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Animal Tales: Letters from Nella Braddy Henney to Helen Keller

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Helen Keller with sheep in Scotland.

Helen Keller with sheep in Scotland, 1932

Among her many roles, Nella Braddy Henney was a friend, agent, and editor to Helen Keller. Nella and her husband, Keith, spent their summers on Foss Mountain in Snowville, New Hampshire. With her teacher, Anne Sullivan and secretary and companion, Polly Thomson, the trio spent time at Nella’s summer home and would go on daily walks with Nella. Before leaving after a visit in 1938, Helen wrote to Nella that “your nest of peace is twice blest.” She continues, "How inundated we have been with every kind of beauty every minute on Foss Mountain."

Nella wrote to Helen and Polly (Thomson) almost daily. She wrote about her activities, plans, business matters, and the wildlife that surrounded her. In addition to reporting the weather and what was growing in the garden, Nella’s correspondence showed a fascination with the animals that lived around (and sometimes in) her house.

I first encountered these tales while I was digitizing correspondence as an intern in the archives at the Perkins School for the Blind. A letter about business obligations and dealings could finish with the latest drama in a raccoon family who spent a summer under Nella’s porch. The stories are continued, with new episodes, in sequential letters and sometimes throughout the entire season.

I was happy to find more animal reports in the letters in the Helen Keller Archive. Using the search feature, I was able to search for "animals" and then filter it by category "letter" and "person from" "Nella Braddy Henney." One of my favorites describes a chipmunk who Nella supposes is a "mathematical genius." In a letter dated September 9, 1963, she writes about a chipmunk who seems to be able to count the number of peanuts that Keith gave him. Nella explains that the chipmunk would "patiently wait" until they gave him another when they only gave him two. She writes that, “..he must have a hoard big enough to keep practically all the chipmunks on Foss Mt. supplied throughout the winter. "

In the same letter, she writes about a garter snake that she observed after it ate something, "probably a frog." She describes how the snake "swam gracefully and quickly.." Finally, she reports about the "coons" that have come back, "the babies nearly as big as their mother now."

On March 10, 1965, Nella wrote to Helen as she prepared to head to New Hampshire for the summer. Just as enthralled by the wildlife at her home in Garden City, New York, Nella tells Helen about the rabbits that were eating her garden. The rabbits were "very frisky and are starting it now on such things as violet leaves and snowdrops. O, dear, oh dear!" she concludes.

These letters would have helped Helen, an animal lover herself, learn more about animals and their behaviors. Nella describes the animals and their activities in great detail, including information about their appearance and environment, painting a rich picture for Helen to enjoy and connect to.

Note: Susanna Coit is the Archives and Research Library Assistant at the Perkins School for the Blind.


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