Looking Back: School for the Deaf’s origin
ERIC RENSHAW For the Argus Leader
September 3, 2015
In 1880, the Rev. Thomas Berry, an Episcopal priest, saw a need to be filled in Dakota Territory: the education of the area’s deaf and hearing-impaired children. Berry put into motion an institute that would last to this day.
Though at the time the need was meager, Berry could see that the territory’s population was growing rapidly, and that with that growth would come the need to address the needs of these individuals. Each day the railroads brought more people to the area.
Berry hired Jennie Wright as the first teacher for what would become The Dakota Territorial School for Deaf Mutes. Wright first worked out of Berry’s home but later moved to a rented home on Main Avenue known as the Thomas Boarding House. In the fall of 1881, Berry’s wife died, and soon after, he returned to Buffalo, N.Y. Upon Berry’s departure, Wright took the reins as school superintendent but soon left to get married.
James Simpson, Wright’s brother-in-law, became the next superintendent and the school’s first deaf superintendent and led the school for the next 22 years.
By 1883, the school stood on the grounds at its current location at 2001 E. Eighth St., though it had but one simple building. The 10 initial acres of land that surrounded this building were donated by E.A. Sherman.
Money to establish the school was raised locally. Generous local merchant C.K. Howard donated $5,000 to help. The generous nature of Howard was established in his willingness to extend a line of credit to settlers during the Depression and grasshopper infestations of the mid-1870s. The school provided education, free of charge, to those who needed it, surviving off donations and providing for itself. The students produced as much food as was needed on the on-site farm.
The central building, now known as Old Main, was put together in 1884 to replace the small older building built in 1881 to house five students. Architect Wallace Dow designed this building and three others that were the core of the campus in the early days. As the organization grew, the campus eventually became home to 13 buildings.
In 1889, Dakota Territory was divided into North Dakota and South Dakota, and the school fell under the jurisdiction of the South Dakota Board of Charities and Corrections. At this time, the school name was changed to South Dakota School for the Deaf.
Enrollment at South Dakota School for the Deaf continued to grow throughout the years, reaching a high of nearly 150 students in the 1960s, but things were changing. New developments in hearing technology meant fewer students needed to attend a specialized school. Hearing aids were improving, and Cochlear implants were developed, making it possible for children with treatable hearing issues to attend classes in conventional public schools.
In 1975, Benjamin Soukup started Communication Service for the Deaf to provide interpretation and communication access for the hearing-impaired. CSD started in a closet on the school campus but grew steadily over the years.
As enrollment shrank at the school, business grew at CSD. In 2011, the campus and buildings were sold to Communication Service for the Deaf, but now most of CSD’s operations have been moved to Austin, Texas.
The campus and buildings of the South Dakota School for the Deaf had been for sale since 2014 and have recently been purchased by Bruce Nerison, owner of Wheel City Auto. He plans to create a development called Historic Town Square and move his headquarters into the historic Buckmaster building. He has indicated a desire to preserve the historic nature of the property.
Eric Renshaw of Sioux Falls has written the book “Forgotten Sioux Falls” and gives a historical perspective on his website http://www.GreetingsFromSiouxFalls.com.