The Oregon School for the Deaf: How a School Became a Community

October 18, 2022

By Maria Carpenter

Sports were (and still are) a major part of life at the Oregon School for the Deaf (OSD). This photograph shows the OSD boys 1945–1946 basketball team. Boys basketball began at OSD in 1902 and continues to the present day. Pictured in the photograph (left to right) are: (back row) Lyle Blakely, Ervin Shepard, Danny Heiken; (middle row) Morris Harrison, Delbert Kessler, Teddy Ellison, Gordon Garboden; (front row) Richard Randolph, James Jackson, Robert Dennis, Royal Teets, Billy Foren. OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 7, 008.

As part of a directed field work internship through the University of Washington, I spent about eight weeks in OHS’s research library preparing the Oregon School for the Deaf photographs collection (Org. Lot 618) for digitization. These 75 photographs cover the time period from the founding of the school in 1870 to 1989, when they were donated to OHS, and serve as a record of the Deaf  community the school helped build.

For deaf residents in Oregon during the nineteenth century, life was frequently an isolating experience. Without the ability to communicate and network, deaf adults struggled to support themselves and their families, and deaf children struggled to learn and make friends with hearing classmates in their local schools. The founding of a school for deaf and hard of hearing children in 1870 changed this, helping to build a Deaf community and culture in Oregon that continues to this day.

The Oregon School for the Deaf (OSD), originally established in 1870, was the state’s first school for the deaf. William S. Smith, a deaf teacher, founded the school and the Oregon State Legislature provided a $2,000 annual budget for its operation. Smith traveled across Oregon by horse and cart to persuade families to send their deaf children to the school, where they would be taught reading, writing, math, science, and “moral lessons” through an early form of American Sign Language (ASL). As a boarding school, OSD became a second home to many students, where they learned life skills such as cooking, cleaning, finances, and manners. Throughout much of the school’s history, students ate at family-style, sit-down meals, and they took turns cooking, serving, and cleaning up.

Portrait of William S. Smith, teacher and founder of the Oregon School for the Deaf, ca. 1870. OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 12, 001.
William S. Smith founded the Oregon School for the Deaf in 1870. Smith was born in 1844 in Montreal, Canada. He lost his hearing as a child due to illness and was educated at the New York School for the Deaf. Smith taught at the Michigan School for the Deaf and the California School for the Deaf before moving to Oregon. He is regarded as a key figure in the creation of a Deaf culture and community in Oregon. OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 12, 001.
Printing Office, Oregon School for the Deaf, 1916. OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, box 1, folder 10, 005.
Students work in the Oregon School for the Deaf’s printing office in 1916. Printing classes were taught at that time by Thure Lindstrom, who taught at the school from 1906 to 1954. OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 10, 005.

Smith and subsequent school superintendents advocated for additional state funding to allow students to learn trades. One of the earliest trades taught at OSD was printing, a trade many deaf people chose because it was a loud and often solitary profession. OSD students wrote and published newsletters that they exchanged with students from other schools for the deaf, which helped to link OSD to the greater Deaf community. Over time, OSD added additional trades to the curriculum, including woodworking, leatherworking, farming, and sewing.

Between lessons and chores, students at OSD had free time for recreation and to make friends. In the winter, they played in the deep snow that fell around the school or read in the school’s parlors. Beginning in the early 1900s, students also began participating in extracurricular activities such as basketball, Boy Scouts, and the knitting club. Although the teams were small, the students were enthusiastic participants and took pride in their school. The OSD teams competed against local teams and traveled to compete against other schools for the deaf. These competitions often resulted in the students having meals with and getting to know the competing team members, sometimes forming lasting friendships.

Currently, OSD uses a bilingual educational model including both American Sign Language and written English to teach students from kindergarten through the school’s Adult Transition Program. Students also continue to participate in sports, clubs, and other activities such as the Nightmare Factory, Oregon’s longest running haunted house. Founded in 1987, the Nightmare Factory is built, acted in, managed, and operated by students. The funds raised support student activities such as sports and video-editing elective courses.

OSD also has a very active alumni association whose members support school events, attend games, raise funds, and organize school celebrations. The association also funds and manages the school’s museum and archive, which displays historical objects and holds documents and periodicals related to the history of the school. Alumni enthusiasm and support for the school shows how it has positively affected their lives. Many alumni are also members of the Oregon Association of the Deaf, an advocacy group that supports deaf Oregonians’ civil rights and works to improve their quality of life. 

Oregon Association of the Deaf First Biennial Meeting, June 1921. OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 9, 003.
About 150 people, including the former Oregon School for the Deaf students pictured here, attended the first meeting of the Oregon Association of the Deaf in June 1921. The Oregon Association of the Deaf is still in operation today, advocating for the civil rights of deaf and hard of hearing individuals as well as the use of ASL. OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 9, 003.

Throughout its 150-year history, OSD has built a community of deaf individuals, serving as a hub for Deaf culture in Oregon. You can learn more about the history of OSD and the community it has helped create in OHS’s research library collection guide, or by viewing a selection of photographs from the school online in OHS Digital Collections, a few of which are included in the slideshow below. 

Tyro Elliott in His Soapbox Derby Race Car, Oregon School for the Deaf, 1954. OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 8, 009.

Students from the Oregon School for the Deaf competed in soapbox derbies in Salem using “bugs” they built themselves. It was one of many activities that allowed students to get off campus and engage in the greater Salem community. This photograph shows one student, Tyro Elliott, sitting in his soapbox derby car, the Shooting Star, at the 1954 competition in Salem.

OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 8, 009.

Older girls’ parlor, Oregon School for the Deaf, 1907. OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 8, 001.

Students at the Oregon School for the Deaf could spend their free time relaxing in the parlors of the school. The older girls shown here are reading magazines, newspapers, and periodicals sent to OSD from other schools for the deaf. From left to right are: Pearl Pickett, Grace Smith, Grace Kau, Mattie McCain, Fay Newth, Ruth Thomas, unknown, Clara Hagen, unknown, Alice Litchenberger, Ruba Westfall, Lotus Valentine, and Hulda Isaacson.

OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 8, 001.

Girls basketball team sitting, Oregon School for the Deaf, 1913. OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 7, 002.

Both boys and girls participated in sports at the Oregon School for the Deaf. This photograph shows the girls basketball team in 1913, although girls basketball started as early as 1904. Kneeling (left to right) are: Adah Yoran, Lily Mokko, Grace Wolf. Sitting (left to right) are: Clara Hagen, Mattie McClain, Anna Schulz. An unknown coach is standing.

OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 7, 002.

Student dining room, Oregon School for the Deaf, 1916. OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 4, 002.

Students sit for a meal in the student dining room at the Oregon School for the Deaf in 1916. The students ate family-style, separated by gender, and took turns serving and cleaning up the meals.

OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 4, 002.

Children playing in the snow, Oregon School for the Deaf, 1925–1926. OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 8, 006.

Four young boys play in the snow during the winter of 1925–1926. Behind them is the old steam plant, which heated most of the school at the time.

OHS Research Library, Oregon School for the Deaf photographs, Org. Lot 618, folder 8, 006.

Sources

R.A.R Edwards. Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture. The History of Disability. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

Linda Hearle. The 140th Anniversary of Oregon School for the Deaf. Printing and Binding Warehouse, 2010.

“Oregon Association of the Deaf,” https://www.oad1921.org/home (accessed August 17, 2022).

Oregon.gov. “Oregon School for the Deaf: About OSD,” https://www.oregon.gov/osd/about-us/Pages/default.aspx (accessed July 20, 2022).

The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of OHS. The Oregon Historical Society does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.