‘I have been in Eden’ – Helen Keller’s visit to Mark Twain’s Stormfield in 1909

Part of the Historical Society of Easton’s Year of the Woman series.

In March of 1894, fourteen-year-old Helen Keller met Samuel Clemens for the first time at a gathering at Laurence Hutton’s New York home. Hutton was the literary editor of Harper’s Magazine at the time. After being introduced to Clemens, Helen sat on a couch beside him while he began to recount one of his many humorous tales. She listened by pressing her fingers across his lips.

From his autobiography, Twain’s own words about that first encounter: “I told her a long story, which she interrupted all along and in the right places, with cackles, chuckles and care-free bursts of laughter,” he recalled. “Then Miss Sullivan put one of Helen’s hands against her lips and spoke against it the question, ‘What is Mr. Clemens distinguished for?’ Helen answered, in her crippled speech, ‘For his humor.’ I spoke up modestly and said, ‘And for his wisdom.’ Helen said the same words instantly -‘and for his wisdom.’ I suppose it was mental telegraphy for there was no way for her to know what I had said.” From that initial encounter, an unlikely friendship began between an aging author and a brilliant young woman that would last beyond the years that Clemens would remain on this earth.

“Mr. Clemens told us many entertaining stories, and it made us laugh till we cried,” Helen would later write a friend. “I think ‘Mark Twain’ is a very appropriate nom de plume for Mr. Clemens because it has a funny and quaint sound that goes well with his amusing writing, and its nautical significance suggests the deep and beautiful things he has written.”

Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), and Laurence Hutton. Photo taken at Hutton’s home in Princeton, New Jersey in 1905.

Eighteen months later, Clemens recorded his impressions of the young girl: “Helen Keller has been dumb, stone-deaf, and stone blind, ever since she was a little baby a year and a half old; and now at sixteen years of age this miraculous creature, this wonder of all ages, passes the Harvard University examination in Latin, German, French history, belles lettres, and such things, and does it brilliantly, too, not in a commonplace fashion. She doesn’t know merely things, she is splendidly familiar with the meanings of them. When she writes an essay on a Shakespearean character, her English is fine and strong, her grasp of the subject is the grasp of one who knows, and her page is electric with light. Has Miss Sullivan taught her by the methods of India and the American public school? No, oh, no; for then she would be deafer and dumber and blinder than she was before. It is a pity that we can’t educate all the children in the asylums.”

At the time, Clemens was nearly broke. He had invested his money poorly, losing most of his savings and a good deal of his wife’s inheritance. In the early 1890’s he had become good friends with Henry Huddleston Rogers, a principal in Standard Oil, who soon became his trusted financial advisor. With Rogers’ help, Clemens was able to profit from several European tours and speaking engagements and then slowly pay off his creditors over the final years of the 19th century.

Unable to financially assist Ms. Keller in her pursuit of a university education on his own, Clemens turned to his friends, the Rogers, with the following 1896 plea sent to Mrs. Rogers in a letter:

“For & in behalf of Helen Keller,

Mr. Rogers will remember our visit with that astonishing girl at Laurence Hutton’s house when she was 14 years old. Last July, in Boston, when she was 16, she underwent the Harvard examination for admission to Radcliffe College. She passed without a single condition. She was allowed only the same amount of time that is granted to other applicants, and this was shortened in her case by the fact that the question-papers had to be read to her. Yet she scored an average of 90, as against an average of 78 on the part of the other applicants.

It won’t do for America to allow this marvelous child to retire from her studies because of poverty. If she can go on with them, she will make a fame that will endure in history for centuries. Along her special lines she is the most extraordinary product of all the ages.

I beg you to lay siege to your husband and get him to interest himself and Messrs. John D. & William Rockefeller and the other Standard Oil chiefs in Helen’s case…to pile that Standard Oil Helen Keller College Fund as high as they please; they have my consent.”

