Historical Society of Watertown Essay Contest

The Historical Society of Watertown has sponsored various essay contests dating back to 1928 to encourage students to learn and write about Watertown history.  Since 1999, the Historical Society Award has been given annually to the three  high school students who submit the best essays based on a choice of four themes: an individual, ethnic group, landmark or historical event in Watertown and its significance to the town and region.  Information on contest winners dating back to 2005 is available.  Besides the award, the first place winner receives a $300 prize, while the second and third place winners each receive a $100 prize.  The winning essays are chosen by a panel of Historical Society Council members and the awards are presented in June in the Watertown High School lecture hall.

The Historical Society appreciates the effort taken by Social Studies Coordinator Kraig Gustafson and the High School staff to encourage students to develop an interest in the history of their town.  The Historical Society Councilors look forward to reading the essays every year.

In 2018, first place was awarded to 9th grader Henry Yusem for his essay "The Indelible Impression of Samuel Howe on Watertown and the World," the text of which is included below.

Second place went to 9th grader Irene Kandilas for her essay titled "The Charles River."  Third place was awarded to 9th grader Shabnam Begum for her essay "Town of Watertown."


First Place 2018

The Indelible Impression of Samuel Howe on Watertown and the World
by Henry Yusem (Grade 9)

Samuel Gridley Howe (1801–1876) indirectly and indelibly established Watertown as a pioneering center in teaching the disabled when the school he founded, Perkins School for the Blind, moved there in 1912.  It is also crucial to recognize that Samuel Howe was not just an important figure in Watertown; he was also a notable figure on a national scale.  Howe’s school helped Watertown become nationally renowned as the location of the oldest and most widely known school for the blind in the nation.

How did Samuel Howe get the idea for creating a school for the blind?  Nobody outside of Europe had even tried this before which would make an attempt by Howe seem crazy.  An explanation for Howe’s extensive work with the disabled, and later the creation of Perkins could be that he was a prominent and devoted physician.  Another reason could be his experiences in Greece and Turkey during their vicious Guerilla war.  In this barbarous war between the two countries Howe had many experiences with the disabled due to the war since he was a surgeon in the Greek army.  The war showed Samuel Howe just how many disabled people there were in the world and how many needed help.  Samuel decided to help by providing specialized education for the disabled, only now he needed a place to teach.  Samuel made it his mission to create better facilities for the disabled as there were not many at the time.  Howe found no better time to campaign for this than during the United States’ reform movement.  During this time he also met many other people who were militant about education for the disabled such as Dr. John Dix Fisher who shared his ideas with Howe and the flipside was true as well.  Many different factors contributed to the notion of the creation of a school for the disabled.  It was a combination of his profession, contribution in a war, and the reform movement.

Before learning about Samuel Howe’s influence on Watertown and the nation, it is important to learn about who he was and what he did with his life.  Samuel Gridley Howe was born on November 10th, 1801 in Boston and later died on January 9th, 1876 in Boston.  Howe was born into the family of Joseph Howe and Patty Gridley.  They were a middle-class family.  Howe got an education at Brown University and graduated in 1821.  Later in 1824, Howe graduated from Harvard University with a medical degree. He was now officially a physician.  Around the time after he graduated from Harvard is when he became a surgeon for the Greeks in their vicious war against the Turks.  This war is believed to be his inspiration for helping the disabled as he dealt with them medically on a daily basis.  After this war he swiftly returned home and started his school for the disabled (mostly blind and deaf children) with six students in his father’s house.  The development of the Perkins school will be covered in a later paragraph.  For the purposes of his school, Samuel Gridley Howe developed a raised print system for the blind to read which was one of the first of its kind but was later swamped by the more organized and simpler system developed by Louis Braille in France.  Samuel Howe even ran for Congress as a Conscience Whig in 1846 but unfortunately he didn’t win a seat.

Surprisingly, Howe was also involved in Bleeding Kansas.  He was one of the five men from the Northeast that passionately argued against Kansas being a slave state.  Later, in 1859 when John Brown assaulted the military base of Harper’s Ferry in the hopes of arming slaves and creating a rebellion, Samuel Gridley Howe supported Brown and thought his actions were heroic and much needed.  When Ulysses Grant was in office, he appointed Howe along with President White from Cornell and Senator Wade of Ohio on an advisory board for the annexing of Santo Domingo, which Howe described as an honor.  Samuel Gridley Howe was a very widely respected person in his time, for his skills and his school.

