In 1937 newspapers across the country, including the New York Times, ran a story about a 63-year-old Iowa woman who had spent her entire life working a 250-acre farm near Bladensburg in Wapello County. By all accounts Nettie Timmonds was a hard-working woman. She cared for a 10-room farmhouse, churned butter, canned vegetables and baked cakes. During the summer months she raised 200 to 400 chickens.
This was newsworthy not because Nettie was an unmarried woman, but because she endured multiple physical challenges—including blindness—most of her life.
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Nettie was born in 1874 on the family farm. At the age of 18 months she began to lose her hearing. At the age of 4 Nettie contracted diphtheria and lost her ability to speak. A blow to her head after slipping on a patch of ice in the farm yard caused her to gradually lose her eyesight. By age 20 Nettie was blind. Fortunately her earlier hearing and speech problems had cleared up, giving hope that her sight would also return. But Nettie never regained her vision.
U.S. Census records indicated that Nettie had a 4th grade education and could not read or write. But news stories report she had attended the Institution for the Education of the Blind at Vinton, where she became a “proficient” reader using the Braille-like “point system.”
According to the 1937 news articles, Nettie learned to operate a typewriter, which she had bought with money she made selling her fancy work. Music was a big part of her life. She liked listening to programs on the radio.
Nettie lived with her parents as they grew older. When her mother died, she cared for her dad. In 1911 Nettie faced another obstacle when the farm house burned to the ground, a result of a defective flue. Because the local phone operator sent out a call through the party lines, neighbors quickly rushed to help save as much as they could from inside the burning house. They were able to carry out some of the furniture before it was destroyed.
Nettie’s dad died in 1915, and she took over all aspects of the farm operation. A bout with influenza in 1924 slowed her up for a time, when she suffered a partial paralysis of her neck. And arthritis set in as she aged. Although she hired someone to do the outside work, Nettie handled the buying and selling of all the farm products. The 1915 census records show she owned the farm, which was valued at $6,000.
“Fire Destroys Timmonds Home,” Ottumwa Tri-Weekly Courier, Apr. 29, 1911.
“Iowa Woman Conquers Loss of Sight, Speech and Hearing, and Manages 250-Acre Farm,” New York Times, Nov. 14, 1937.
“Plagued Woman Won’t Give UP,” Daily Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Miss.), Nov. 14, 1937.
Riney-Kehrberg, Pamela, Ed. Routledge History of Rural America, NY: Routledge, 2016. p 123.