As a result of that letter, the Rogers personally took on the responsibility of providing the funds for Helen’s education at Radcliffe. Clemens’ praise and admiration for Helen continued beyond her graduation and into her adult life.

The pair often exchanged notes and letters, and sometimes crossed paths at different literary events and social functions.

Samuel Clemens’ 7oth birthday dinner in New York in December of 1905

A letter from Helen Keller to Samuel Clemens dated December 8, 1905 commemorating his seventieth birthday:

My dear Mr. Clemens,

I have just finished reading a most interesting account of the Thanksgiving dinner that was given in honor of your seventieth birthday more than a week ago in New York. Although I am somewhat in the rear of the great procession which brought you its tribute of love and admiration, yet you will accept my little handful of flowers gathered in the garden of my heart, will you not? They are not intended so much for the great author whom the world has crowned with its choicest blossoms as for the kind, sympathetic, noble man, the best of friends and champions with the heart of Santa Claus, who makes others good and happy. Your birthday shall always be a Thanksgiving Day to me. Indeed, I have thanked you a thousand times for the bright laugh that is like a drop of honey in things bitter that we must all taste, before we learn to know good from evil, and distil sweetness and peace from deprivation and sorrow. I thank you, too, for the flash and tingle along the veins when your fiery words smite the wrong with the lightning of just anger. Again, I thank you for the tears that soften the heart and make it compassionate and full of kindness. Your message to the world has been one of courage and brightness and tenderness, and your fellowmen make a feast on your anniversary, and give thanks for the many days that you have lived among them. And you are seventy years old? Or is the report exaggerated like that of your death? I remember, when I saw you last, at the house of dear Mr. Hutton in Princeton, you said, “If a man is a pessimist before he is forty-eight, he knows too much. If he is an optimist after he is forty-eight, he knows too little.” Now we know you are an optimist, and nobody would dare to accuse one on the “seven-terraced summit” of knowing little. So probably you are not seventy after all, but only forty-seven! But even at forty-seven we love you and wish you God speed! and the fulfilment of every desire that can bring you peace and joy. And should you really attain to that alpine height of seventy years, you shall still hear the voice of affection that springs upward like a flame, and carries warmth and comfort to the lonely climber who has met with bereavement and sorrow on his skyward pilgrimage.

Mrs. Macy and her husband join me in sending you sincere love and admiration.

Your friend,

Helen Keller

Built in 1908, the original name of the Stormfield estate in Redding was “Innocence at Home.” Clemens’ daughter Clara hated the name and convinced her father to change it to Stormfield in 1909. This postal card, with Clemens’ hand-written comments on the top was sent to Helen Keller in October of 1908 in anticipation of her upcoming visit scheduled for January 8-11, 1909.

In January of 1909, 28-year old Helen Keller visited Samuel Clemens at his home, Stormfield, in Redding. One might assume Easton’s most famous resident was simply paying a neighborly visit to Clemens a few miles away, but the fact is Helen Keller didn’t move to Easton until the late 1930’s when Gustav Pfeiffer convinced her to leave her home in Forrest Hills, New York to move to his little enclave at Aspetuck Corners. Pfeiffer donated the land and raised most of the funds to build Keller’s house, Arcan Ridge, from the plans drawn by architect Cameron Clark of Southport. The home was completed in 1939, and although it was destroyed by fire in 1946 while Ms. Keller and her companion Polly Thompson were in Europe, it was entirely rebuilt using Clark’s original plans for much of the house the following year. In all, Ms. Keller spent the better part of her final 39 years living in Easton.

The 1909 visit to Redding made a lasting impression on Helen. Perhaps it was one of the reasons she acquiesced to Pfeiffer’s request she move to Easton some thirty years later.

Helen Keller “listening” to Twain talk with her fingers. Photo taken January 10, 1909 by Clemens’ secretary, Isabel Lyon at Stormfield
January 10, 1909 at Stormfield. Helen Keller and Mark Twain by Isabel Lyon, his personal secretary.

