Celebrating 100 Years!

Lighthouse Centennial Celebration

The Lighthouse Center for Vision loss celebrated 100 years of service to the Northland in the summer of 2019, and hosted a display and event at the Duluth Depot. The exhibit told the story of our evolving services over the last 100 years and the people who helped it grow. 


Centennial exhibit panels on display  

(pictured above is part of the exhibit display panels)


Centennial display with antique brailler and clothespin bag

 (pictured above is a section of the display with an antique brailler and clothespin bag)


   Woman looking at display panel

 (pictured to the above is a woman looking at the display panel)   


(text from our exhibit at the Duluth Depot Summer 2019)

Welcome to the Lighthouse Historical Exhibit:

The Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss helps people of all ages who are blind or visually impaired through services provided at the vision rehabilitation center, at home, and in schools. It is a non-profit organization that has served Duluth and northeastern Minnesota for 100 years. Today, the Lighthouse offers some services for clients statewide and in northwestern Wisconsin. The Lighthouse’s mission is to foster independent and vibrant lives for individuals with vision loss. 

 The Duluth Lighthouse for the Blind was established in 1919 as a workshop and social center for people with vision loss. In the past, a primary goal was to provide jobs, yet some people felt that type of employment limited workers’ ability to reach their full potential. Partly for this reason, social services and rehabilitation programs were developed in the 1960s and ‘70s and continue to grow. The Lighthouse moved four times to accommodate growing production and rehabilitation services. Although manufacturing ceased in 1999, the Lighthouse has carried on as a blindness rehabilitation center, and it has gradually added a wide variety of other services to help individuals with vision loss.

 This exhibit tells the story of the Lighthouse, its evolving services over the past 100 years, and the people who have helped it grow. The Lighthouse began as a sheltered workshop, but to keep up with regional needs and opportunities, it now has a much more expansive list of services. Its goals have changed based on changing views of what people with disabilities can and should do in society.

 “It’s up to you how to handle vision loss. I made a conscious decision to be positive about it. I don’t know where I would be without the Lighthouse.” 

—Joan Bradley, Lighthouse client and recipient of the 2019 Lighthouse Community Award



Workshop for the blind established at 312 West Superior Street

PHOTO: A parade float displays Lighthouse goods in the 1920s.


Affiliation with National Industries for the Blind and the beginning of government contracts


Relocation to 204 East Superior Street above Goldfine’s department store


Relocation to 16 West 1st Street

PHOTO: A man named Mr. Nurva weaves a rug at the Lighthouse workshop in 1971.


Expansion of social services and rehabilitation


Relocation to 2701 West Superior Street


Addition for rehabilitation services completed

PHOTO: A former Lighthouse location at 2701 West Superior Street.


Beginning of toilet paper production

PHOTO: Phil Eckroth holds rolls of Lighthouse toilet paper.


Relocation to an office and warehouse building at 4505 West Superior Street


Assistive technology classroom created


Production department shut down


Production Department recovered after filing for bankruptcy

PHOTO:Workshop and rehab employees gather in the warehouse in 1997.


Lighthouse Store and website created


Name changed to Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss

PHOTO: A group of seniors gathers for a Lighthouse support group.

The Lighthouse’s Early Years

The Lighthouse’s original purpose was to offer blind people a small salary at its workshop while providing opportunities for socializing.

“It seemed such a big undertaking, and so idealistic, but now that it is actually working out into something so much bigger and greater than anything I dreamed, I am so glad.”

—Lighthouse founder Bertha Hanford, “Lighthouse is Realization of Old Dream” Duluth News-Tribune July 6, 1919

PHOTO: A truck carries Lighthouse workers and products at a parade in the 1920s. The sign that reads “Not Charity But a Chance” represented how the Lighthouse wanted to change the public's perception of blindness. 

The Lighthouse for the Blind began through the work of Bertha Hanford, the State and County Agent for the Blind. With a committee led by Jean Poirier, Hanford and other philanthropic Duluth women sought a way to help blind people living in Duluth find meaningful activities outside their homes. They decided to establish a workshop where people could sell handmade goods.

PHOTO: The Lighthouse’s original building at 312 West Superior Street as it appeared in 1963. Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Duluth Archives and Special Collections

These women found space on the ground floor of the Irving Moore Memorial Building, also home to the City Welfare Council. The Lighthouse committee held an open house on June 12, 1919, which included musical performances and speeches by Bertha Hanford and Mayor Clarence Magney. Hanford emphasized to the public that the organization was not a charity, but a business. 

The workshop officially began operations on June 17. Equipment was already in the building, which had been used as a workshop and club for soldiers. The first products sold were rugs, baskets, and piano tuning services. The workshop also had a phonograph, a piano, and fresh plants for the workers’ enjoyment.

The name “Lighthouse for the Blind” was first used by an association in New York City in 1913, where Helen Keller was once an honorary vice president. Although many organizations use the name “Lighthouse," they are not officially connected with each other. The Duluth Lighthouse was one of many founded around this time, but most others were in large cities like New York, Chicago, and Seattle. 

