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The Maine Institution for the Blind

The Maine Institution for the Blind
Jul 19, 2017

For over a hundred years, this collection of buildings has faithfully served the visually impaired of Maine to exceptional degrees. The Maine Institution for the Blind, founded by the blind mechanic and musician William J. Ryan in 1905, is now known as IRIS Network Serving the Blind.

William J. Ryan was born in June 1864 in South Portland, the son of Robert Ryan, a sea captain, and Mary Berrill, a native of Nova Scotia, according to his death certificate. To date, no record of Robert Ryan has been found, but Mary Berrill Ryan remarried to William Macgowan, a painter from Prince Edward Island. Their son George E. Macgowan was the city messenger for years and superintendant and agent of the James P. Baxter estate (1911-1932).

William Ryan attended local public schools, but at an early age became totally blind. In 1882, he began an annual two-month tour of Maine selling copies of the Old Maine Farmer’s Almanac and continued in this role for the next forty years. A 1920 newspaper article stated that Ryan “has little difficulty in finding his way about the various cities and towns, and knows the layout of the streets in the outside places fully as well as in his own home. He enjoys a large acquaintance in the various sections of Maine and is always received with welcome” (27 Oct 1920, Portland Evening Express). For decades, Ryan traveled the streets of Portland pulling a cart, ringing a bell and politely enquiring who needed chairs repaired. For many years he was allowed use of the City Building on Myrtle Street for his business and roomed on Federal Street.

From at least the late 1880s on, the city of Portland hosted “The Blind Boy’s Benefit” for W. J. Ryan. For instance, on October 29, 1890, a “grand concert” was held at City Hall and the Harvard Quartette took part. Ryan himself was a musician and performed in numerous local productions. His friends once presented him with a “handsome silver plated cornet” (28 Mar 1891 Eastern Argus).

Countless people helped W. J. Ryan in his endeavors over the years and he wanted to give back. The education and care of the blind was forever dear to his heart. When he realized that Maine had no laws for the rights of blind people, Ryan dreamed of an association of the blind who could become self-supporting citizens in an institution where they were “able to stand up at the work-bench and earn {their} daily bread.” He collected over $2000 in subscriptions on one excursion through the state and later had a bill drawn up and introduced in the Maine State Legislature (1901). This bill was lost in the shuffle, but the Maine Association for the Blind sent Ryan twice more to the State House (1903, 1905) to get the bill before the committee on appropriations (see “Maine’s New Institution for the Blind,” Board of Trade Journal, October 1909).

The Maine Institution for the Blind was incorporated on June 23, 1905, with William J. Ryan (treasurer), Hon. Morrill N. Drew (president), and J. Calvin Knapp (clerk) as its board of directors. When the Maine legislature convened in 1905, the institution had twenty-five members on the board, as well as two-hundred regular members. Another bill was introduced at this time which resulted in “an appropriation by which to equip and operate the Institution” (later adduced at $40,000). By 1909 the board of directors included such lights as General Joshua L. Chamberlain and Hon. Frederic E. Boothby, as well as Irish-Americans William Lynch of Portland and Patrick H. Gillin, a successful attorney in Bangor.

William J. Ryan continued his dedicated efforts and was present when the cornerstone was laid for the new institution on September 9, 1908. At the time it was declared that its purpose was “to teach the adult blind such trades as broom making, chair caning, mattress making, and other trades not yet decided on.” Interested parties from all over helped to raise money for the construction of the center, including the famous blind girl Helen Keller (whose entertainment netted $1000) and the local Women’s Literary Union.

The noted local architect Frederick A. Tompson (1857-1919) designed the buildings of the Maine Institution for the Blind, which were officially opened October 18, 1909. Among the contractors were Flaherty Brothers (Patrick H. and Edward A.), a firm who did the plastering and stucco work. The complex consisted of the administration building (made of red brick with granite and limestone trimmings) and the school and workshop, later named the Ryan Building. Men and women dormitories were added later; each dorm room had a radio by 1939.

William J. Ryan repaired chairs at the institution and traveled throughout the state as the blind school’s agent until his death in June 1936 from heart disease and broncho pneumonia at the age of 71. He was remembered for many years as the best friend of the visually impaired in the State of Maine.

In 1980, the institution was renamed the Maine Center for the Blind, to stress its complete overhaul after years of neglect. By 1985, the center could boast of a Residential Rehabilitation program, which was comprised of rehabilitation teachers, Braille writers, an orientation and mobility instructor, a training kitchen, and a model apartment. In the 1990s it became the IRIS Network.

Author Matt Barker
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