Before leaving Stormfield, Helen made this handwritten entry into Clemens’ guestbook:

I have been in Eden three days and I saw a King. I knew he was a King the minute I touched him though I had never touched a King before.” – A Daughter of Eve. Helen Keller Jan. 11.

Helen’s unusual entry in Clemens’ guest book was explained by the “king” himself in a footnote after Helen’s comment: “The point in what Helen says above. Lies in this: That I read the “Diary of Eve” all through to her last night. In it, Eve poignantly mentions things that she saw for the first time but instantly knew what they were and named them though she had never seen them before. SLC Jan 8-11.” The mere fact that Clemens saw fit to explain that entry suggests that he fully realized the significance of her intellect and the possibility that her written words may one day become as well read and sought after as his own.

January 11, 1909 entry into the guestbook at Stormfield in Redding by Helen Keller

Accompanying Helen on the Stormfield visit was Anne Sullivan Macy and her husband, John Albert Macy. Their signatures appear just below Helen’s comments in Clemens’ guestbook. Macy and Sullivan married in 1905. Macy was 11 years junior to Anne and the marriage seemed more of a business relationship than a true romance – he was Keller’s manager & editor. Their marriage began to fall apart shortly after the Redding visit, yet they never divorced, and John lived in the Keller house until sometime in the 1920’s.

January 10, 1909 at Stormfield. Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and John Albert Macy. Photo taken by Isabel Lyon

If you ever wondered how Helen’s companion and teacher Anne Sullivan first became known as the “Miracle Worker,” it came from the inscription that Samuel Clemens wrote on a copy of a photograph shown here, a gift he presented to Anne after the January 1909 visit to Stormfield. The inscription in Clemens’ own handwriting reads : “To Mrs. John Sullivan Macy with warm regard, and limitless admiration of the wonders she has performed as a miracle worker. Stormfield, Jan. 1909.” His signature as Mark Twain is at the bottom.

Clemens often signed and gave a copy of this photo to guests at Stormfield, but this one, describing Anne Sullivan Macy as a “miracle worker” in Clemens’ own handwriting at the top confirms that he was the person who gave her that name.

Samuel Clemens died in Redding in April of 1910. However, his friendship lived on in Helen Keller’s memory and writings for much longer. In 1939, thirty years after his death, she recalled memories of her visit with Clemens in Redding: “We gathered about the warm hearth after dinner, and Mr. Clemens stood with his back to the fire talking to us. There he stood—our Mark Twain, our American, our humorist, the embodiment of our country. He seemed to have absorbed all America into himself. The great Mississippi River seemed forever flowing, flowing through his speech, through the shadowless white sands of thought. His voice seemed to say like the river, “Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait.”

What better way to remember a friend?

Up next: Black Thunder. An original Easton ghost story next Saturday on Halloween.

Stinson Elected as Board of Education Chairman

The Easton Board of Education elected Jon Stinson and Gretchen Goldstein to serve as its new chairman and secretary, respectively. Stinson replaces Jeff Parker, who served as chairman since 2013.

The Board of Education chairman typically serves a two-year term, and the position has historically alternated between Democrats and Republicans. But when Parker’s first term came to an end in 2015 there was consensus for him to continue for a second, then third, term. He is a Republican, but in looking back on his term, he said, “I don’t think you could pick out a Republican from a Democrat [on the board]; it was people who were looking for the best interest of our kids.”

Because the board had already started the budget process when the usual November election time rolled around, they agreed to postpone the election to June. Stinson, who was new to the board but had expressed his interest in running for chairman, worked closely with Parker leading up to the election.

“I appreciate it immensely,” Stinson said at the June 16 joint Board of Education meeting with Easton and Redding. “Thank you for your mentorship.” During the June 9 Easton Board of Education meeting, Stinson also thanked Parker for everything he had done for Easton.

Several residents and board members at the June 9 meeting echoed Stinson’s thanks to Parker for his service. One person recalled that Parker visited bus stops around town in the fall to ensure a smooth opening to the school year.

