Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller
Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama at Ivy Green, her family home. It is within 6 miles of my house and I'm embarrassed to say that, until two weeks ago, I had only been there once and that was on a class trip when I was very young. I'm writing an article for Alabama Gardener about gardening restoration at Ivy Green and I've been engrossed in a biography on her. I've heard of Helen Keller my entire life but I never realized just how famous she was. She was especially popular overseas, where admirers mobbed her like they do rock stars.
She was a fascinating woman and her achievements are quite remarkable. Try as I may, I just cannot fathom living in a world of darkness and silence. I also find the whole concept of sign language and reading lips (Helen did it by placing her fingers on a person's mouth) quite fascinating but totally perplexing. I still don't understand how Annie Sullivan could transcribe lectures by spelling it all with sign language. How did she keep up? It just baffles me!
Helen Keller was born a normal child but an illness (probably scarlet fever or meningitis) at the age of nineteen months left her totally deaf and blind. She grew up as a wild child, totally unmanageable by her bewildered and helpless parents. An article in a magazine led Helen's mother to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind for assistance. They sent Annie Sullivan, a young woman who had just recently graduated and was partially blind herself, to Tuscumbia to teach Helen sign language. With Sullivan's skills, Helen's remarkable transformation from an unruly child into a poised and intelligent woman made both of them world famous.
Helen Keller's birthplace, Ivy Green, so-called because the house and trees were clothed in blankets of ivy, is a tiny white clapboard house with an adjoining cottage and a few outbuildings. The surrounding 600+ acres were lush and filled with trees, shrubs and gardens that Helen's mother lovingly tended. Her mother adored roses and it was said that hers rivaled any you would find outside a glass house. She grew them on arches and all around the house.
An old family photo (taken after Helen was an adult) gives you a sense of what the property looked like.
Helen was actually born in this tiny cottage which sits about 30 yards from the main house.
Nature was very important to Helen Keller - she grew up playing in the garden and the woods around her home - she learned the scents of plants and the way they felt - later Annie Sullivan would teach her the names of them. Flowers and plants would continue to be a source of intense pleasure throughout her life.
One of her favorite places to play at Ivy Green was inside this boxwood circle. Recently, the volunteers have added a bench and planted 'Annabelle' hydrangeas.
In 1954, when Ivy Green was donated to the National Registry of Historic Places, most of the garden had vanished. Massive mature magnolias, boxwoods and other trees still dotted the landscape but the roses and other shrubs and flowers were gone. The city of Tuscumbia took care of the grounds and this mainly consisted of mowing the grass.
Thanks to the Shoals Master Gardeners, the Shoals Beautification Alliance, Men's Garden Club and various other local organizations, efforts are now underway to renovate the gardens. It is not a historically accurate recreation but rather creating areas with plants that Helen wrote about in her works and plants that are tactile and fragrant.
The fountain area has been recently renovated. Ragged nandinas around this bust of Helen Keller were replaced with colorful petunias.
A small Japanese garden has been added. Helen Keller made several trips to Japan. The concrete lantern is a gift from that country.
The famous pump where the "miracle" occurred - Annie Sullivan taught Helen her first word - "water"
More plans are in the works. An herb garden, a butterfly garden and a rose garden (I may be helping with that) are just some of the enhancements that are coming to Ivy Green. For more information about Helen Keller and Ivy Green, visit their website.