Saturday, May 27, 2023

In Their Footsteps: Helen Keller and Cape Cod

    In life, most people have to deal with some sort of adversity. Only a rare few have a path uninterrupted by tough times. Now imagine being dealt several unimaginable tragedies. How would you react? Most would not be blamed for throwing their hands in the air and giving up.

    Young Helen Keller was robbed of her sight and hearing as a young child. Though incredibly difficult to comprehend to those with all five senses Helen not only navigated those rough waters but thrived in life. Helen Keller became a living miracle and an icon of perseverance.

    The journey from not being able to see or hear the world to writing twelve books was long and arduous. Some of that journey took place on Cape Cod in the town of Brewster. This is the story of Helen Keller and her time spent on the sandy peninsula.

    Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. She was born a typical healthy baby. In the months leading up to her second birthday, Helen was struck with an illness. It is uncertain if it was scarlet fever, meningitis, or something else, but the results were catastrophic. Barely a toddler Helen was rendered both blind and deaf.

    Early childhood was tough for Helen. She had no formal education and was prone to fits of anger due to not being able to communicate. Without sight or hearing she also did not speak. Therefore Helen developed home signs to convey her needs and wants. It was clear to her family that Helen was extremely intelligent and simply needed a teacher to be able to help her reach her potential.

Helen Keller reading as a teenager.(Boston Public Library)

    Helen’s mother Katherine searched for help from experts including famed telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Ultimately Katherine was referred to a teacher named Anne Sullivan. She ended up being the most important person Helen Keller would ever meet.

    On March 3, 1887, Sullivan first met Helen at her home in Alabama. It seemed to be a match made in heaven. Sullivan was a graduate of Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. She was also nearly blind herself. This gave Sullivan a great deal of empathy toward what Helen was coping with. However, their relationship started rocky.

    During the first few weeks of their relationship, Helen kicked, bit, and pinched Sullivan, even knocking one of the teacher’s teeth out. She could have easily given up on Helen but she didn’t. Through patience and consistency, Anne Sullivan began to earn Helen’s trust.

    Sullivan taught Helen the alphabet by drawing letters on Helen’s palm. This included giving Helen a doll and spelling d-o-l-l into her hand. Within a few weeks, she had begun to understand. The key turning point was when Sullivan spelled w-a-t-e-r while also pumping water over Helen’s hand. From there on it was off to the races. Helen wanted to learn as many words as possible.

    A year was spent working at Helen’s home in Alabama. In May 1888 Sullivan brought Helen to Perkins School for the Blind. This was where Keller learned to read braille and also type with a specially-made typewriter. Helen learned 1,500 words within a year thanks to the help of Anne Sullivan and the Perkins School. Her miraculous achievements began to be chronicled in newspapers nationwide.

    It was in 1888 while studying at Perkins that Helen Keller’s connection to Cape Cod came to be. During her own studies at the Perkins School, Anne Sullivan met Brewster, Massachusetts resident Sophia Crocker-Hopkins. Hopkins had gotten a job as a house mother at Perkins after the tragic death of her daughter Florence in 1883. A sea captain’s widow, Sophia brought Sullivan home with her to Brewster during the school’s summer break to stay at her home located at 1491 Main Street. Sullivan fell in love with the Cape and wanted to share its majesty with young Helen.

    In July of 1888, Sullivan brought eight-year-old Helen down to Cape Cod for the first time. The pair stayed with Sophia at her boarding house in Brewster. It was during this initial visit that Helen first ventured to the sea. She took a series of sandy paths along with Anne to the area of present-day Breakwater Beach.

Breakwater Beach in Brewster, the area Helen visited in 1888.

    In her first autobiography, The Story of My Life, written in 1903, Helen wrote that her first encounter with the ocean was a mixed bag. She was enraptured by the smell of the salty air and fascinated by the sheer enormity of the ocean. Helen admitted that she could sense how big it was.

    The eight-year-old jumped into the water full of exuberance. It was then that her foot struck a rock and plunged her underwater. Though she was never in danger the experience did make her timid around the mighty ocean. Fortunately by the end of her time on Cape Cod that summer Helen was firmly in love with the ocean again. She even wrote in her autobiography a story of Anne bringing her a horseshoe crab and her amazement at it.