Despite the budget process being interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Finance approved the 2020-21 budget June 2 as authorized by the Board of Selectmen, in accordance with Protection of Public Health and Safety during COVID-19 Pandemic and Response – Municipal Budget Adoption, Common-Interest Community Meetings. It includes funding for a new social worker to join Easton and Redding schools’ mental health team and a program called Junior Bridges for students with special emotional needs.

The board has not yet determined whether it will change the election cycle permanently to occur in June rather than November. The change would allow Stinson to serve two full years, and move the election to occur after the annual budget process concludes. Parker will continue to serve on the board as a member until 2023, but he was ready to step down as chairperson.

“Eighty months is a long time,” Parker said. “You’re only allowed to have so much fun.”

Women, the Workplace, and World War II

presented by the Historical Society of Easton

1943 Poster depicting Rosie the Riveter

Looking back at U.S. history, it’s almost unimaginable that women had to continuously fight for the right to vote for a full fifty years after the ratification of the 15th Amendment which had been designed to address a similar issue of the denial of voting rights, “on account of race, color, and previous servitude.” The word “gender” was conspicuous in its absence in that amendment, but prior to 1919, withholding the right to vote based on gender was still deemed to be perfectly acceptable under the original articles of the Constitution. With the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, along with the right to then vote, working women had been hoping that better employment opportunities would follow suit. While the women of America had finally gained the right to cast ballots and hold political office by August of 1920, their rights to seek equal employment opportunities remained solely controlled by the bastions of the male dominated industrial and political complexes.

World War I had seen a brief opening of the door to non-traditional female employment. With so many young men fighting in Europe, many positions in the industries supplying military hardware and goods were filled by women in order to keep the supply lines filled. Bridgeport’s Remington Arms was the largest single producer of metallic cartridges for the allied forces, as well as a major supplier of rifles used by the United States, Britain, and France. To meet the demand, the company employed hundreds of women between 1915 and 1918. But other than the war years, the best opportunities for female employment during the first quarter of the 20th century remained in more traditional fields such as nursing, elementary education, switchboard operators, domestic help, department store clerks, secretarial jobs, and waitressing – none of which usually paid enough to provide a woman with financial independence.

Positions that are routinely filled by women today were all but impossible to attain prior to 1940. Accounting, banking, advertising, high paying sales positions, and anything that even approached managerial levels were simply off-limits. Manufacturing jobs outside of the apparel industry were almost totally dominated by men. Almost every corporate office in America was staffed with male clerks and bookkeepers. Women office workers were relegated to being low paid secretaries and stenographers.

Tradition called for young women to be raised to become wives and mothers. Courses in high school were geared towards honing young women’s skills at sewing, cooking, and “keeping a nice home“. It was only the boys who were offered training in carpentry, metal working, and mechanics. Roles were defined by gender, not ability, and certainly not by ambition or individual preference.

In 1940, Easton’s demographics were rather typical of the other surrounding rural communities that sat a few miles inland from the coast. The total population of the town stood at 1,262. The 1940 United States Census gives us the most accurate assessment of employment opportunities for area women that we will find. While again typical of that era, the facts are almost shocking by today’s standards. Only 7.3% of Easton’s total population was comprised of female workers. A total of 93 Easton women were gainfully employed outside of the home that year. By far the largest percentage of those were employed as household servants, maids, and cooks; for a total of 34; fully a third of the entire female workforce. Another 6 were waitresses, and 4 more were clerks working in Bridgeport factories. It is likely that none of those positions paid enough to sustain a woman on her own. There were 9 secretaries, 5 teachers, 4 bookkeepers, 4 stenographers, and 2 nurses – 24 career jobs that might possibly supply a woman with enough money on an annual basis to survive. An experienced teacher in the Easton school system that year would have been paid a total of $1,700 – barely enough to pay the rent and purchase a few groceries each month. A closer look at that year’s census reveals that over 60% of Easton’s female workforce was single and either lived at home with their parents or resided with their employers.

