The Heiress Who Helped the Blind
A wealthy heiress who found Ridgefield a retreat spent much of her life aiding the blind. Nearly a century after her death, she still is helping the visually impaired. Inspired by a young son who lost his sight, Matilda Ziegler founded a magazine and a foundation, both aimed at the blind.
Her Main Street mansion is now Wesley Hall, part of the Methodist Church complex.
Electa Matilda Curtis was born on a farm in 1841 in Saratoga County, N.Y., and, when she was about 18, married a local boy, Edward Gamble. They had a son, Charles, who was blinded in an accident as a child. By 1870, she was divorced and living with the 10-year-old boy at her parents’ farm in Schuylerville.
Within 15 years, her life had changed dramatically. Mrs. Gamble was living in New York City when she met William Ziegler, a millionaire industrialist. Born in 1843 of Pennsylvania Dutch farmers, Ziegler had worked a printer’s apprentice, clerked in a drug store, learned telegraphy, pharmacology, and chemistry, went to business school, and worked for a wholesale drug and chemical company before he wound up acquiring and heading a large company that produced baking powder and other cooking chemicals.
William and Matilda were married in 1886.
William Ziegler later became famous for financing several unsuccessful expeditions to the Arctic in an effort to plant the American flag at the North Pole. He also created one of the most valuable estates in America. In 1902 he bought Great Island on the Darien shore and built a mansion as the center of a spread that included a huge 20-stall stone stable with indoor ring, a polo grounds, and a yacht basin. In 2016, the Ziegler family placed the 63-acre property on the market for $175 million, ranking it at the time as the fifth highest-priced home for sale in the entire United States. The price was reduced two years later to $120 million. The property is still owned by the family.
Ziegler himself got to enjoy his estate only three years, dying in 1905 of complications from a runaway carriage accident the previous year. He left behind an estate worth some $30 million ($884 million today), of which $18.5 million went to his adopted son, William Jr. (who was actually his nephew). Matilda was bequeathed $50,000 a year ($1.4 million) as well as lifetime use of their Fifth Avenue mansion and the Great Island estate. After a lawsuit challenging parts of the will, she wound up with another $2.5 million ($70-million) in cash and stocks.
Soon after William’s death, Mrs. Ziegler — she went by Matilda Ziegler, E. Matilda Ziegler or Mrs. E. M. Ziegler, but never by Electa Ziegler — began devoting herself to the needs of the blind. In 1907, she founded the Matilda Ziegler Publishing Company for the Blind in New York City.
“As the loving mother of a son who lost his sight in childhood, Mrs. Ziegler knew from personal experience how few resources were available to enrich the lives of the blind,” says the E. Matilda Ziegler Foundation for the Blind. “At the time, communications reading material in Braille was limited. By creating and distributing a monthly, general-interest magazine in Braille, Mrs. Ziegler helped break through the isolation that defined the lives of blind people.”
When the magazine started in 1907, circulation was 6,500 copies and a subscription cost only 10 cents a year — a nominal fee that was charged to make the publication eligible for an inexpensive second-class mailing rate. About a year later, a law was passed, making periodicals for the blind postage-free, and the magazine itself became completely free.
Each 48-page copy, looking like a large scroll when it was delivered, included a summary of current events, scientific advances, a short story, poetry, popular music, reports from blind people describing their successes in various fields, and sometimes even raised maps as “illustrations.” By 1919, the magazine was producing 96,000 copies annually, which required printing more than 6,000,000 pages per year on a special Braille press. The print edition lasted until 2009, but the magazine continued online with audio feeds until 2014 when it shut down.
Along with the magazine, Ziegler built a printing plant that produced not only the magazine, but books for the blind.
In 1929, Ziegler established the E. Matilda Ziegler Foundation for the Blind to pay for the magazine and for other services that benefited the blind.
Meanwhile, in 1912, she bought Hawley Cottage, later called Ashton Croft, the Main Street
Why Mrs. Ziegler bought a house in Ridgefield when she already had a six-bedroom mansion 15 miles away on Great Island is unclear. Also unclear is why the renovated the exterior, which had been shingled, into a Tudor-style design of posts, beams, and stucco. (The only other Tudor building on Main Street, built at about the same time, is the so-called Pizza Block of stores and offices in the central business district.) One of the exterior changes she made to the house was facing porches and chimneys with stone, similar to the look of the manor house at her Darien estate.
It’s also unknown how often she was in Ridgefield instead of her Manhattan and Darien homes. She must have spent some time here — she had three automobiles registered in Ridgefield in 1914.
In 1924, when she was in her middle 80s, she sold the house to Sanford H.E. Freund, a New York City attorney. Tax stamps on the deed suggest that the price in today’s dollars was about $720,000. The Odd Fellows bought the estate from the Freund family in 1956. Three years later, the organization sold most of the property — retaining the carriage house for its lodge — to Jesse Lee Methodist Church, which planned to eventually build a new church there to replace the old one at Main and Catoonah Streets.
Matilda Ziegler died in 1932 at the age of 91.
Her adopted son, William Ziegler Jr. (1894-1958), continued her work, serving as president of both the foundation and publishing company as well as the American Foundation for the Blind, and the American Foundation for Overseas Blind. His son, William Ziegler III, his son, became president of the foundation and the publishing company, serving until his death in 2008.
Today, while the magazine is gone, the foundation is alive and quite active in providing money for vision research — in the past decade, more than $4.5-million in grants were awarded to “scientists whose research holds the promise of major impact.”