National Federation of the Blind of Colorado historical documents found

The discovery of a treasure trove of forgotten documents illuminating the lives of Colorado’s blind population a century ago is all thanks to a burst water pipe in an office storage room.

People cleaning up the water damage at the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado’s Littleton offices before the pandemic found a wealth of the organization’s meeting minutes and historical documents from the early 1900s through the ’60s. Some documents were lost to mildew and ruin, but people managed to save others by blasting them with hair dryers.

“We were surprised to find our own history right under our noses,” said Jessica Beecham, president of the federation’s Colorado chapter.

Peggy Chong, a blind Coloradan who catalogs the history of the visually impaired in the state, knew this information needed to be archived and shared far and wide. She undertook a project to preserve what had been forgotten.

“We do not want our history lost,” Chong said. “We are such a small minority, even in the disability community. A lot of our records end up going in the trash bins.”

When the pandemic hit, Chong initially feared the momentum she’d gained gathering volunteers, sifting through documents and archiving what had been found would come to a screeching halt. But she found that being stuck inside proved fruitful for more than a hundred volunteers looking for something to occupy their time.

After two years, the documents have been sorted, transcribed and are in the process of being digitized and uploaded to a national library database. Chong is reaching out to descendants of people mentioned in the records to either share information tucked inside the pages or learn more from the families she reaches.

New information about Colorado’s blind history was uncovered, she said. Project records show eight blind legislators and one blind governor — Elias M. Ammons, who held office from 1913 to 1915 — served in Colorado’s state government.

It’s long been known that Ammons was visually impaired, but Chong said the documents revealed the severity of that impairment. By today’s standards, Ammons likely would be considered legally blind, Chong said, which would make him the first known blind governor in the United States.

“At least one blind person has served in the statehouse, senate or governor’s office in every decade between 1890 and the 1950s,” Chong said.

Nikki Tennant, 82, was awarded a plaque by the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado for being its longest-serving volunteer. The organization is the oldest and largest organization of blind people in Colorado. The federation previously was known as United Workers for the Blind of Colorado and Colorado Federation of the Blind.

Tennant spent 18 months transcribing the documents — newspaper articles, handwritten National Federation of the Blind of Colorado meeting minutes, typed memos — into an online document. People who are visually impaired can use screen-reading technology to read through the findings. And some who can read Braille were tasked with translating historic documents that were written in Braille.

“You could even do it in your jammies,” Chong said.

Because blindness doesn’t often impact an entire family, Chong said learning about blind history can be an isolating experience filled with information about the clinical aspects of the disability, but less so the inspiring stories of visually impaired people making their mark on the world.

When one document led Chong to Charles Smith, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado in the early 1940s, she found herself eager to learn more about the man. Chong found information about Smith on and contacted one of his descendants, Karen Hardy, 61.

Hardy connected Chong with her mother, 88-year-old Molly Link of Aurora, who said Smith was her hero.

“When I was a little girl, I thought all grandfathers were blind,” Link said. “This is an incredible thrill for me to have people wanting to learn about him because I’m so proud of him. He overcame so much, and it’s so exciting that others can learn about him.”

Smith, born in 1878, lost his sight as a young man when he was hit in the eye with a baseball, which caused a severe infection.

Link treasured time with her grandfather, who used marked cards to teach her to play cribbage and religiously listened to the radio broadcasts of Colorado’s minor league baseball teams — still loving the game fiercely even after his accident.

Smith worked as a telegrapher for the Associated Press at the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post. Known as “Morse men,” telegraphers would translate news that came over the wire in Morse code and type it out on their typewriters for the newspaper. Smith’s obituary said he was one of the first in the country to know about all the world’s doings and undoings, and was one of the fastest telegraphers in the business.

As Link shuffled through a binder stuffed with news articles, photographs and documents associated with her grandfather, she said she felt a sense of pride to have shared this information with Chong, who will now share it with the world.

Amy Hitchner, metadata and integration services consultant at the Colorado State Library, is helping ensure the information is accessible to all. Hitchner helps run a program called Colorado Virtual Library that puts smaller collections in Colorado and Wyoming into a digital public library.

Hitchner got involved in the archival work when Chong inquired about how to put the information somewhere where anyone could access it. The collection should be launching live soon.

“It’s a really cool program because we have these little organizations who normally wouldn’t be able to participate in something that’s a national search database, but now their collections are being searched alongside all these huge collections like the New York Public Library and these very large national cultural heritage organizations,” Hitchner said. “There’s this bigger story that opens up now that you’ve gone and shared it in this wider way.”

Chong hopes that by sharing these stories of Colorado’s blind history, more visually impaired people will be inspired to dream big and achieve their goals.

“Life should not stop because you’ve lost your eyesight,” Chong said. “There’s so much out there and so many people who could inspire you with their stories. We should be teaching our blind children so they know they can run for governor.”

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