For better or for worse, the coming of Second World War would soon change all that. Temporarily, at least.

Much of western Europe had been gearing up for possible military conflicts with Germany long before Hitler’s forces invaded Poland in September of 1939. Britain had started building new warships in early 1938. In the United States, there was widespread opposition to American intervention in European politics during the waning years of the Great Depression. American aviator and folk hero, Charles Lindbergh, became the spokesman for the 800,000 member America First Committee, an organization that was Nazi friendly and decidedly anti-Semitic in its makeup. They held rallies and lobbied hard to keep the United States out of the conflict. While the average American had no particular desire to go war, the Roosevelt administration soon began ramping up its own military production in anticipation of the inevitable.

By 1940, Bridgeport was already a major industrial hub with over 500 factories in operation while still expanding. Meeting the increasing demand for workers was difficult enough that year, but when President Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act in September of 1940 – the first peacetime act in American history for the conscription of young men – all bets were off when it came to keeping those factories humming without hiring women workers. Wartime production was already in full swing, despite America’s entrance into the fray still being over a year away. By early 1941, the United States was supplying military hardware to some European nations through its “Lend-Lease” program, all while officially remaining neutral in terms of the ongoing war on the Continent. Women workers were now considered an essential component of industry.

1943. Women assembling a Navy Corsair F4U fighter at the Vought-Sikorsky plant in Stratford
1943. Women assembly workers sharing lunch at Vought-Sikorsky in Stratford

The young women of Easton and surrounding towns were now being recruited to fill positions formerly reserved for their male counterparts. The Rosie the Riveter character created by the Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb song of 1942, soon became a national icon and was a large part of the “We Can Do It” campaign established by the War Production Co-ordinating Committee in 1943. Images abounded in Life Magazine of women assembly workers at Stratford’s Vought-Sikorsky plant, the main production facility for the famous Corsair F4U Navy fighter aircraft. A United States Labor Department publication from 1947, indicates that the Bridgeport area’s work force increased a whopping 85% between 1940 and 1943, and that fully one-third of that force was made up of women workers!

As the war continued, the need to transport workers from rural towns such as Easton grew more important. Gasoline and tire rationing severely limited the ability of workers to commute by automobile. Regular bus routes were expanded, and during the height of WWII, Easton workers could catch a bus anywhere along the route between Greiser’s store at the corner of Westport and Center Roads, down Sport Hill Road and into Stratfield where connections could be made with other busses that ran to Bullard’s in the west end, Warner Brother’s in the south end, and General Electric in the east end.  

212 names on Easton’s WWII & Korea Honor Roll – 6 were women.

The honor roll in front of the Easton Town Hall pays tribute to the 212 townspeople who were active in the military during the Second World War and Korea. All but six of those names are men, but there were many women of Easton who contributed in multiple ways during the war years, including some who volunteered to support our fighting men in the ancillary positions provided by the recently formed women’s branches of the military.

Dorothy Mae Gustafson lived on Westport Road prior to the beginning of the war, and had been employed as a domestic in the Aspetuck Farms enclave that Gustav Pfeiffer had created in the late 1930’s. By 1942, she was employed in a Bridgeport machine shop, and in September of 1943, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps. She was one of those six Easton women to serve their country in that capacity during WWII and the Korean War.

Most longtime Easton residents are aware that VFW Post 160 is named after Charles Logan Ruman. Lt. Ruman was lost on October 9, 1943 when his B-17, The Dallas Rebel, was shot down by enemy aircraft while returning from a bombing raid on Anklam, Germany. Surrounded by enemy aircraft, the plane’s rudder was destroyed as it lost altitude and ditched in the North Sea, fifty miles off of the Danish coast, killing all ten aboard. Lt. Ruman was the Dallas Rebel’s navigator. What most folks don’t necessarily know is that Charles Ruman’s younger sister, Elizabeth Ann, enlisted in the Navy Waves the same year as her brother was killed in action. Along with her younger brother, William, also in the Navy, three of Aurel and Edith Ruman’s children served their country during WWII.