The Lighthouse struggled for financial support in its infancy. A 1959 newspaper article about Bertha Hanford said, “She had just enough funds to pay for telephones the day before the workshop opened. Then, she said, came a check for $200 [from the McDougall-Duluth Shipbuilding Company], which was just enough to pay for a craft instructor.” Other donations came from one-dollar membership fees and funds solicited from local businesses. When the Duluth Community Fund was established in 1922, it helped cover the Lighthouse’s overhead expenses.

PHOTO: 1921 Articles of Incorporation for the St. Louis County Association for the Blind, which oversaw Lighthouse operations. The organization was officially renamed Duluth Lighthouse for the Blind in 1933.

According to the Lighthouse’s 1924 annual report, the board of directors’ goal was, “To help those with the handicap of blindness to be at least partially self-supporting.” In its first few decades, this meant providing jobs that were not otherwise available for blind people. Until the 1960s, the Lighthouse did not have the ability to provide many rehabilitation services on its own, so those services were often provided locally by the State and County Agent for the Blind.

PHOTO: Anton Edison restrings a tennis racquet in this undated clipping from the Duluth News-Tribune or Herald.

The board of directors realized the workshop could not pay a living wage to all of the people who needed one, but they made the best of the resources available to them. In 1925, the Lighthouse workshop had about 12 workers per day, and the average worker made the modern equivalent of $4,300 that year. Wages from the workshop supplemented assistance from local welfare agencies. 

PHOTO: People seated at tables during a Lighthouse Christmas party, circa 1930.

The Lighthouse was also a gathering place and the site of parties, music recitals, and other events. Members of the public were invited to weekly coffee socials. The Lighthouse Good-Time Club organized picnics at Pike Lake, holiday parties, and monthly dinners. These parties were well attended by both people with vision loss and their sighted friends. 

“A blind man who has made a great success of his life says, in speaking of the handicapped group, ‘We should look on ourselves, not as handicapped, but as enriched by whatever fine qualities have come to us through our forebears. Let us build on what we have and strive for the prevention of all matters of limitation.” —1926 Lighthouse annual report

The Lighthouse has always been involved in the community outside of its workshop and offices. The board bought radios for people’s homes, gave a blind man a loan to open a shoe repair store, and helped provide white canes to those who needed them. They attempted to change public perceptions of disabilities through presentations to community groups, tours of the workshop, and media publicity, a practice that continues to this day. 

PHOTO: A clipping from the November 6, 1939, Duluth News-Tribune shows Jack Hicken and his guide dog, Peter. Hicken was still on the Lighthouse board in the 1990s.

In 1939, the Lighthouse helped Jack Hicken become the first person in Duluth to receive a guide dog, which came from Germany. The board also worked with the Duluth-Superior Transit Company to provide bus tokens to Lighthouse events. In 1954, the Lighthouse opened a preschool—with free transportation—for children with vision loss, which was held at the First Methodist Community House. 

During WWII, the Lighthouse encountered a few difficulties due to political and military turmoil in the regions where their materials were sourced. Seagrass for weaving baskets and leather for making wallets and other goods became scarce. For the most part, though, Lighthouse activities during its first three decades remained mostly the same. They were able to gradually add more products, such as cloth bags, scarves, and doormats. These goods were sold at the workshop, in downtown department stores, and by door-to-door salesmen, many of whom were themselves blind.

PHOTO: A blind salesman sells lighthouse goods, circa 1950.

PHOTO: The Duluth Lions Club donated a station wagon to the Lighthouse in 1951 and again in 1959 (pictured here). The Lions have supported the Lighthouse through financial donations and volunteer hours. Dozens of churches, charities, and civic organizations have helped the Lighthouse since 1919.

The Production Department’s Boom and Bust (1952–1999)

As the Lighthouse grew, some people with vision loss could eventually make a living wage working there. 

In 1952, the Lighthouse became affiliated with National Industries for the Blind, an organization that helped places like the Lighthouse obtain government orders, which enabled them to hire more workers. The Lighthouse relocated to two other downtown buildings to accommodate this increase in production. Today, organizations affiliated with NIB employ 6000 people and pay an average hourly wage of $11.96. This kind of employment can be very successful, but segregated workshops are not right for everyone.

PHOTO: The Lighthouse moved to this building at 254 East Superior Street (above Goldfine’s department store) in 1954. Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Duluth Archives and Special Collections

PHOTO: 16 West 1st Street was the Lightouse’s location from 1959 to 1975.

Soon after affiliating with NIB, the Lighthouse received an order for 10,000 pillowcases for the federal government. They also started making ironing board covers and cotton scatter rugs. New Executive Secretary George Pearson came from a workshop in St. Paul and began a new public relations campaign and streamlined production to increase sales. A retail sales department was created in 1965 to help sell Lighthouse goods in local stores.

PHOTO: George Rivers, Adolph Narva, and George Pearson inspect Lighthouse rugs in 1953.

The ethical debate over sheltered workshops has lasted for decades across the nation, and the Duluth Lighthouse was no stranger to this controversy. In 1955, Jack Hicken brought up that less than ten of the 165 blind people living in Duluth had jobs at the Lighthouse, and he alleged that the Lighthouse had too many sighted employees. However, the Lighthouse was not equipped to hire as many blind workers as they wanted to, and it was more cost-effective to employ some sighted salesmen.

PHOTO: Workers weave rugs at the Lighthouse workshop in 1954.

