saved much tallow from the beef, and the boys cut candle-wicks into equal lengths and filled the moulds with tallow. We contentedly spent our evenings by the dim and fickle light of these candles. As there was no well, nor cistern at the school, the boys themselves had to haul water in two barrels on a roughly-made sled from the spring about a third of a mile from the Institution. At last the Superintendent had a cistern dug out, which is still at the Institution under the boys dining room.
The large pupils often went almost barefooted, and it was fortunate that Mr. Wells knew the trade of shoe-making. He devoted most of his time, when out of school, to making rough, heavy shoes for the pupils, during those wild times. From this you see what hard times we had. Sometimes we could scarcely get food enough. The butchers would no longer sell us meat for Confederate money. When Mrs. Snyder found out that we were short of bread, she gave us each only one slice of bread, with molasses spread on it for our supper.
The matron was very careful and thoughtful. She herself with the boys worked in the garden, and so she and the officers by their economy, saved the whole school from starvation.
Most of the pupils' parents were too poor to afford to take them home during vacation, so they stayed at the Institution for several years. They came to school in ox-wagons, and hacks, and sometimes on horse back. Mr. Van Nostrand was not able himself to employ another teacher from the north, so the Board appointed the writer as teacher of the beginners in 1864. She did not get any salary for two years, on account of the hard times. The Superintendent, finding that the State treasury was empty, generously aided the State in supplying clothing and other necessaries from his own income, expecting, in time, to be repaid. The writer thinks that she is not mistaken in saying that the State owes him about two thousand dollars, which ought to have been given to him long ago. Gov. Coke removed him in the spring of 1876, supposing him to be a Republican, but he was strictly neutral. All at the Institution and many of our friends thought it was unjust, considering his faithful services and sacrifices for so many years. His removal threw great gloom over the Institution. He went back to New York to his family whom he had not seen since they left Texas. A few years after his return there, he was taken sick and died of typhoid fever.
When General Henry E. McCulloch was elected Superintendent all of the officers and servants left the school. The writer stayed for the sake of the pupils. We could not do much under the management of the new Superintendent. He had to leave the Institution sooner than he expected to. At the close of the session in 1876 the writer resigned, but after three years' absence was called back by Col. John S. Ford, well known as "Old Rip Ford", the new Superintendent, who was an old acquaintance of hers. He was Superintendent for about five years. Then Dr. Shapard came in, and stayed three years. He was succeeded by Captain Kendall, who stayed eight years , Adrian T. Rose four years, B. F. McNulty six years, Judge N. A. Cravens about two years, and J.H. Williams the present Superintendent, who is still with us. The latter took charge of the Institution on the 25th of May, 1907.
Reprinted from October 1, 1909 issue of The Lone Star, Texas School for the Deaf