Brief History of Convalescent Hospital for the Blind

Brief History of Old Farms Convalescent Hospital at Avon Old Farm School for Boys Avon, Connecticut
1944 – 1947

During the years of 1944-1947 something very important began in the small town of Avon, Connecticut. This is the story of how an idea turned into a reality that changed so many lives forever.

During WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established plans for the rehabilitation of men disabled in combat. President Roosevelt emphasized a pro-active approach that the federal government, not private philanthropy, should assume primary responsibility for disabled veterans.

Specifically, for the blinded veterans, there were two hospitals in the country set up to provide medical services: Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania and at Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco.

What was innovative was a plan to create a temporary rehabilitation center to train the blinded veterans for jobs and a return to the home community after they were released from hospitals.

The location of the rehabilitation center at first was undecided. Mrs. Theodate Pope Riddle, the first woman architect in the US who also lived in Farmington, made the U.S. Government an offer it couldn’t refuse.

A close friend of President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, Mrs. Riddle in 1944 learned that the federal government was looking for a place to establish a rehabilitation center and training school for all veterans blinded during World War II. Mrs. Riddle had established in 1926 a boarding school for boys called “Avon Old Farms School.” The school was located in Avon. Following her decision to the close Avon Old Farms School for Boys (AOF) for the remaining duration of the war, Mrs. Riddle offered the school and its campus to the U.S. Army for the rent of $1 per year.

Mrs. Riddle’s generosity provided the Army with a beautiful setting in which to fulfill its hope of serving blinded veterans. On the AOF campus, the Old Farms Rehabilitation Hospital, SP, was established. Between July of 1944 and December of 1947, blinded veterans returning home from the battlefront and subsequent hospital care were sent to Old Farms to prepare for jobs and civilian life. Each veteran who got off the bus and onto the campus was trained so that he could have confidence in moving about without sight. Each veteran was trained to care for himself. Each veteran was tested for his strengths and aptitudes and interests.

Without regard to how much it cost, the veterans were trained for jobs that they had interest in and talent for pursuing. Some became psychologists, teachers, engineers and mechanics. Some became state representatives, lawyers and judges. Many were trained to work in local Hartford factories on assembly lines where they could use their hands and their minds even if they had no vision.

The most important thing was that the men were encouraged by the staff to focus on their talents and abilities rather than their disability. The message of the staff at the hospital to the men was that most of the opportunities in life were still available to them; they only had to change the method that they used to pursue them.

Over 800 veterans lived on Avon Old Farms School’s campus and experienced the beautiful architecture and natural surroundings. Today, we honor those who served and sacrificed so much for our freedom.

Today, we honor their fortitude and determination that enabled them to return to civilian life as productive citizens.

We honor also the dedication of the staff of Old Farms Convalescent Hospital who gave the veterans hope during those unique three years in the history of Avon Old Farms School and Avon, Connecticut.

Prepared for 5th Anniversary Celebration by Terri Willson, Avon Historical Society
November 2009