In January 1975, a lengthy article in the UMD Statesman said both workers and staff felt the Lighthouse limited workers’ potential by not providing enough relevant training, but these issues were not unique to the Lighthouse. These concerns were partially addressed that fall when the Lighthouse moved to a larger building, a former grocery store at 2701 West Superior Street. This allowed the Lighthouse to focus more on the rehabilitation and training that workers desired.

PHOTO: Visitors are lined up to tour the new Lighthouse in 1975.

This expansion also led to a dramatic increase in production, as well as a wider variety of products. Although the Lighthouse’s largest orders were for the federal government, it still sold products and services to private individuals and local businesses. At several points in the 1970s, United Way considered withholding funding to the Lighthouse because they had become successful enough to be self-supporting. Income from goods sold helped fund expanding rehabilitation services.

The workshop’s goal was to help those with vision impairments be self-supporting, but there was a constant struggle to pay a living wage. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 allowed the Lighthouse to pay blind workers less than minimum wage. In 1975, for example, the average workshop employee made only $1.71 per hour ($8.08 in 2019). At this time, sighted instructors could make significantly more than blind production workers. However, if workers were paid too much, they risked losing Social Security benefits, and the workshop as a whole would be less profitable. When production peaked in the 1990s, wages were consistent with typical production line jobs.

1979 Statistics

Full-time and part-time workers: 24

Yearly sales: $371,853 ($1,376,215 in 2019)

20,480,000 nails packaged

65,304 pillowcases and 15,432 ironing board covers produced

PHOTO: A view of the Lighthouse workshop in the 1980s.

PHOTO: Lighthouse workers scan documents onto microfilm for local businesses, a service that lasted from 1981 to 1992.

Many people remember the Lighthouse for making toilet paper, which began under Executive Director Michael Conlan in 1988. The Lighthouse mostly sold toilet paper to the U.S. military, but the market later expanded to local businesses. Another addition was built, but production grew so much that the Lighthouse needed even more room for equipment. The Lighthouse moved to its fifth and current location, 4505 West Superior Street, in 1990, where paper products output grew even more. 

PHOTO: Lighthouse Board President Cliff Wicklund talks TP with Production Supervisor Dan Goman in the warehouse.

The 1990s was a tumultuous decade with many successes and setbacks. During the height of the Gulf War, employees worked in three shifts around the clock and churned out 2.5 million rolls of toilet paper per month. However, the cost of paper and a steep decline in sales caused the Lighthouse to lose $5 million in 1992. Congressman James Oberstar helped the Lighthouse obtain a three-month freeze on toilet paper prices to prevent further losses, and the Lighthouse began supplying to local distributors. A $747,000 grant helped fund new equipment to double production and add new paper products. The Lighthouse’s 41 workers made 21 million rolls by the end of 1993.

PHOTO: A view of the warehouse in the 1990s.

This rebound was short-lived. To prevent suppliers from breaking their contracts, the Lighthouse filed for bankruptcy after a production loss of $1.4 million in 1995. This was partially the result of low prices set by the General Services Administration, which handled government orders. Price negotiations helped the Lighthouse get back on its feet, and on April 17, 1996, the Lighthouse celebrated one year of uninterrupted employment for the first time since 1988. Lighthouse Industries broke even after earning $9 million in revenue for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1996. 

“It’s my belief that even if we had been able to make the paper-converting business profitable, it would have always been high risk and was not the preferred direction that Lighthouse clients wanted. That’s what the clients really wanted—choices in employment.” —Former Executive Director Paul Almirall

The competitive paper products industry and equipment malfunctions were the downfalls of the production department. In October 1997, the Lighthouse lost its major private customer for toilet paper and napkins, so 18 workers (none of whom were blind) were laid off. The workshop closed completely in mid-December 1999. Laundry bags were the final items produced at the Lighthouse. The production department had provided meaningful employment for 80 years, but financial hardship presented the Lighthouse with a new opportunity: to focus solely on rehabilitation and training. 

PHOTO: Robert Guerrero makes cookies for students and staff at Northwood Children’s Home using skills he learned at the Lighthouse. Photo by Bob King, published in the November 16, 1998, Duluth News-Tribune. 

The Lighthouse increased its efforts to give its clients the ability to find jobs in the community after production shut down. Former paper products employee Robert Guerrero said, “I liked the Lighthouse, but I wanted to get out of that environment because I didn’t see myself as handicapped or disabled. What I have is an inconvenience.” 

Lighthouse Products

One unique aspect of the Lighthouse’s history is the variety of products its workers made from 1919 to 1999. The Lighthouse’s first workshop produced mostly handicrafts, but by the time production shut down, the factory used equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lighthouse workers also reseated chairs, restrung tennis racquets, tuned pianos, and packaged nails. These are just some of the products made during the Lighthouse’s 80 years of manufacturing:

  • Rugs

  • Baskets

  • Brooms

  • Leather wallets and purses

  • Pillowcases

  • Sheets

  • Ironing board covers

  • Laundry and clothespin bags

  • Mops

  • Crates

  • Snowshoes

  • Duck decoys

  • Toilet paper

  • Napkins

PHOTO: A Lighthouse brochure from the 1930s advertises rugs, baskets, brooms, and racquet restringing.

PHOTO: Prize-winning items from the 1953 Minnesota State Fair on display in a Duluth storefront.

