THE BLIND BUILDER
By Marsha Keefer
(Beaver County Times)
Lewis Hultz Carlisle had uncommon vision. He built
his own five-room house in South Beaver Township in
the 1950’s. Hand-dug the foundation with pick and
shovel. Used a wheelbarrow to haul dirt and stones.
Every brick had to be level. Placed equidistant atop
mortar he mixed himself. Roofing shingles were
aligned just so. Lath and window and door frames
were cut to precision and perfectly hung. Lewis was
so dedicated to the project; he often worked well into
night in darkness.
It didn’t matter. Lewis Hultz Carlisle was blind.
“I stand in wonderment of how he found this and how he found that,” said his 88-year-old widow, Leona Carlisle. Others did, too.
Leona delicately handles yellowed newsprint featuring an article written nearly 60 years ago by a reporter from and Ohio newspaper assigned to document construction. Because it was such an incredible story, a national wire service picked it up. “The Associated Press came and interviewed Lew,” she said, and newspapers across the United States picked it up and published it. The Carlisles received letters from across the country; some people dropped by to see for themselves.
DRIVEN and determined. A son of John Thomas and Asenath Carlisle, Lewis was Born Feb. 23, 1942, the youngest of 12 children. The family owned a restaurant/bakery in Aliquippia in the early 1900s, where “people would line up in the street,” Leona said, to sample Asenath’s home cooking, especially the baked goods. “She (Ansenath) made pies, sold them – 15 cents, bread 10 cents, probably buns, cookies, cake…sometimes they didn’t even pay.”
Lewis was only 13 months old when his father died. Leona doesn’t remember the year, but at some point, Asenath sold the business and moved to Beaver with Lewis and two of his sisters, where she got a job working for a physician. When Lewis was 5, maybe 7, his mother took him to a doctor. Reluctantly, she had to confirm her worst fear: Would he become blind – sightless like three of her daughters, three of her sons?
“The doctor examined him,” Leona said, “and had him sit in the waiting room.” The door was ajar. Lewis overheard the doctor tell his mother the devastating news. Yes, he, too, would eventually become blind. Lewis, like his six older siblings, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited, degenerative eye disease that damages the retina’s light-sensitive cells and photoreceptors. There is no treatment, no cure.
Both parents carried the gene, Leona said, peripheral vision is the first to go. Gradually, one’s world caves in, progressively shrinking – tunnel vision, it’s called – and fading to black. For Lewis the world went dark in his 30s. Leona described her husband as “physically blind, on mentally blind.” He was driven and determined.
Lewis refused to attend the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children in Pittsburgh as some of this siblings had. “He went to public school in Beaver,” Leona said. “I don’t know whether he graduated or not.”
One day, a neighbor boy was throwing a trumpet away. Lewis asked him how much he wanted for it. A dollar. Lewis bought the old, battered instrument. He cleaned it, oiled it and taught himself how to play, and in later years, formed his own band. “He could hear a number one time and play it,” Leona said.
When he was a sophomore, his vision dimming, he asked the coach weather he could play football. The coach said yes. But Lewis played only one game. Afterward, the couch said, “No, I can’t let you play. You’re not seeing the ball and things,” Leona said Lewis was told.
His brothers and sisters taught him to read Braille. His sister Leah taught him how to type. They also taught him “everything he knew about caning,” Leona said. In those days, schools for the blind commonly taught students how to cane chairs and weave rugs – crafts that could provide a livelihood. Lewis became so adept at weaving fiber rushes that he started his own business. He was “very particular about his chair caning,” Leona said, so much so that customers throughout the area, even furniture upholsterers, engaged his work.
Soon, Lewis was sharing his knowledge and skills at the Beaver County Branch of the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind in Beaver Falls, where he was a shop foreman. He taught blind med and woman to cane chairs, thread and weave on a loom, maintain furniture.
By this time, he had moved to Beaver Falls. “He lived on Third Avenue. He had a little dog, Laddie. His mother got him a puppy and he trained it for Seeing Eye,” Leona said.
She recalled asking him how he navigated from block to block. Counted steps, he told her. Some people tried to take advantage of him. But Lewis was too shrewd. “He went in the store and bought something, I don’t know what it was, and he gave the guy a $5 bill. He stood there and he waited and waited. And they guy said, “What are you waiting for?” Lewis told the cashier, “I want my change.” “You’re blind. You don’t know what you gave me,” Leona said, telling the story.
Lewis knew exactly what currency he paid. He folded his bills differently – a $20 bill might be lengthwise; a $10 bill in thirds; a $5 in half – to differentiate. The merchant gave Lewis his change.
By the time Lewis and Leona met, he was completely blind. And 14 years older than she. He couldn’t see what a beauty she was, her raven hair falling in soft waves. Somehow, you know he sensed it. One didn’t need sight to perceive her radiance.