The Dallas Rebel – Lost on October 9, 1943. Lt Charles L, Ruman of Easton perished along with 9 other brave airmen when this B-17 was shot down.
Elizabeth Ann Ruman served as a Wave in the United States Navy during WWII

Edith Marsh was 45 years old when the war broke out. A life-long community volunteer and one of the first women in Easton to have been elected to serve on the school board in the 1920’s, she joined the Civilian Defense Force almost as soon as it was created in May of 1941. “Emergency Food” was the designation typed on the back of her now dog-eared identification card. A fingerprint and a photograph confirmed her identity. Along with hundreds of other area women, she promoted the planting of those now famous Victory Gardens and coordinated efforts to stockpile provisions should the need arise to shelter in place during an enemy attack.

Author and activist Helen Keller continued her efforts on behalf of the blind, only during the time of war, she wasn’t simply asking how others could help the sightless, but rather how the blind could somehow contribute to the war effort.

The always sarcastic Edna Ferber involved herself in various campaigns throughout the conflict. After turning down a request from the Easton chapter of the American Red Cross volunteers to assist in wrapping bandages, responding in a artfully worded letter that she thought her talents could be better put to use in other supportive endeavors, she joined a host of other well-known Connecticut residents along with Mayor Jasper McLevy of Bridgeport at a Black Market Rally in that city in August of 1943. Rationing of many products during World War II, such as food items, gasoline, and coffee, had created a surge of black- market sales: rationed goods that were sold illegally, and often at inflated prices.  In August 1943, a rally in Marina Park was held to protest the black market.  

Shown in attendance in the rally are from left to right, the following:  (front row) Franz Rupp, pianist; Marian Anderson, opera  singer; Bud Hollick, comedian; Carl Frank, radio announcer and actor; (back row) Franklin P. Adams; columnist and quiz expert; Mayor Jasper McLevy; Edna Ferber, novelist; and Clifton Fadiman, book reviewer for the New Yorker

Women appeared to make great strides in the wartime economy. Their remarkably rapid transformation into skilled workers capable of welding steel and riveting the skins on the wings and fuselages of the world’s fastest aircraft should have been all the proof that the male dominated industrial machine needed that women were every bit as able as their male counterparts to perform in the workplace. But it would appear that was never destined to happen. A 1943 Monsanto advertisement would portend the predetermined fate of America’s female workforce. Showing total ambivalence towards the importance of women in the workplace, the marketing team at Monsanto actually wrote, approved, and published the following in one of their ads: “But there will come a day (after a certain boy with MacArthur comes flying triumphantly home to a big church wedding) when a lot of the good new things of peacetime will become important to Rosie the Housewife…or, dozens of other things that can mean new comforts and conveniences for Rosie and her sisters; new jobs and greater opportunities for those fighting menfolk that they’re backing now with their love, their work, their War Bond buying.”  If there was any doubt in the minds of working women that their new-found careers were in jeopardy come the end of the war, callous words such as those should have put an end to it.

This remarkably insensitive 1943 Monsanto advertisement would have never passed muster in today’s world

The progress women had achieved during the war came to a screeching halt by the end of 1945. The great factories that had tirelessly churned out the machinery of war transitioned over to peacetime production, and in the process, the young men returning from Europe and Asia replaced the women who had so ably provided them with the tools that gave them their victory.

If there was one silver lining to this, it was that those great ladies who gave back so much of what they had gained during the war, went on to raise a new generation of daughters. Young women whose mothers encouraged them to attend university and strive for excellence in everything they would do. Young women who were encouraged to compete and encouraged to excel. Young women who were encouraged to persevere. It would take women a few more decades to achieve anywhere near the gender equality that was rightfully theirs, and while there is still a way to go in successfully achieving that quest, their mothers and grandmothers can finally enjoy some of the fruits of their labor. Well done, ladies!

