Can you imagine having a child who is unable to hear and not being able to communicate with him or her? We all know the struggles that Annie Sullivan faced and overcame with teaching her student Helen Keller in the later 1800s. However, back when this country was in its early development as a nation, there was no education that was readily available for anyone who was born without the ability to hear or speak.
With social reform on the rise in the early 19th century, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet is credited as a pioneer establishing the first free public school in Connecticut to instruct deaf and mute individuals in reading and communicating with the whole of society. His interest in education of the deaf after having been acquainted with a deaf child in his youth, Gallaudet traveled around Europe and learned from their teaching methods of communication through signing individual letters of words with a manual alphabet. He brought these methods back to the United States demonstrating their success and began accepting donations to subsidize the education of those deaf mutes whose families could not afford to send them away to school. The Hartford, Connecticut school opened its doors in 1817. Just six years later, residents of Montgomery, Otsego and Schoharie Counties successfully petitioned the New York State Legislature to set up an institution of this kind.
Many of those who instigated the establishment of the deaf school in this area were prominent political men – county judges, justices of the peace, state senators or assemblymen. Among those, Robert Bowman, a resident of Buel and Justice of the Peace in the Town of Canajoharie, was selected as one of the officers organizing the new deaf school. Because three of his seven children were deaf, Bowman donated land on which to build the school. Being only the second school of this kind in New York State and the fourth in the nation (the others in New York City and Philadelphia), the Central Asylum School for the Deaf and Dumb began instructing students in 1823 in the rural hamlet of Buel, a location “nearly equidistant from the county courthouses in Montgomery, Herkimer, Schoharie, and Otsego Counties.”
Providing not only religious and moral instruction to its students, the school was designed to reduce the amount of illiteracy among the deaf population and to give them the opportunity to be productive members of society. There was the underlying belief that without education and moral and religious instruction, deaf individuals were more susceptible to crime and all of the worldly evils. The school attracted students from all over the state and for those who were not able to pay their tuition, the school received aid from the state that was limited to 2 students from each New York State senatorial district.
The school, on South Buel Road in the Town of Canajoharie, consisted of a two-story 28’x28’ brick building and a wood-framed building. The principal and the students resided in a boarding house near the school. The boarding house was remodeled after the school closed and is believed to still stand.
Daily attendance at morning and evening prayer was required of each student. Education included vocational training of various trades and skills such as needlework, dressmaking, cabinet making, shoemaking, gardening, and printing. Levi Backus taught the students the art of the printing press. Learning these skills would allow each student to become a contributing member of society after leaving the school. In an 1833 letter to Governor W.J. Marcy, Principal Oran W. Morris stated “the mutes possess powers of mind equal in proportion to that of another person and give them an opportunity to acquire knowledge and they will become useful citizens.”
Morris, a Canajoharie native and principal at the school for the last three years, acted not only as an advocate for the school, encouraging students “to come to Buel as it was nestled among quiet farms away from the hustle and bustle of the canal community” but for the deaf community as well. He spoke out against the prejudice he perceived toward his students when as professor at the New York City school, he and 51 pupils took an 1845 trip up the Erie Canal. Morris’ students were denied a pail for water on a hot summer day in Amsterdam, “a privilege that I presume would not have been denied to a hostler if he had wished to water his horses.”
During the school’s existence, over 100 students between the ages of nine and 27 completed the five-year course of instruction at the Central Asylum School for the Deaf. In 1836, there were 24 students enrolled when the decision came from the New York State Legislature to close the school because it was too costly to maintain two schools of this nature in the state. The students were then directed to transfer to the institution in New York City.
Levi Backus, mentioned above, went on to become the editor and publisher of the Canajoharie Radii newspaper around 1839. A deaf mute himself, Backus received his education at the Connecticut school. While Backus’ newspaper focused on society as a whole, he was certain to include articles that were pertinent in the lives of the deaf mutes to which his paper circulated. In fact, his was the first publication to print written sign language letters, which were printed above The Radii masthead. Inside the masthead was pictured a rising sun “with rays extending out toward humanity.”
Lauded as a “pioneer in deaf-mute journalism in this country,” Levi Backus broke new ground in securing state funds to send his paper to deaf subscribers of New York State. In a 1987 letter, Paul Mercer, an Assistant Librarian at the New York State Library cited The Radii as an important early example “of State services to the hearing impaired.”
Since that time in our history, sign language has become a means of communicating with, not only the hearing impaired, but with individuals having other challenges as well. My autistic nephew, though vocal today, learned communicating at an early age by means of sign language.
In the near future, a historic marker, purchased by the Heritage & Genealogical Society of Montgomery County as part of their marker program, will be erected on Route 163 in Buel near the site of the Central Asylum School for the Deaf and Dumb. The marker will commemorate the significant educational stride that took place in our area, a stride that overcame many boundaries and taught acceptance.
Because the Central Asylum School for the Deaf and Dumb in Buel is believed to have been the first school of its kind to teach with the written manual alphabet (sign language), Montgomery County had a tremendous hand in promoting the education of the deaf. Next time you are in the area of Buel, remember our own little social reform that took place here in our county and what a significant service it proved for future generations.