PHOTO: A convention booth in the 1970s displays colorful mops and ironing board covers.

PHOTOS: This 1985 catalog shows the multitude of products the Lighthouse made with the brand name Sunset Products. Making outdoor products was a way to be less dependent on the government as a customer.

PHOTO: Former Minnesota 8th District Representative Jim Oberstar holds a roll of Lighthouse toilet paper in 1989.

Rehabilitation and Social Services (1960s–present)

The Lighthouse became a formal blindness rehabilitation center by the end of the 1970s, and today, it is expanding beyond that role to offer a variety of additional programs and services.

Government contracts through National Industries for the Blind (NIB) in the 1950s gave the Lighthouse more income to pay for services it had previously been unable to offer. The Minnesota Department for the Blind, now State Services for the Blind (SSB), had provided many services for people with vision loss, but those responsibilities were later shared with organizations like the Lighthouse. 

In the 1960s, the Lighthouse hired more staff and introduced more individualized services. Some other new activities included counseling, presentations to community groups, outdoor recreation, and Techniques of Daily Living classes. The Lighthouse hired an ophthalmological consultant in 1965 to evaluate and work to prevent clients’ vision loss. In 1974, a grant from SSB helped fund the Lighthouse’s first itinerant (traveling) rehabilitation teacher, who could visit clients in their homes throughout northeast Minnesota.

PHOTO: Former Executive Director Robert Pistel (left) and another man hold a sign that says “Glaucoma Screening Clinic.”

PHOTOS: A blind boy putts a golf ball in the 1960s and members of a Lighthouse-sponsored tour examine a train car at the Duluth Depot in the 1970s. 

The Lighthouse offered many recreation opportunities, especially for children. These included camping at Island Lake, swimming classes, and a sport called beep-ball, in which bases and the ball make noise so players do not have to see them. Lighthouse trips to the Shrine Circus and the Ice Capades were narrated by special speakers so they could know what other audience members were seeing.

PHOTO: Lighthouse students play beep baseball in the 1980s. 

In fall 1975, the Lighthouse moved to 2701 West Superior Street, where it had more room to expand both its workshop and its rehabilitation services. The 1976 Annual Report stated that the Lighthouse hired new instructors for a variety of classes, including Financial Management, Techniques of Daily Living, Orientation and Mobility, Typing, Adjustment To Vision Loss Counseling, and Adapted Leisure Activities.

PHOTO: A student practices cane travel in the late 1970s.

PHOTO: Congressman Jim Oberstar holds a pair of scissors at the ribbon-cutting for a new rehabilitation addition in 1978.

The Lighthouse had doubled the size of its building and employed 16 staff outside of production by 1980. Over time, the rehabilitation program added training to help clients find jobs outside the Lighthouse, as well as instruction in using adaptive devices. The center even had a model apartment to help clients learn about independent living.

PHOTOS: These photos show the Lighthouse’s former building in the 1980s, as well as an Orientation and Mobility instructor with a student.

Rehabilitation and training services continued to grow when the Lighthouse moved to its current location (4505 West Superior Street) in September 1990. The move accommodated the growing paper products division, but rehab also gained space, including a full kitchen. New support groups helped people talk about vision loss with other people experiencing the same problems. The Hearing and Vision Loss Outreach Program was developed in 1992 and lasted until the State withdrew funding in 2011. Another program added at this time was Low Vision Outreach to Seniors, which helped older clients remain in their homes despite vision loss.

In March 1994, Executive Director Michael Conlan reported that although the Lighthouse’s number of clients kept increasing, funding had decreased by 40% over the previous five years. Most state funding was for vocational rehabilitation, which was not the Lighthouse’s focus at that time. Volatile markets for paper products meant that rehab funding was uncertain. 

PHOTO: A student and an instructor in the Lighthouse kitchen in the 1990s.

PHOTO: Duluth Mayor Gary Doty and instructor Mary-Kay McMeir cross the street using an audible crosswalk near the Lighthouse in 1992.

Despite these difficulties, the Lighthouse continued glaucoma screenings and recreational outings, and it increased training in adaptive devices through a new technology center. Twin Ports Newspaper of the Air launched in September 1994. Today, 70 volunteers take turns reading local newspapers on the air every day for people who are blind or have low vision.

PHOTO: People gathered for Lighthouse support groups in the 1990s.

PHOTO:Volunteers reading at the first broadcast of Twin Ports Newspaper of the Air, September 1994

In its 1998 strategic plan, the board of directors outlines its intentions to gradually shift from being a place of permanent employment to a center that offered career counseling and training. Executive Director Paul Almirall said, “Although we will continue to provide employment for blind and severely impaired workers, our future focus will be on preparing them for carers in the commercial world of work. New computer technologies are making this realistic.” 

After a decade of gains and losses, production finally ended in December 1999, meaning the Lighthouse lost a major source of income. The board launched a fundraising campaign to save rehab programs, and some administrative positions were cut to make sure services to clients were not impacted. Grants and donations helped replace some income lost from production. Revenue also came from leasing 48,000 square feet to A&L Partnership and St. Mary’s-Duluth Clinic, now part of Essentia Health. 

PHOTO: The Lighthouse’s new entrance following a $400,000 renovation that added a new entrance, reception area, offices, and braille room signs.

