John and Jane (Gerrish) Warburton were daring souls. Daring enough to take their clan of nine children and leave their home in Trowbridge, England, climb aboard a ship and sail to America and take a chance in this, the land of opportunity. The year was 1875 and we can only imagine what was going through the collective minds of the big family.
The Warburton’s wound up here in little Lafayette, Rhode Island; eventually each one of them big enough to mind a spindle or tend a loom found work at the mill of Robert Rodman. They came from across the Atlantic, made a good life for themselves, and prospered. They were truly brave and daring folks. John and Jane’s lives, in and of themselves, are a story worth of remembering. But neither John nor Jane is the hero of this week’s tale. That honor belongs to their youngest son, John Jr. Only two years old when he arrived in America, his life is the one that we celebrate today.
John Jr.’s younger years were unremarkable. He and his family lived in mill housing on the Ten Rod Road within eyesight of the mill. He was most probably cared for by one of his five older sisters whose family duty was “to keep the home fire’s burning” while the rest of the Warburton clan worked in the mill. His life changed remarkably and the measure of his very character was tested on a summer day in 1880. The seven-year old by went off to play, as seven-year olds still do, perhaps by himself or with a group of friends. The details of the day are unknown, however, the outcome was every parent’s nightmare. Somehow John lost his vision in an accident involving boys playing with sticks. The Warburtons, and the whole Lafayette community, were thunderstruck by the horrible turn of events.
As the saying goes, “This changes everything: and I’m sure the events of that day changed the lives of the whole Warburton clan. But they adjusted and persevered. Eventually John, Jane, and their children purchased their own piece of the American dream. In 1884 they bought a parcel of land from the Rodmans; a nice lot fronting on the Ten Rod Road, and built a find home (as seen in the accompanying photo). The ensuing community house-warming thrown to celebrate that proud day was remembered for decades after and even recorded in George Gardiner’s book “Lafayette, Rhode Island.”
Somewhere along the line, the Warburton’s learned of the famed “Perkin’s Institute for the Blind” in Boston. Founded in 1832 by educator Samuel Gridley Howe (husband of Julia Ward Howe, writer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) and medical student Dr. John Fisher, aided by Boston businessman Thomas Perkins, it was America’s first school for the blind.
Perhaps Jane learned of it in the same way another concerned mother in Alabama had heard of it; through the writings of Charles Dickens, in his American travelogue, “American Notes.” That’s how the mother of John Warburton Jr.’s future classmate Helen Keller heard tell of the Perkins School. Yes, John and Helen attended the school at the same time and doubtlessly were acquainted. The school’s purpose was to allow their blind student to learn a trade and the basic life skills necessary to become independent adult sable to take care of themselves. Music was, and still is, a large part of that education.
John Warburton eventually, through his education at Perkins, became a skilled and locally renowned pianist and piano tuner. Playing in bands and orchestras and tuning pianos with a skill thought to be uncanny, John Warburton returned from the Perkins Institute an educated and independent young man able to fend for himself, read Braille, and support himself with his musical talents. His intimate knowledge of every inch of his hometown of Lafayette allowed him to roam its streets without problem or incident. The historic record includes incidents of John travelling alone around the village right up until the age of the automobile made it a dangerous proposition.
You might think this was enough of an accomplishment for the young man, but you’d be wrong. John convinced his father, John Sr., to allow him to run a small “Country Store” in a building behind the family home (now replaced by a small parking lot). Gardiner, in his book “Lafayette, Rhode Island” writes, “He knew the proper place for everything in the store and kept it there. His trained mind and memory were keen and his handling of metal money was rarely in error.” If you paid in paper money John counted on an honest accounting of what you handed him and he then made proper change without assistance. He lived a regular life—married a local girl named Alzadie Huling and raised a family with her.
I expect he was a marvel and inspiration to all who knew him. Blind John Warburton passed away suddenly and unexpectedly of a massive heart attack in 1933. He was 61 and had succeeded in life by all accounts. His funeral, down in Wickford, was well attended by Lafayette folks and Wickfordites alike. His wife, widowed sister-in-law, and son continued on in the Warburton house after his death. It was sold out of the family in 1968 after an ownership that spanned nearly 75 years and three generations. Through this one man we can connect the stories of immigrant textile workers, dogged determination, Lafayette RI, Helen Keller, and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; truly a tale worth telling.
My thanks to another Perkins Institute graduate, educator, musician, and good friend, Carl King, for his assistance with this story.