    It was during this first visit to Cape Cod that a famous photo was taken. A local photographer named Cornelius Chenery snapped a brilliant photo of young Helen sitting in a chair and cradling a doll that had been given to her by Sophia Crocker-Hopkins. Kneeling beside the child is Anne Sullivan looking on with what can only be described as pride. Throughout their time together Anne would take up that role of beaming with pride at Helen’s achievements from the background.

The famed photo of young Helen and Anne Sullivan taken in Brewster in July 1888.(Wikipedia)

    The first trip to Cape Cod was such a joy that Sullivan brought Helen back in May 1890 for a week's stay. Again they stayed with Sophia on Main Street in Brewster. The local newspapers heaped praise on Keller upon her return. At that point, they remarked that her vocabulary was north of 3,000 words. She also could recognize people she knew by their scent or even the clothes they wore. The most spectacular news relayed in the article was Helen learning to speak herself.

    The incredible achievement was learned first by Helen placing her hands on Anne’s throat and lips. Sullivan would speak and Helen would try to mimic the words. Not only did she speak but she did an interview. It was here that Helen spoke to a stranger for the first time in her life. In time Helen would also be able to ‘hear’ music as well.

    The next time Helen Keller visited Cape Cod was in July 1894. She and Anne Sullivan stayed with Sophia for much of the summer. However, by this point, fourteen-year-old Helen was somewhat of a national celebrity due to her incredible achievements despite tremendous adversity.

    This could not have been made more evident than when a reception was held in her honor. It was no ordinary reception. This was a party thrown by First Lady Frances Cleveland, wife of the-President Grover Cleveland, at their summer White House known as Gray Gables located in Bourne. Over her lifetime Helen Keller went on to meet every United States president from Cleveland to John F. Kennedy.

    Anne and Helen continued to visit Sophia in Brewster including in 1896 and 1897. In August 1903 Helen brought her mother Katherine with her to visit Sophia in Brewster. This was due to the fact that in 1901 Anne Sullivan suffered a major stroke that left her completely blind and she was recovering.

    1904 saw Helen graduate from Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her friend Mark Twain had introduced Helen to Standard Oil magnate Henry H. Rogers. He along with his wife Abbie had paid for Helen’s education. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

    In the fall of 1904 Helen and Anne purchased a house in Wrentham, Massachusetts. Located only an hour or so from Brewster meant that Sophia could visit her friends there during the winter. Not long after buying the house, Anne Sullivan married John A. Macy. He was a Harvard instructor and literary critic who had helped Helen in getting her works published.

The Iyanough House in Hyannis the site of Helen's last Cape visit in 1908.

    Macy moved in with Anne and Helen in Wrentham. He even joined them in staying at the then-new Iyanough House hotel on Main Street in Hyannis in September 1908. However, the marriage soon began to fall apart. That said, the couple would never officially divorce.

    Anne Sullivan’s health began to trend downward. Helen Keller’s celebrity and drive for social causes including disability rights and women’s suffrage only grew. This meant that visits to Cape Cod ended after the final trip in 1908. Helen remained in the spotlight on the Cape, just in the form of numerous newspaper articles about her amazing achievements.

Helen Keller's autobiography written in 1903.

    Sadly Anne passed away on October 15, 1936, at the age of 70. She and Helen had been inseparable for fifty years and Helen was there with her at the end. By the time of her own death on June 1, 1968, at the age of 87 Helen Keller was a legend.

    Helen Keller became a 20th-century icon with twelve books published and numerous articles. She championed social causes, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame. All of this was done without the ability to see or hear the world around her. Helen Keller’s courage, intelligence, and unyielding determination, are the types of things that seem impossible.

    Over a period of 20 years, Helen made frequent visits to Cape Cod. She walked to the ocean and smelled the salty air. She soaked up the summer sun, touched the grass, and smelled the flowers. Cape Cod became a beloved part of her life much like it has for many who have lived and visited there.

1491 Main Street in Brewster where Helen stayed numerous times.

    The house Helen Keller stayed in numerous times over the years with Anne Sullivan still stands at 1491 Main Street in Brewster. Several artifacts from Helen’s time on Cape Cod can be viewed at the Brewster Historical Society in the Captain Elijah Cobb House at 739 Lower Road in Brewster.


Purchase a DVD copy of the Lady of the Dunes documentary here:

Purchase the new book Searching for the Lady of the Dunes written by 12th Generation Cape Codder Christopher Setterlund.


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