The Lighthouse helped former workers find new employment and taught technology skills to help clients remain competitive in the job market. The Lighthouse also added a store in 2002, offering a way for community members to test out and purchase a variety of adaptive devices. The Lighthouse’s first website launched that year with help from a former student. 

Built by the Blind

“Built by the Blind” was a slogan used to promote workshop products in the 1920s and ‘30s, but it also describes how the Lighthouse was shaped by several important people. Since the 1930s, the Lighthouse has required at least one of its board members to be blind, and two of its top administrators have also been blind. Bertha Hanford, the Lighthouse’s first executive secretary, and Robert Pistel, executive director from 1962 to 1979, were both blind and led the Lighthouse during two significant periods of growth. Blind Duluth businessman Clinton Russell and his parents supported the Lighthouse through financial contributions and by serving on the board. 

Bertha Hanford (1886–1969) “A woman of far-sighted faith”

PHOTO:Lighthouse president Paul McKnight (left) and Congressman John Blatnik (right) present Bertha Hanford with an award honoring her decades of service at a 1959 luncheon dedicating the Lighthouse’s new building.

Bertha Hanford was blinded by glaucoma at age 17 but was still able to attend the Duluth Normal School, the predecessor to UMD. Her father and friends helped read lessons to her. The Minnesota Legislature created a State Agency for the Blind in 1913 and sought a field agent for northeast Minnesota. The State offered Hanford the position of State and County Agent for the Blind while she was still in college and delayed opening the regional office until she graduated in 1914. Her dual state-county position was the first of its kind in Minnesota. Her job was solely through St. Louis County from 1937 until the position was eliminated in 1948.

Establishing the Lighthouse for the Blind seemed like a natural extension of Hanford’s other duties. Before the Lighthouse opened in 1919, Hanford had taught typing at the public library and basket weaving at the YWCA. Hanford was the Lighthouse’s executive secretary from 1919 to 1923, by which time the Lighthouse had become more financially stable. Hanford left the Lighthouse that same year when the Minnesota Department for the Blind (later renamed State Services for the Blind) was established.

PHOTO: A page from Bertha Hanford’s personal log book shows records of Lighthouse sales, including who made each product, from June 30 to July 3, 1919.

Her office established sight-saving classes in local schools, helped send students to the State School for the Blind in Faribault, and helped encourage blindness prevention. She also helped blind people find work raising rabbits, operating candy machines, and shining shoes. Office staff included a home teacher and an office secretary. Some of the work the State and County Agent did was later taken over by the Lighthouse.

PHOTO: Workers pose with brooms they made at the Range Broom Factory in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Museum of Mining. Copyright Aubin Photography Studios and the Hibbing Historical Society.

She also established a broom factory in Chisholm, which operated from 1920 to 1943. The factory employed men who had been blinded in mining accidents. When the factory closed, Hanford was offered the remaining assets, but she insisted that the money be used to help blind people on the Iron Range purchase things like radios, typewriters, and guide dogs. 

PHOTOS: Original equipment from the Range Broom Factory on display at the Minnesota Museum of Mining in Chisholm.

Bertha Hanford participated in conferences and classes across the state and around the world. At one point in her travels, she met blindness crusader Helen Keller, who said she had learned about Hanford’s accomplishments. She was the first president of the Duluth Association of Social Workers and started the Duluth Society of the Prevention of Blindness with help from Duluth banker Richard Griggs. She was an active member of Glen Avon Presbyterian Church, Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She was once described as “the bravest, cheeriest, and most unselfish woman in all Duluth.”

PHOTO: Bertha Hanford answers the phone at her office. From the November 7, 1943, Duluth News-Tribune.

In her free time, Hanford enjoyed symphony concerts, plays, and spending time with friends. One account said, “I don’t think any other person is blessed with as many wonderful and understanding friends as I have.” A 1943 newspaper article said despite her lack of vision, she liked decorating her home and “occasionally [settling] down to a cozy, woman-to-woman chat about new fashions.” 

She credited her tenacity to her strong faith, and she loved reading her braille Bible. One Duluth businessman described her by saying, “She has been a missionary more than a social worker. She is the personification of her belief that vision is not a function of the eyes alone.”

“I feel the only thing we can do is do the things we can. We have to emphasize the positive side of life and live a rich, full life—despite our limitations.” —Bertha Hanford

Robert Pistel (1921–1982)

PHOTO:Robert Pistel (right) receives an award on behalf of the Lighthouse from naval officer Captain Calvin Anweiler in 1971.

Robert Pistel was the Lighthouse’s executive director from 1962 to 1979, the second blind person to hold that position. Under Pistel’s leadership, the Lighthouse began seriously directing its attention toward rehabilitation and social services, enabling it to serve in clients in new ways. He helped the Lighthouse move to a much larger building in 1975 and oversaw a building addition in 1978, at which time the center was recognized as a regional rehabilitation center. 

He was born in Baltimore and worked in a shipyard before joining the Army. He had been overseas for just three weeks when a mortar fragment pierced the back of his head at the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945. This injury caused Pistel to lose almost all of his vision. Undeterred despite several months of rehabilitation, he studied life science and industrial engineering at Johns Hopkins University after his honorable discharge.