He was a very professional person, Leona said. She liked that about Lewis; it was one of the reasons she was attracted to him. She was professional and meticulous, too.
When Leona was still in high school, her dad shut off the utilities, boarded the doors and windows to his home and moved the family form North Sewickley Township to Oak Ridge, Tenn. An electrician journeyman, he was one of thousands of construction workers from throughout the U.S. and Canada recruited by the federal government to work on a special project – the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. “We couldn’t get in the area without our badges because it was a military secret,” Leona said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acquired land on Black Oak Ridge, developing the site with plants to house uranium and manufacture bombs and creating a town with homes, schools and stores. A new high school, junior high and eight elementary schools were built, Leona said. She took commercial courses in high school – typing, shorthand and accounting – and got a job working in the superintendent’s office. “After I graduated, he called me in, big smile on his face, ‘I want to promote you.’ He promoted me to an elementary principal secretary,” she told.
World War II ended in 1945. The next April, Leona and her family returned home. Leona took a job working in the five-and-dime selling girl’s dresses and greeting cards, but she wanted something more. She answered a newspaper ad and was hired by the blind association in Beaver Falls. “I was hired as a secretary and also the first driver for the branch.” She’d take clients to doctor’s appointments in Pittsburgh and shuttle blind employees to and from work.
That’s how she met Lewis, there was no real courtship. “We weren’t dating,” Leona said. “Sometimes I’d go down and pick him up.” One of his blind sisters lived in Ohio. “We’d take his mother over to stay there part of the time,” Leona said, and she’d take his sister shopping. “We just got to know each other professionally, and it was just something that happened,” she said of a friendship that eventually led to marriage.
After three years of working at the blind association, Leona quit to take a job in cost accounting at Babcock & Wilcox. But Lewis found a way to see her. He call a cab to take him to visit Leona, meet her parents and family.
One day he proposed. “It was a surprise to me,” she said. They married July 27, 1951.
Both debated as to whether to rent or build. Lewis told her he wanted to build – didn’t want to end up with a bunch of rent receipts and nothing to show for it.
Lewis’ sister scoured ads listing land for sale, Leona said. He talked to a real estate agent and after he and Leona looked at the property a couple of times they settled on about a half-acre in South Beaver. The couple took her parents to see it. “The place was loaded with dogwood trees,” Leona said. “It was just beautiful. …Oh, what we couldn’t do with this place, and I didn’t even know what I was talking about.” Lewis did.
“He was always getting books. They could have any subject. He read a lot of novels,” she said, and assumes many of the books were about carpentry.
Lewis made his own special gauges, grouting and measuring tools. A measuring tape – Leona has it framed and hanging in her office – was notched at every half inch and inch so he could determine length by feel. Since he couldn’t see the bubble in a spirit level, he made his own pendulum-type. He bought a miter box and Shop Smith – five tools in one, Leona said – including table saw, lathe, drill press, sander and router. Leona, who said she wouldn’t get near a table saw, marveled at how Lewis operated it. He’d use a board to push the board he wanted to cut through the saw “instead of getting his hand in there. He knew how far to go with the board.”
A cement block building with bedroom on the second floor stood on the parcel when they bought it. It measured about 290 square feet. He dug footers for the foundation, hauled debris by wheelbarrow. The block he laid “was smooth as a mirror,” Leona Said.
“My dad brought the water lever over and measured back here, and he said it wasn’t even a 16th off. It was perfect.”
Lewis ordered all the lumber. Leona helped when she could, but worked during the day. When she’d get home, though, they often worked together – sometimes until 11 p.m. and all day Saturday. She helped lay bricks, grouted, welded, installed and glazed windows. In all, they laid 10,000 bricks – rough-barked to match the bark on oak trees on the grounds. Lewis placed a wedge of wood between each brick to maintain equal spacing. He’d have Leona grout between the bricks with mortar he mixed himself.
One day she remembers laying 400 bricks in eight hours – “just the two of us.”
He framed doors, windows, installed lath, cut and fit woodwork and baseboards, built kitchen cupboards and countertop. Installed copper tubing and plumbing for a hot-water heating system. Climbed a ladder to lay 1,600 squares of shingles.
One day she came home from work to find Lewis on the roof, close to the edge, and feared he’d fall. “I called to him and asked him to come to me. I was afraid he would fall, but I know he wouldn’t have, but it scared me seeing there,” she said.
“We did everything,” said Leona, including stringing the home’s wiring, which later was inspected by her father. The only work contracted was plastering. It took the couple about 7 years to complete the house.
Lewis died July 31, 1981. “He loved his coffee and he loved cigarettes,” Leona said. “I didn’t like him to smoke, but he did. …He passed with arteriosclerotic heart disease.”
People would often ask Lewis how a blind man could build a house. “He gave God the credit,” Leona said. And he never became angry, morose or complained about his blindness. He’d say: “You know what God would say? ‘Why not?’” Leona said.