The Fire at Arcan Ridge

The Historical Society of Easton presents – In the News – 1946

In October of 1946, war-ravaged Europe was still in the beginning stages of rebuilding its bombed-out cities. The victorious allied nations that had defeated the Nazis just a year earlier were making a concerted effort to provide aid to most of the continent. Everyone had suffered during the conflict, but perhaps those in the greatest need of assistance were Europe’s poor, blind children.

Helen Keller landed in Britain in October. She and her companion, Polly Thomson, were on a mission to provide hope and awareness to the plight of blind. Over a two-month planned European tour of most of southern Europe, they would visit orphanages, collect data, and meet with leaders of each country, stressing the need to serve those who could not serve themselves.

On Saturday, November 23rd, they were traveling from Greece to Rome when tragedy struck their home of the last seven years in Easton, Connecticut.

Front page photograph from the Bridgeport Post Sunday, November 24, 1946

NEW YORK TIMES, SUNDAY, November 24, 1946.

$50,000 Fire Razes Helen Keller’s Home – Treasured Antiques Destroyed in Blaze

Special to The New York Times.

EASTON, Conn., Nov. 23—The twelve-room home of Miss Helen Keller, internationally known blind educator, at the junction of Redding and Westport Roads was destroyed by fire today, and as firemen dampened the ruins only a small part of the wall in the left wing of the wooden building remained standing. Easton firemen, aided by apparatus from near-by Fairfield, were handicapped by lack of water and a high wind, which fanned the flames, and which gained considerable headway before being discovered at 10 AM. Fire officials were unable to determine the cause. As far as could ascertained, no one was in the house, as it had been closed for the winter after Miss Keller went abroad in October. Also destroyed in the blaze were valuable antiques and other treasured furnishings. The loss was estimated at $50,000. The blaze was discovered by Harry B. Tucker of Easton, who saw the flames leaping from the roof around a stone chimney. Designed and constructed by Cameron Clark, New York architect, in 1939, the house was given to Miss Keller by Gustave A Pfeiffer of Easton, a New York manufacturer of pharmaceutics and cosmetics, who learned she was looking for a house in the area. He also gave her four and a half acres of land. The interior of the New England-type house followed an Oriental motif planned about rare treasures presented to Miss Keller by the Chinese Government. Choice bric-a-brac, rugs, lamps of an exotic nature and vases were at home in a setting that emphasized the Chinese coloring of red gold and blue. Jades, ivories and porcelains were among Miss Keller’s choice collections, as well as rare pieces of hammered brass and copper.

It should be noted that “Harry B. Tucker”, was in fact Henry B. Tucker, one of the Tucker brothers, the first men paid as full-time firemen at the Easton Volunteer House. Chief Arthur Bush introduced the plan to man the firehouse 24-hours a day on January 6, 1947, only forty-four days after the fire that leveled Arcan Ridge; a fire that was no doubt the catalyst in the chief’s making the decision that a growing Easton needed faster response times when it came to fighting fires. Ironically, had either Henry or his twin brother, Arthur, been employed by the town that day, perhaps Easton’s lone firetruck would have been dispatched in time to save at least part of the structure. Adding to the tragic irony was the fact that the fire company’s new Mack pumper, with it’s 500 Gallon-per-Minute pump had been on order since January 1946 but didn’t arrive in Easton until March 3, 1947.

A simple fifteen-word cable from associate George Raverat in Paris was delivered to Helen and Polly’s hotel in Rome on the morning of November 24th

Cable to Helen Keller from George Raverat dated November 24, 1946. “Herbert” was Herbert Haas, Keller’s chauffeur and the caretaker of Arcan Ridge. Photo courtesy of the American Federation of the Blind, Helen Keller Archive.