Pistel had built an impressive resume before coming to the Lighthouse. In 1950, he graduated with honors from Johns Hopkins and became a placement specialist with Services for the Blind at the Minnesota Department of Welfare (now called State Services for the Blind). He joined the St. Paul Society for the Blind in 1959 as a work and training supervisor. He also served as president of the St. Paul Optimist Club and as chairman of the St. Paul Mayor’s Committee for Employment of the Physically Handicapped.

PHOTO:Robert Pistel (right) teaches braille to a student in the late 1970s.

In the Duluth community, Pistel belonged to the Lions Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. He was also a member of the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Services for the Blind, the American Association of Workers for the Blind, and the National and Minnesota Rehabilitation Associations. Pistel and his wife had three children.

Pistel helped promote the organization’s rapid expansion and oversaw a major shift in the Lighthouse’s focus. A 1979 National Industries for the Blind newsletter said, “Today, as a result of Mr. Pistel’s direction, there are 12 staff members and 30 people in the production department, all full time. Sales reached $302,000 in 1977.” 

“Many people feel that when a person loses his vision, he’s lost everything. But through learning and proper rehabilitation the blind person can appreciate the fact that he can do many things just as well or even better than other persons.” —Robert Pistel

Past Executive Directors (called Executive Secretary until 1969)

1919: Bertha Hanford 

1923: Lillian Rogers 

1936: Myrtle Hibbs 

1942: Celia Slyfield 

1948: Florence Durham 

1951: George Pearson 

1958: John Dexter 

1962: Robert Pistel

1979: Harry Dack

1982: Michael Conlan

1994: Scott Thul

1995: Paul Almirall

2000: Scott Welles

2000: Georgia Guite

2011: Mary Junnila

Clinton Russell (1895–1961)

PHOTO: Clinton Russell hits a golf ball at Ridgeview Country Club in 1938. Photo courtesy of Jean Schwengler.

Clinton Russell is best known as an excellent golf player—who happened to be blind. His father was co-owner of the Bridgeman-Russell Company, once one of the largest dairies in the Midwest.  Clinton’s greatest contributions were in 1938 and 1941 when he won two highly-publicized golf matches and donated the proceeds to the Lighthouse. Members of the Bridgeman and Russell families helped support the Lighthouse after Clinton lost his sight.

Clinton Russell was born in Duluth and attended Syracuse University after graduating from Central High School. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War I, then married Ruth Jones and moved back to Duluth, where he worked at his father’s dairy. Tragically, Russell was blinded in 1924 when a tire blew up in his face.

In spite of the accident, Russell eventually became president of the Bridgeman-Russell Company and also regained his interest in golf. A caddy described the green and helped Russell line up his shot, a system that made him the first blind golfer in America. This caught the attention of Robert Ripley, who featured Russell in the famous Believe it or Not cartoon in 1932.

PHOTO: Clinton Russell hits his ball out of a sand trap at Ridgeview Country Club on August 20, 1938.

On August 20, 1938, Ripley sponsored a golf match between Clinton Russell and Englishman Dr. William Oxenham, another blind golfer who appeared in a 1936 edition of Believe it or Not. Oxenham lost his sight in World War I and was a fair match for Russell. That event at the Ridgeview Country Club was called “the golf match of the century,” and spectators came from as far away as the Twin Cities and Thunder Bay.

Out of thirteen holes, Russell lost one, tied five, and won eight. Each man received trophies donated by Ripley and presented by Miss Minnesota Avis Darrow. The Lighthouse for the Blind received the proceeds from the match, and although the exact amount isn’t known, the crowd was estimated to be as large as 10,000. 

PHOTO: Miss Minnesota presents Clinton Russell with the championship trophy. Left to right: Ruth and Clinton Russell, Avis Darrow, Dr. and Mrs. William Oxenham. Photo courtesy of Jean Schwengler.

In a match at the Northland Country Club three years later, Russell defeated another blind golfer, Marvin Shannon of Fort Worth. Forty of the nation’s top sports writers and broadcasters were invited, and Steve Owens and Tim Mara, coach and owner, respectively, of the New York Giants attended. The Lighthouse was the recipient of these proceeds, as well. 

Clinton Russell won several other blind golf championships, including a rematch against William Oxenham in 1948. He helped form the United States Blind Golf Association in 1953 and was enshrined in the Duluth Arena Sports Hall of Fame (now the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame) in 1975. He said the biggest thrill of his life was receiving the Ben Hogan Award from the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association, given annually to a golfer who has come back from a serious injury or setback. 

PHOTO: Clinton Russell receives the Ben Hogan Award in 1957. Left to right: Sammy Sneed, Clinton Russell, Totten Hefflefinger. Photo courtesy of Jean Schwengler.

The Bridgeman-Russell connections to the Lighthouse extended beyond the golf course. The Henry F. Bridgeman fund started with $500 in the mid-1920s and gave loans to those unable to pay for sight-saving services. The Clinton Russell Revolving Fund assisted the Lighthouse in its day-to-day expenses during the 1930s and ‘40s. Clinton, his father Newell, and his mother Isabella all periodically served on the board of directors throughout the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. The Russells also hosted Lighthouse outings at their cabin on Pike Lake. Coincidentally (so it seems), the Lighthouse’s third location at 16 West 1st Street was originally the Bridgeman-Russell headquarters. 

