Besides music, want a good reason to visit Tuscumbia in The Shoals area of Alabama? How about a visit to Ivy Green and watching outdoor drama The Miracle Worker. What, you can’t find Tuscumbia on a map and aren’t sure Helen Keller was even real? Even more reason to drive, fly or hitchhike as soon as possible to learn about this Southern hero for the blind and deaf.
by Kathleen Walls
Who is Hellen Keller?
Helen Keller was arguably the most remarkable woman of her era. She was born in 1880 to former Confederate Army Captain Arthur and Kate Adams Keller. Healthy at birth, a raging fever at 19 months old left her totally blind and deaf.As an adult, Helen became one of the most famous advocates for the blind.
Helen’s parents did not know how to deal with her new disabilities. They loved her and didn’t want to put her in an institution, so they let her do whatever she wanted. As a consequence, she became a raging, petty tyrant who terrorized the family.
One interesting story a guide will tell you shows the Kellers’ early life: “The family used the closet for storage. Her mother went to get something out of the closet. The key was in the door. Helen turned it and locked her mother in. Helen went out onto the front porch step and sat there. In her book, Helen later wrote that even though she could not hear her mother, she could feel her. The vibrations from the banging as she tried to get out of the closet were so strong they carried out onto the porch. That was her entertainment.”
Finally, in desperation, they sought help from a friend, Alexander Graham Bell. Fortunately, that led Anne Sullivan to become young Helen’s teacher. As an adult, Helen became one of the most famous advocates for the blind.
Another story of interest is that Helen locked Anne Sullivan in their bedroom the first night the teacher arrived. The family thought she must have been too tired to come down to dinner. Eventually, Capt. Arthur went to see what was wrong and found Anne locked in the bedroom. Helen had hidden the key, so they had to help Anne out of the room through an upstairs window. The guide described Helen as, “quite a mischievous child.”
Her home, Ivy Green, is open for tours weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is closed on Sundays and holidays. It’s a small, simple home as far as Southern homes go. The knowledgeable guide will tell family stories as they show you the four rooms downstairs and the three small rooms upstairs. There is a closet under the stairs.
The house is furnished with the Keller family possessions, and the back bedroom that would have been Helen’s Aunt Evelyn’s room is now a small museum dedicated to Helen’s accomplishments. The highlight is a copy of a bronze statue by Edward Hlavka of seven-year-old Helen at the water fountain where the first breakthrough in her education began. The original sits in the Capitol Visitors Center in Washington.
After touring the home, take time to stroll around the grounds. There is the Carriage House, which was where Anne stayed with Helen to teach without the interference of family members in the house. The outdoor kitchen and cook’s house is preserved. There’s a tall loblolly pine tree that is known as a Moon Tree. It grew from a seed taken in an Apollo flight around the moon in 1971. There’s a moving memorial about Helen’s challenge to the Lions Club to “Become Knights for the Blind.” Of course, there is the water pump that played such a part in Helen’s learning process.
The Miracle Worker
If you visit on a weekend from early June through mid-July, you can see the play “The Miracle Worker.” It’s presented in an amphitheater on the grounds. The cast does a terrific job. Each actor fits their part as the author wrote it for them. The girl who played Helen in the Saturday night play, Audrey Kate Rickard, must head for Hollywood when she grows up. Although she was obviously a few years older than the seven-year-old Helen she portrays, she gave an Oscar-worthy performance. Although the play omits some of Helen’s siblings, it stays true to the facts. William Gibson wrote the play, and it was later adapted for the movie of the same name. Gibson won a Tony Award for Best Play for “The Miracle Worker.”
The play begins when Helen, as a toddler, is stricken. The act opens when she is about six years old and a holy terror. Her half-brother, Jimmy, suggests they put her in an institution. He and his father have an explosive argument over his suggestion. As the play progresses, Anne comes in as Helen’s teacher. There is a lot of conflict as Anne is from the North, and Arthur is still very much a rebel soldier. Naturally, Helen resents Anne’s efforts to discipline her. The play shows when Helen locks her in the bedroom.
Anne has her own baggage. She is partially blind herself. She was institutionalized as a child after her mother died and her father abandoned them. Her brother, also named Jimmy, died after being separated from her in a different institution. She takes the challenge of helping Helen personally.
The play brings out each character’s personality beautifully. The scenes where Helen becomes violent and Anne practically wrestles with her in an attempt to correct her behavior are fantastic. Hollywood could not have choreographed them better. When Anne realizes she cannot make progress while the family is around Helen and giving tacit approval to her most violent behavior, Anne gets them to move herself and Helen to the Carriage House.
Anne has been trying to teach Helen by giving the spelling in sign language for each object in Helen’s hands. Helen, although mimicking sign language, isn’t understanding the connection. Finally, in the play’s climax, as in real life, that pivotal moment happens. Anne is standing at the well pumping water over little Helen’s left hand and signing the letters for W-A-T-E-R in her right hand. You see the astonishment on Helen’s face. It hits her. These letters are names. She speaks for the first time and says “water.”
The play ends as the enlightened child rushes around touching objects while Anne gives her the signage for the corresponding words.
In real life, Helen Keller learned Braille, became the first blind and deaf person to graduate “cum laude” from Radcliffe College and became an activist for blind, deaf and handicapped worldwide. She lectured in over 25 countries, wrote 12 books and numerous articles. She was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame and the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She met every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson. She died on June 1, 1968, just before her 88th birthday.
In February, Opera Birmingham announced the commission of a new opera based on the lives of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, scheduled for its world premiere in January 2024. “Touch” picks up where “The Miracle Worker” ends, exploring the complicated relationship between Keller, Sullivan, John Macy (Anne’s husband) and Peter Fagan (Helen’s interpreter and star-crossed lover).
Helen Keller is why a trip to Tuscumbia is worth taking, but you’ll also be able to hear the music native to the area called “The Muscle Shoals Sound” and see the studios that made it.
Kathleen Walls, former reporter for Union Sentinel in Blairsville, Georgia, is publisher/writer for American Roads and Global Highways. She is the author of travel books Georgia’s Ghostly Getaways, Finding Florida’s Phantoms, Hosts With Ghosts and “Wild About Florida” series. Her articles have appeared in Food Wine Travel Magazine, Family Motor Coaching Association, Weekender Extended, Travel World International, Georgia Magazine and others. She is a photographer with many of her original photographs appearing in her travel ezine and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @katywalls, and read her previous stories in Deep South here.