A newspaper article in Australia’s Melbourne Sun, published in May of 1948, summed up Polly’s dilemma with reading that cable to Helen, and Helen’s fortitude in her response:

The depth of Helen’s appreciation of the other’s loving companionship was brought home by a story which Polly Thompson told me. In 1946, while Helen Keller was on the Continent, collecting statistics on the war blinded. a cable was delivered to Polly Thompson stating that Helen Keller’s home in Connecticut had been burned to the ground and all her possessions, including manuscripts which had taken her many years to compile, had been lost. It meant irreparable loss and the breaking of the news was one of the hardest things Polly Thompson had ever faced. For a couple of hours, she carried the cable around, holding back the news, but at last she plucked up courage and told Helen of the calamity. For a minute Helen was silent and then, turning to Polly, said: “What does it really matter—we still have the house of friendship.” In that one sentence the woman whose amazing courage in the face of heavy afflictions has made world history showed her complete disregard of material things. The day before the arrival of the cable Helen Keller had bought from an art shop in Rome a small statuette which appealed to her. With that as her one possession and Polly Thompson’s warm handclasp she was ready to face the future unafraid.

Details would follow in the ensuing days of the fire, but the one thing that was certain was that virtually everything in the house had been lost. Another cable caught up with Keller and Thomson in Paris two days after the fire. While the pair had traveled from Rome to Paris on Monday, their benefactors, Gustav and Louise Pfeiffer, had already set plans in motion to provide them with temporary housing while a new house would be built. Harvard House sat next door to the Pfeiffer home on Old Redding Road and was used during the summer months by Pfeiffer’s nephew Robert and his wife Mathilda. Helen and Polly knew the house well, as the Pfeiffer’s had put them up at Harvard House while the home at Arcan Ridge was being built in 1939. Other friends of Helen Keller were already working at finding replacement volumes for her library, as well as a new Braille typewriter to allow her to continue her work once she returned to Easton.

Cable to Helen Keller from Louise Pfeiffer dated November 26, 1946. Photo courtesy of the American Federation of the Blind, Helen Keller Archive

Back in Connecticut, investigators were attempting to find the cause of the blaze:

BRIDGEPORT, CONN. POST November 26, 1946


State Joins Easton Chief in Probe of $50,000 Fire.

EASTON, Nov. 26. Investigation of the cause of the fire which on Saturday razed the Redding road home of Miss Helen Keller, blind educator, was being continued today, Fire Chief Arthur J Bush said. Preliminary investigation yesterday by State Policeman James M. Riordon, representing the State Fire Marshal, and town fire and police officials unearthed no conclusive evidence regarding the cause of the blaze, although investigators believed it possible that the fire resulted from a defective oil burner, Chief Bush said. During the three-hour search of the ruins, it was officially confirmed that a furnace repairman had been admitted Friday to the closed home to turn on the oil burning furnace as a protection against anticipated cold weather. The investigators also disclosed that neighbors reported seeing smoke issuing from the chimney of the house as early as 6:30 a.m. Saturday. The 12-room house, known as “Windy Ridge”, was closed in October when Miss Keller went abroad. Built in 1939 at a cost of $25,000, it contained a valuable collection of antique and exotic furnishings, none of which was saved. Damage was estimated unofficially by Fire Chief Arthur Bush at more than $50,000. An accurate estimate of the loss cannot be made until Miss Keller is reached and can give an inventory of what was in the home. Attempts have been made by Mrs. Charles Rauschkolb, a neighbor, to contact Miss Keller in Europe through blind institutions in New York and Paris, but Miss Keller is believed to be visiting homes for the blind in either Greece or Rome at this time, officials said.

The “Windy Ridge” reference in the above article had once been the name of the property and the original house that was there when Helen Keller decided to build in 1938. The name was changed to Arcan Ridge in 1939 when the new house was first completed. Arcan was the name of a Scottish village that Helen had visited a few years before that she very much favored.

Arcan Ridge was completely rebuilt and ready for occupancy in October of 1947. Built under the supervision of the original architect, Charles Cameron Clark, the new house was exactly like the first with only one or two minor modifications relating to the dining porch at the rear of the building. Polly lived there until her death on March 20, 1960. Helen Keller called Arcan Ridge home until her own passing on June 1, 1968.