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by Peggy Chong, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Charles Abbott was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in December, 1864, to William and Lizzie Abbott, the youngest of at least twelve children. His family can date their roots in Somerset, Maryland, back to the late 1600s when his ancestor, John Bounds, moved there from Virginia.
At about age eight, Charles went blind from an undocumented illness. He was sent to the School for the Blind in Baltimore where he learned the skill of piano tuning and also studied music. The illness that blinded him may have also taken the lives of his parents, as they both died near the time when Charles lost his vision. As a result, the Abbott siblings were split up and went separate ways.
When Charles was 15, he moved in with his brother-in-law, William Taylor, only 17 himself, who was working on a farm as a servant. Charles stayed with William that census year and most likely attended school during the winter months.
In 1890, Charles traveled across the country and took a job at the Iowa College for the Blind. He taught piano tuning classes in the industrial area. In 1895, about the time the college stopped focusing on full-time instruction for blind adults, Charles moved to Black Hawk County, Iowa.
Charles became locally well-known as the totally blind man who worked as a musician and a piano tuner in the towns of Webster City, La Porte, and Iowa Falls. He was an enthusiastic, intelligent man who made friends easily wherever he traveled. Charles built his own house in Iowa Falls, just north of the (then) Ellsworth College, and by 1904, he owned it free and clear.
Charles earned his living as a piano tuner by traveling with his tools by railroad from town to town by himself. Other than asking for directions of passers-by from time to time, he walked the streets without assistance. When he had some extra money, he would place an ad in a local paper, but many times, he just left a handwritten flyer advertising his services on the board at a local post office as was the custom at that time. To organize his appointments, Charles had customers leave messages with a friendly shop owner or at the post office in a particular town. When he got back to town, Charles checked in with his local contact and then he walked to customers' homes or businesses. He would either tune the piano that day or make an appointment to do so while in town or on his next visit.
If Charles arrived early when he traveled to a town where he had arranged a tuning appointment, he used the extra time to drum up other business for himself by going door-to-door, networking with those he knew in town and just asking around. Sometimes, this might result in a concert at a local church or meeting hall netting a few extra dollars. Charles' excellent memory enabled him to remember the street layout in many communities as well as where the residents lived and some details about their lives. Abbott also taught violin, mostly to students in the community where he lived. His classes were advertised in local papers and, at times, teaching was a big part of his income.
In late December of 1903, Charles went to the train depot in Webster City, where he was working at the time, to board the midnight train to his home in Iowa Falls, a trip that he had done many times by himself. He purchased his ticket and waited for the train.
At midnight, the Illinois Central train pulled in and Charles started to board. A conductor stopped him and asked if he was blind and if there was any sighted person traveling with him to take care of him.
Charles responded that, no, there was no one traveling with him, but that was not a problem. He was quite able to travel by himself and had done so hundreds of times. The conductor declared that there was a rule on the Illinois Central Railroad that a blind person could not travel alone. He would not let Charles board the train.
No matter what Charles said, he was unable to convince the conductor to let him on the train that night. There was no one at the depot or on the train who knew Charles and would vouch for him. So he went back to his hotel for the night.
The next morning, he told many of his friends in Webster City what had occurred the night before. He still needed to get to Iowa Falls. A friend of his said that he would help, but he could not take the time to ride all the way to Iowa Falls and back. So the two men set out to the train depot to catch the noon train, with his friend pretending to be in charge of Charles. Charles bought their tickets, and they boarded the train. Just before the train pulled out of the station, his sighted friend jumped off the train. Charles proceeded home to Iowa Falls.
Charles could not let the matter of the "rule" drop. Immediately, he telegraphed the Illinois Central Railroad office and asked if there really was such a rule about blind people being unable to travel without a sighted person. He received a telegram from the railroad, saying that, yes, indeed, there was such a rule in place. The rule was over a year old, and that the railroad had every intention of enforcing it. The home office wholly supported their conductor in refusing to allow Charles to ride unattended.
This harsh rule would cause Charles Abbott and other blind people who frequently traveled alone great hardship. As an independent piano tuner, Charles could not afford to pay the travel costs of a sighted person to accompany him everywhere he went. After all, he had been traveling across the state and around the country by train for many years, mostly by himself. He had never had an accident or fallen on a train. To ban him from riding just because he was blind was wrong.
So Charles hired an attorney, D. C. Chase of Webster City, to file a lawsuit in district court against the railroad. The Waterloo newspaper for July 21, 1904, reported that Charles won his case, and the rule had been dropped. He and any other blind person could now ride Illinois Central trains without an accompanying sighted person. In addition, Charles was paid $100 to cover the expense of having had to bring a sighted person along on his railroad travels before the court's decision. The article also documented that he got a special pass to ride the trains for free as part of the payment for the embarrassment the railroad had caused him, as well as a substantial monetary settlement of an undisclosed amount.
By the end of 1906, Charles had turned inventor. Not only did he teach music, tune pianos and perform at many functions, but he, like many of his neighbors, raised chickens. When Charles needed a non-visual way to regulate the heat in the pens so that his flock would thrive, he designed a heater regulator. The device had a bell that sounded when the temperature was falling too low or rising too high for the chickens' well-being, and he filed for a patent on it in 1907.
Charles Abbott passed away in January of 1924, and his obituary appeared in many Iowa papers for weeks after his death. It was said that he was still working as a piano tuner right until the end of his life.
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References include the following local newspapers: THE CEDAR RAPIDS EVENING GAZETTE; WATERLOO DAILY COURIER; WATERLOO DAILY REPORTER, RENWICK TIMES, SPIRIT LAKE BEACON, SEMI WEEKLY IOWA STATE REPORTER, and THE UNION REPUBLICAN.
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