The Russells were not the only prominent Duluthians who served on the Lighthouse board. Others included Elizabeth Congdon, Oliver Iron Mining Company Assistant General Manager John Hearding, and District Court Judge William Archer.

The Role of Technology: Past and Present

The Lighthouse has always sought to help individuals make the most of the adaptive devices available to them, especially with the advent of computers and smartphones. Braille typewriters were the first devices used at the Lighthouse, and as they added rehabilitation services, instructors taught clients how to use other adaptive devices to help them achieve independence. Many of these devices often had just one function and seem primitive today, but they were innovative for their time.

Photo: An instructor (right) shows students how to use a Perkins brailler, which is similar to a manual typewriter. Smaller versions are used for notetaking. People can also write braille on paper using tools called a slate and stylus. The Lighthouse offered free braille instruction as early as 1927, and possibly earlier. It also subscribed to five different braille magazines, including one published in Minneapolis.

Photo: A woman listens to a record on a special Talking Book machine in this Duluth News-Tribune clipping from 1935. The machines had adjustable speeds and could play the Bible in 25 records. The Lighthouse purchased 16 Talking Book machines in 1936. The board also bought radios for homebound people.

Photo: Many modern tools, games, timepieces, and visual aids look very similar to these ones from the 1960s.

“Aids and devices which enable the blind person to function more independently are available from the Lighthouse together with instruction in their use.” —1966 Lighthouse Annual Report

Photo: Executive Director Robert Pistel holds a talking calculator in this undated clipping from the Duluth News-Tribune.

Photo: Instructor Sharon Hudberg listens to the Radio Talking Book in this Duluth Herald clipping from July 7, 1975. The Minnesota Radio Talking Book program turns 50 years old in 2019. Listeners can hear current newspapers, magazines, and books free of charge.

A 1977 Lighthouse newsletter reported that many Duluth phone booths had touch-tone phones, which were easier than rotary dials to use by touch alone, once users got used to the new design. Another newsletter contained an article about the Mowat Sensor, a handheld device that would vibrate or emit sound based on how close the user was to objects in front of them. The sensor would be used in addition to a cane or a guide dog.

Photos: Sharon Hudburg Waldriff uses an Optacon, circa 1979. Optacons were devices that scanned print through a handheld sensor, then replicated the words on another device through a series of raised pins. These required special training to use.

Photo: Steven Dahlberg uses a Thermo Voice Talking Thermometer in 1981. At that time, Lighthouse clients had access to a microwave oven, a digital clock, a calculator, and glucose readers, which all used a voice synthesizer.

In 1982, the Lighthouse developed C.H.I.R.P.: Children’s Itinerant Rehabilitation Program, which “[assisted] educational systems in introducing blind and visually impaired children to numerous technological advances and teaching strategies.” Later in the 1980s, the Lighthouse used an Apple IIe computer, which had an early speech synthesizer.

Photo: A Minnesota Radio Talking Book, a Talking Book record player, and a Talking Book cassette player from 1988. The record and cassette players were available through the Library of Congress, and digital versions are used today.

Adaptive Technology in the Computer Era

Adaptive technology is a constantly evolving field with both challenges and innovations. Lighthouse workers in 1919 would be amazed at how accessible technology has become. Lighthouse instructors show people how to take advantage of accessible devices, which helps clients gain independence and learn valuable skills for college and employment.

Photo: This photo shows a braille computer program in 1998. People who are visually impaired can use a screen reader to access and create text, which is printed with an embosser. Today, JAWS (Job Access With Speech) is the most popular screen reading software. SMART braillers, small electronic versions of the Perkins brailler, also have voice-to-text software.

Photo: Lydia Miller uses a closed circuit television (CCTV), 1993.

Photo: These closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs) were part of the Lighthouse’s new Technology Center in the 1990s. Similar devices are still used today.

In 1994, the Lighthouse received a $50,000 grant from the Lions Club International Foundation for a new technology center. The center featured telephone amplifiers, computers with voice synthesizers and braille printing, braille keyboards, closed-circuit televisions, and other adaptive devices. The equipment cost around $300,000, equivalent to about $520,000 in 2019.

Photo: Ed Hebert uses a video magnifier to zoom in on his recipe, making the text larger and easier to see.

Photo: Items available for sale at the Lighthouse Store, which opened in 2002. The store sells magnifiers, CCTVs, kitchen and writing aids, games, and other tools.

Photo: Lighthouse board member Nancy Deever uses ZoomText in the Lighthouse’s technology classroom.

The Lighthouse uses the Dragon voice command program and the JAWS screen reader on its computers. Students in the Transition Program for teenagers learn text-based programming, which is an accessible and in-demand skill regardless of vision.

Photo: Transition Program students learn how to write computer code.

Touch Screen Troubles

Photos: Screenshots of an iPhone screen showing available accessibilities for people with vision loss.

Touch screens can be an obstacle for people with vision loss, but speech technology helps eliminate the barrier of touch. For iPhones, Siri and VoiceOver are the main accessibility features that can be used for dictation, reading text, and navigating the screen. Users with low vision can also magnify the screen and change display settings.

Photo: The Amazon Echo accepts voice commands to read the weather, order groceries, call an Uber, or play music. One can even connect an Echo to Bluetooth-compatible appliances.

