The Home and Center for the Blind

The Home and Center for the Blind

By: Peggy Chong

In the early 1900's, blind people found it very difficult to strike out on their own and find a place to live. If a blind person wanted to rent an apartment, he or she often was restricted to the first floor and required to live with a sighted person--that is, if the apartment were rented at all. On May 27, 1920, a group of forward looking blind people came together to improve the quality of life for all blind Minnesotans. They formed a statewide organization called the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind (M.S.O.B, today's National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota). Their goals were to build an industrial center owned and managed by blind persons where blind persons could start and build up their own businesses and to pass a Blind Pension bill.

In August of 1924, the organization purchased a 6-acre piece of land on the northwest corner of Como and Eustis Street just outside the St. Paul city limits. In the fall of 1925, they began construction. On October 19, 1929, the Home and Industrial Center for the Blind was finally opened.

This building was the centerpiece for the organization. Not only did it house businesses for many residents and members, but it was also the organization's headquarters.

For many years, fund raising events and entertainment functions took place weekly at the Home. There was a beautiful picnic ground on the property where basket socials, ice cream socials, concerts and other events were held.

Two additions were made to the building throughout the years. The first was a three-story wing completed in April 1949. It housed additional sleeping rooms, a library and an auditorium. The second addition was completed in November of 1961. It added a full second story to, and remodeled the first floor of, the original building.

When blind people came to the Twin Cities to look for work, they could always find a place to stay at the Home, be it for one night or for one year. The rent included meals and laundry service. When the Home first opened, the rent was $7 per month. But a few weeks after the Home opened, the Depression hit and the rent was reduced to $5.

The Home was host to Piano Tuner Clinics. Since piano tuning was one of the few employment opportunities for blind people, the M.S.O.B. began purchasing supplies in bulk at a much lower cost and passed the savings on to blind tuners. The organization housed tuners' supplies and tools at the Home, and provided space for training so blind persons could find employment as piano tuners.

By the 1960's, the Home was less of a centerpiece for the activities of the organization. The progress of the M.O.B. ("State" had been dropped from the name to avoid confusion with the government agencies) in its many legislative activities had made integration into the mainstream of society a reality in many areas. The focus began shifting strongly toward improving the opportunity for blind people to obtain meaningful employment in the community. More and more, the meetings and seminars of the organization were held at locations in the community. Blind persons were increasingly accepted in the general community and more often chose to go to entertainment functions outside the Home.

The Home became more of a residence for older persons. It was not uncommon for the Home to be only half full. This became a major drain on the resources of the organization. Talk of selling the Home began as early as 1964.

In the 1970's, a younger group of persons joined the organization. They found it odd that an organization promoting integration found it necessary to operate what amounted to a segregated home for the blind. The organization changed its name to National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota to reflect its wider involvement and changing emphasis. By 1978, clearly the Home represented an unwarranted drain on the resources of the organization. But it was not until 1980 that the Home was finally closed. The property was sold in 1981. The Home and Center is a historical landmark, showing us just how far the organized blind movement has come since 1920. When it was built, blind persons could not find housing that they would be permitted to manage independently. Today, we take it for granted that blind people can live in mainstream housing along with sighted members of the community. This is due to the drive and forethought of the founders of our organization. When a need existed for the Home, they raised the funds and pulled together the know how to build and maintain it. When the need for the Home disappeared, leaders of the NFB of Minnesota used their drive and talent to guide the energies of the organization into other channels.