It is important to note that the school that Samuel Howe created was the first of its kind in America.  Before this, the disabled were shoved away in horrible, prison-like institutions and sometimes they were even killed.  Thanks to the reform movement this process began to change.  Perkins School for the Blind (Ed. Note - originally named The New England Asylum for the Blind) was so significant at the time of its creation because it was the first school outside of Europe dedicated to teaching the disabled.  Before Perkins, the disabled were not given an opportunity to learn.

The development of Perkins is also important since we must know how the school ended up in Watertown.  The school’s inception took place in Samuel Gridley Howe’s father’s house.  He started with only 6 students but quickly outgrew the space.  During this time Samuel tried new teaching methods such as teaching with a blindfold on so he could get a better feel for the student’s perception of the space.  Howe also developed a raised print system so the blind could read but this system was later overshadowed by Louis Braille.  As the school garnered its support for teaching the blind and deaf it also received many magnanimous donations and the mansion of Colonel Perkins, gratis, in Boston.  This is where Perkins got its name.  The school, now with 34 pupils, quickly moved to Perkins’ mansion.  A few years later, the school had 60 students and a long waitlist.  So Colonel Perkins let the school sell his mansion in order to buy their next learning space.  This space turned out to be a hotel in Boston.  After finding this location inconvenient, the school moved to a 40 acre plot near the Charles River in the town of Watertown.  Watertown has been the school’s residence since 1912 and the school has vastly grown and developed during this time.  Now the school has 250 on-site students and provides resources to public schools so they too may effectively teach disabled children.

How was Samuel Gridley Howe significant to Watertown?  With respect to the question, the moving of Samuel Howe’s school, Perkins School for the Blind, here made Watertown a leading figure in the education of the blind and deaf.  The location of the first school for the disabled in Watertown, Massachusetts has made the town nationally recognized and renowned all over the United States.  The influence this school had on Watertown has also taken the nation by storm.  For inspiration on educating disabled people, towns all around the nation look to Watertown as guidance.  Besides his school, Samuel Gridley Howe himself has also had an incredible effect on Watertown.  In a physical sense, the bell tower dedicated to Howe reminds people of the time every hour.  Besides just keeping the time in Watertown, when Perkins, a school chock full of Howe’s ideas, moved to Watertown, the town couldn’t help but catch on.  All of Howe’s reforming ideas were spread to the town.  This could possibly explain why the citizens of Watertown are so dedicated to changing the world for the better.  Howe’s influence on Watertown was profound, even though he had never lived to see his school rest here.  Samuel’s ideas were propagated here and his school has made Watertown a pioneer in educating the disabled.  Howe is an incredibly significant figure to Watertown’s history.

How was Samuel Gridley Howe significant on the national scale? Firstly, Howe was a fiery reformer that had advocated for change most of his life. This advocating for change has inspired generations of people in the nation to also be militant about his beliefs. Secondly, Howe was the founder of the first school for the blind in America, which he founded in 1829 with only 6 students. Perkins is now the best-known school for the disabled in the United States. Samuel Gridley Howe was so passionate for the education of the disabled that he instantly became accepted as the father of the Modern Disability Rights Movement (DRM) at its creation. The DRM has helped over 53 million people with physical and cognitive disabilities since 1997.  All of this great work is thanks to Howe’s principles and ideas.  Perhaps most importantly, Samuel Gridley Howe introduced the idea that people with disabilities should not be pitied upon but rather treated with respect and helped in a brotherly manner.  The combination of Howe’s reformation attitude, his school, and his simple positive influence has left the nation deeply impressed with his work and studies.

Time to address the elephant in the room: just why is Perkins School for the Blind so famous?  Firstly, Helen Keller attended Perkins.  She was perhaps the most famous student that went there because of her condition of being blind and deaf and she was also a militant supporter of rights for the disabled.  Another famous student that attended Perkins was one of the first, Laura Dewey Bridgman.  Laura was the first deaf and blind person to be taught and was able to have a happy and normal life in society.  Someone who really made the school well-known was Henry David Thoreau, an author and philosopher.  When he applied for a job there, it is a mystery why he was not hired.  Either way his celebrity presence brought new attention to the school.  Lastly, Perkins was the first school for the blind and deaf in the entire country.  There had never been an attempt to educate the blind outside of Europe and the creation of the school led to great strides in disabled rights movements all around the United States.

Samuel Gridley Howe’s influence and significance in the town of Watertown is obvious and evident.  The school that he created, Perkins School for the Blind, has made Watertown a pioneer in educating the blind, deaf, and otherwise disabled people.  Samuel Gridley Howe has provided Watertown with ideas that have built up its character and his school is a major landmark in the town as well.  Without Samuel Gridley Howe this town would be a very different place.  Howe helped to build up this town’s character.