Ivy Green tribute to Helen Keller's life.

Star Beacon, Alabama USA.
Thursday, May 25, 2006.

TUSCUMBIA, Ala. - Seventeen years before the death in 1968 of Helen Keller, whose accomplishments earned her worldwide fame, the city of Tuscumbia bought the home in which she was born.

Ivy Green, a spacious two-story, seven-room cottage built in 1820 by Keller's grandparents, is situated on the remaining acreage, which is settled in the midst of a modern residential section of this tiny burg.

Once inside the gates of Ivy Green, visitors are transported to 19th century Alabama. A short drive leads past a manicured lawn dotted with huge magnolias, mimosa trees and tangles of honeysuckle to the unassuming white home.

"Ivy Green is not only a part of Alabama history, it's important throughout the world," said site manager Sue Pilkilton, who calls it an honor to have been involved with Ivy Green for 35 years. "Helen Keller was such an ambassador to other countries; it's an international attraction that Alabama is very proud of."

Pilkilton said despite being "a hidden treasure up here in the northwest corner of the state," people from many countries seek it out, including those from Japan, New Zealand, China, England, China, Germany, France and more. The most foreign visitors are from Japan, she said.

The attraction for most is the pump where Helen Keller learned to relate objects and words.

"It doesn't matter where you come from, what country, the pump is the most important thing we have on the grounds," Pilkilton said. "Everyone relates to the miracle at the pump."

Dark, silent world

Helen Keller was the first child born to Capt. Arthur Henley Keller and Kate Adams Keller in 1880. Capt. Keller served in the Confederate Cavalry, was an attorney and the editor and publisher of The North Alabamian newspaper.

When Helen was 19 months old, she developed a raging fever. A doctor told Mrs. Keller the child likely would not live. If she did, he warned, she would have brain damage. The ailment was called brain fever and was likely scarlet fever or meningitis.

Mrs. Keller did not accept the prognosis and nursed the toddler through the fever. Within days of the fever breaking, Mrs. Keller noticed the child looked directly into bright sunlight without blinking. Upon checking, she realized Helen could no longer see nor hear. For the next seven years, Helen's parents spoiled her, allowing the child to eat from their plates and do as she pleased. Frustrated by her dark, silent world, Helen often threw tantrums.

But Mrs. Keller knew Helen was an intelligent child and sought the advice of Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf children at the time. At Bell's recommendation, the Kellers hired a teacher from the Perkins Institution.

Anne Sullivan arrived at Ivy Green in 1887 to be Helen's teacher. Sullivan realized the key to unlocking Helen's mind was discipline. Because the Kellers continued to spoil the unruly Helen, Sullivan asked to have two weeks alone with her. But the Kellers wanted to monitor Sullivan's methods, so it was agreed she and Helen would reside in the tiny outbuilding, which had been used as an office and later as a bridal suite so Capt. and Mrs. Keller could have privacy from the family members residing in the main house. Helen was born in this small building.

So Helen would not realize her parents were nearby, she and Sullivan were driven in a carriage for miles through the countryside before returning to the cottage that was only a few feet from the main house.

There, Helen finally learned to trust Sullivan, who was able to teach Helen to sign by "spelling" words in the palm of her hand. Helen went on to graduate Radcliff College in 1904, with Sullivan at her side. She toured the world, wrote 11 books and met 12 presidents. Helen remained an advocate for the blind and was a spokeswoman for the American Foundation for the Blind from 1924 until her death.

The home and grounds

At Ivy Green, visitors touring the main home will see early portraits of Helen, some of her clothing still hanging in a wardrobe, family portraits, portraits of Annie Sullivan and Polly Thompson, who was Helen's companion after Annie's death, the bed where Helen slept next to Sullivan's bed, as well as period pieces such as a fainting couch, petticoat table, and a 100-year-old quilt made by Helen's aunt.

A museum room houses examples of Braille books, Helen's books in various languages and other memorabilia. A cast of a bust sculpted of Helen is also housed here. The original is mounted atop a column outside her tomb in the National Cathedral in Washington, where she was laid to rest next to Sullivan and Thompson.

Just outside the back door of the home, the pump at which Helen so famously learned to communicate is situated beneath a pavilion built to protect it. Because Helen knew the word water (which she pronounced "wah wah") before her illness, she was able to finally connect the water coming from the pump and the fluttering in her palm from Sullivan's spelling. She suddenly understood her teacher was spelling words and that every object could be associated with a word. She learned 30 words that first day and was tireless in her desire to absorb knowledge from then on.

Beyond the pump is a ramshackle building housing the kitchen and cook's room. Period utensils and equipment fill the kitchen.

The bridal suite cottage is closed but can be viewed through glass coverings over doors and windows.

Further out back, a carriage house was built by a restoration architect to show how the one on the property may have looked. An 1866 carriage is on loan from the John Johnson family of Tuscumbia.

Erika Odell of Tuscumbia, who portrays Anne Sullivan in the production of "The Miracle Worker" at Ivy Green each summer, said performing at Helen Keller's birthplace is inspiring.

"Something about actually being at Ivy Green and seeing where Helen played and where Annie got locked in the bedroom and where the actual miracle took place, is magical," she said.

Ivy Green is listed in the National Register of Historic Sites.

Kelly Kazek writes for The News Courier in Athens, Ala.


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