Tom Dillard: One remarkable blind man saw his way to success in early Arkansas

I have always been fascinated by how well our ancestors dealt with physical adversity. Early Arkansans had to cope with everything from birth defects to accidents with little in the way of help.

For years after the Civil War, Arkansas was home to hundreds of amputees -- former Confederate and Union soldiers who had to adjust to life with one leg or a single arm. Then there were the deaf and blind.

Today I am reporting on a blind Arkansan who had a long and productive life and took time in his old age to chronicle his quite remarkable story. Leander M. Prowse, who lived all over Arkansas, had plenty of stories to tell.

Containing 34 unnumbered pages, the booklet he produced is titled "Personal History of An Arkansas Pioneer and Inventor." I found a microfilmed copy in the Margaret Ross Papers at the University of Arkansas Special Collections Department.

Prowse was born in 1850 on a small farm in Cleveland County, the oldest child of an impoverished couple who never really got their feet on the ground. His father, Jurdon Prowse, was a wanderer at heart, possessing what his son recalled as "a mania to move." Both parents were illiterate.

At the tender age of 6, Prowse lost his vision to "ulcers that completely destroyed my sight." In his old age, Prowse recalled that "a pall had suddenly fallen on my young life that shut out the vista of life's dream and rendered me a stranger to my own home."

His parents did not help the situation, but talked "continually about the helplessness of the blind and enumerated 1,000 things that the blind could not do, but never a thing that they could do except beg."

Prowse's father was not fit for Confederate military service due to rheumatism, and the family spent most of the Civil War in Missouri and Illinois. The family returned to Arkansas at the end of the war, but in 1868 they moved to Missouri again, where the senior Prowse mortgaged everything he owned to make a cotton crop. When cotton prices dropped to 7 cents per pound, the family lost everything excepting "one little crooked-footed mule."

The Prowse family found itself in Woodruff County in 1869 when Reconstruction Gov. Powell Clayton declared martial law there and in several other counties. "There we fell into a violent local disturbance between the Ku Klux Klan and the militia," and the family fled once more to Missouri.

The situation grew worse: "During one 18-month period we made seven moves, pitched [planted] two [cotton] crops, bought and sold three others, owned two different ox teams and four different horse teams with a total profit of simply nothing."

With this sort of perpetual insecurity and disappointment, it is not surprising that young Prowse decided to work for himself, harvesting and shelling corn as well as making baskets. And he set about to educate himself.

Prowse borrowed books whenever possible and convinced friends and relatives to read them aloud. He recalled that "in 1873, brother Joe came to visit us and during his visit we borrowed 'The Pilgrim's Progress,' and in the shade of a pawpaw thicket, he read while I listened."

Prowse saved enough money by 1874 to undergo eye surgery in Tennessee. It did not restore his sight, and he developed "a bad case of erysipelas and neuralgia that caused me a great deal of suffering."

Erysipelas is a serious bacterial infection which causes lesions. After almost a year, Prowse was able to go back to work, and he returned to saving his pennies. "I was the only member of our family who had any ready cash," he wrote.

In 1877, fate took pity on Prowse, and at age 27 he enrolled in the Arkansas School for the Blind in Little Rock. Established in 1859 in Arkadelphia, the school was one of the few social service programs established in antebellum Arkansas. The school was moved to 1800 Center St. in Little Rock in 1868, opening it up to many more students. Students could study academic subjects as well as receive training in manual trades.

Prowse had to endure a grueling journey through the snow-covered Ozark Mountains from Boone County to Ozark, where he could take a train to Little Rock. A flooding river forced him to leave the wagon and continue on horseback with his younger brother guiding the way. His brother being illiterate, they took multiple wrong turns.

Prowse was "too highly elated over the prospect of going to school to be turned back by any surmountable obstacle, so we pushed right on through the snow all day."

As you might expect, Prowse did well at the school. While he does not mention learning to read Braille, he studied "embossed print," which enabled him to study independently. He also excelled in learning various trades, especially making mattresses, caning chair bottoms and manufacturing brooms.

After two years, Prowse left the School for the Blind and began working in a mattress and broom factory in Fort Smith. During the period May 1880 to July 1881, he made 740 brooms, 264 mattresses, 27 chair cushions and put seats in 36 chairs. He did some farm work on the side.

After opening a mattress factory in Kansas with his brother, Prowse set about to invent an improved bed spring. In 1885 he received U.S. patent 315,546. He relocated again, this time to Siloam Springs, where he opened a mattress, springs and broom factory.

With his growing financial stability, Prowse was able to say goodbye to his "constant struggle with poverty and misfortune" which had always "perched upon my shoulders and refused to be permanently dislodged."

Prowse married Fannie Staley in 1889, and they had three children before she died in 1895.

He spent his later years living at his farm near Womble, now named Norman, in Montgomery County, where he owned rental properties. Dying at the age of 79 in 1929, Prowse was buried in the nearby Black Springs Methodist Church Cemetery.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]. An earlier version of this column was published April 3, 2016.