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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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