Remembering Helen Keller

Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Ala. Her parents were Captain Arthur Keller, a former Confederate Army officer, and his wife, Kate, who was a cousin to Robert E. Lee. At 19 months of age, Helen was an energetic toddler in a loving family when a high fever – possibly from scarlet fever or menengitis – ravished her body, leaving her deaf and blind.

Her parents coddled her so much that within a few years she had major behavioral problems. In despair, her father contacted Alexander Graham Bell who had been working with deaf children. Bell recommended Keller get in touch with the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. School officials recommended that Keller hire their former student, Anne Sullivan, to work with Helen. Thus began a 49-year relationship where Sullivan served first as governess and then as companion to Helen. Their relationship was immortalized in William Gibson’s play, The Miracle Worker, which was made into a 1962 movie starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.

20-year-old Anne Sullivan, who would later be known as the Miracle Worker, arrived at the Keller family home on March 3, 1887. Six-year-old Helen, who was sitting on the front porch, felt the footsteps of someone approaching and reached out her hand because she thought it was her mother. “Some one took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all else, to love me,” Helen Keller would later write about what she rated the most important day of her life.

Today more than 40,000 visitors annually find Ivy Green, the Keller family home, much as it was when Miss Sullivan arrived. Built in 1820, only one year after Alabama became the 22nd state, Ivy Green got its name because the home was surrounded by 600 acres of gardens, magnolias, oaks and English Ivy. Today, after crossing the same porch where Helen met her teacher, visitors enter a simple white clapboard home with four large rooms on the first floor bisected by a wide hall and three upstairs rooms connected by a hall. Having survived untouched through the ravages of the Civil War, Ivy Green is maintained in its original state with 85 percent of the furnishings original to the family, according to Executive Director Sue Pilkilton. Items on display inside the house include Keller family furnishings; the braille books and typewriter used by Helen as she completed her degree at Radcliffe College; and dozens of family photos. Hundreds of personal mementos, awards, and gifts she received from prominent people worldwide are displayed in the museum room.

The most popular attractions are not inside the home but are on the grounds, which now encompass ten acres. Of special interest to visitors is the small cottage where young Helen and lived with Anne Sullivan. It is less than 100 feet from the family home, but the two were taken on a long carriage ride throughout the property so Helen would think she had moved far away.

An ordinary looking pump is by far the most-photographed attraction,  according to Pilkilton. “We have many international visitors who speak many languages,” Pilkilton explains. “But somehow they all know the story of the well and speak its language.”

Four weeks after Anne Sullivan arrived, she and Helen were walking in the garden while someone was using the well. Sullivan placed one of Helen’s hands under the flowing water and wrote w-a-t-e-r over and over on her dry hand.

Helen would later write “I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly, I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”

The Helen Keller Home is an uplifting place to visit, despite the tragedy involved. Visitors leave understanding how a 19th century girl with major physical challenges was able to accomplish so much and lead such a joyful life. “My life has been happy because I have wonderful friends and plenty of interesting work to do. I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad,” Helen Keller stated in her autobiography.

An award winning drama held every summer at an outdoor amphitheatre on the grounds of Ivy Green tells the story of how Helen Keller became one of the world’s most admired women.

Helen Keller died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, just 26 days before her 88th birthday.

The annual Helen Keller Festival is a week-long event held the last weekend in June at Tuscumbia’s Spring Park and in downtown Tuscumbia.

Helen Keller Home
300 West North Commons
Tuscumbia, AL 35674

Where is Tuscumbia Alabama?

125 miles NW of Birmingham
150 miles SE of Memphis
275 miles E of Little Rock

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