Wearable Technology

OrCam is device that attaches to eyeglasses and can be used for facial recognition, reading, and even identifying currency. Aira glasses can connect to a smartphone and use a live agent who assists the wearer with navigation and other tasks. Both devices are expensive and are not typically covered by insurance, but prices are declining, making them more affordable for more people.

Technology and Me

In 2018, the Lighthouse developed Technology and Me, a program that helps adults age 55 and older, including those without vision loss, learn how to use technology that meets their needs. Services include group presentations, one-on-one training, a Technology Help Hotline, device loans and demonstrations, and drop-in hours.

Serving Technology and Me clients without vision loss reaches beyond the Lighthouse’s traditional focus because the staff’s expertise in technology can improve safety and quality of life for all older adults. Moreover, the Lighthouse hopes this broader appeal will enable it to serve even more individuals with vision loss.


Current Programs and Services

The Lighthouse for the Blind became the Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss in 2011 to better reflect that most Lighthouse clients are not totally blind. Today, the Lighthouse is Minnesota’s most comprehensive vision rehabilitation center because it combines traditional blindness training with a wide variety of other services for people of all ages. The staff includes an optometrist and occupational therapists, whose services are paid for through medical insurance, increasing the number of clients the Lighthouse can serve. Above all, the Lighthouse seeks to meet the unique needs of each individual.

Adjustment to Vision Loss 

This training program helps people with significant vision loss learn valuable skills to maintain independence and stay involved in their communities. Instructors work one-on-one with clients to make sure they achieve their unique goals at home, school, work, and in the community. Classes include Techniques of Daily Living (TDL), Orientation and Mobility (O&M), Technology, Pre-Employment Training, Braille, and Adaptive Leisure.

PHOTO: Ken Beetcher uses woodworking skills he learned at the Lighthouse.

PHOTO: Clients practice group training under the blindfold in the Lighthouse kitchen.

Home and Workplace Adaptations

Lighthouse instructors can conduct home safety inspections relating to vision loss issues. They help clients mark appliances, create organizational systems, set up talking devices, and consider personal emergency management systems. The Lighthouse’s technology instructors are experts in state-of-the-art adaptations and training for computer use.

PHOTO: Margie stands next to her adapted stove.

Low Vision Occupational Therapy and Optometry

Lighthouse occupational therapists visit individuals in their homes to help them live safely and independently. The Low Vision Optometrist can map clients’ visual fields and determine the best devices to help people maximize the use of their remaining vision.

Safe at Home with Vision Loss

The Lighthouse is leading a regional effort to promote aging in place by helping seniors with vision loss remain safely in their homes. The Safe at Home with Vision Loss initiative includes occupational therapy and optometry services, as well as public and professional education to help people understand the importance of the Lighthouse’s services. Caregiver training and support is also available.


PHOTO: This woman was able to remain in her home and can still do needlepoint under a magnifier.

Support Groups

Support groups are a way to connect with others experiencing vision loss and share ideas for living independently with vision loss. Groups gather at the Lighthouse and in Aitkin, Grand Marais, Grand Rapids, Hermantown, and Hibbing. 

PHOTO: People gather at the Lighthouse for a support group in 2009.

Technology and Me

Launched in 2018, the goal of this program is to help adults 55 and older—with or without vision loss—learn how to use devices that are right for them to enhance their safety, health, and quality of life. The initiative includes device demonstrations and loans and a free Technology Hotline to help clients over the phone. The program builds on the Lighthouse’s long-standing expertise in technology and takes advantage of tremendous technological innovations in recent years.

Transition Program for Youth

Operating since 2014, the Lighthouse Transition Program is open to students 14 to 21 years of age who have visual impairments or blindness. Teenagers and young adults from across Minnesota gather at the Lighthouse to learn about technology, mobility, independent living, and preparing for college and the workforce. Camps are offered in the summer and during the school year, and some training is offered via Skype. 

PHOTO: Transition program students learn to write computer code



Special thanks to the following for their contributions to this exhibit:

Duluth Depot

Duluth News Tribune

Duluth Public Library

Georgia Guite

Jean Schwengler and the family of Clinton Russell

Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss staff and board of directors

Minnesota Museum of Mining

Paul Almirall

University of Minnesota Duluth Archives and Special Collections

University of Minnesota Duluth Museum Studies program

Researched and written by Julia Schaefer and Tucker Nelson

Designed and manufactured by Arrowhead Printing

Display of Objects

Clothespin Bag

Circa 1965

Cotton, Metal 

This striped canvas bag, one of many products the Lighthouse workshop once made, would hang on a clothesline pole or in a laundry room.

Braille Typewriter

Developed by the American Foundation for the Blind 

Manufactured by L. C. Smith & Corona Typewriters, Inc., Syracuse, NY 

Produced from 1933 to 1947 

Stainless steel, Bakelite 

This brailler belonged to Martin B. “Ben” Rustan (1890–1989), a blind lawyer from Nashwauk, Minnesota. Rustan’s eyes were removed because of spinal meningitis when he was five, but despite his limitations, he practiced law in Nashwauk for 70 years. This typewriter was donated by his former secretary, Doreen Lindahl.

This style of typewriter was known as the Foundation Writer. The six keys correspond to the six sections of a braille letter and leave a raised imprint on the page when pressed.