By Jenni Barrientos on December 28, 2023.
Recently, I came across a letter in the archival records which had small pieces of linen glued to the edges. Taking a closer look, I noticed the linen was placed just at the very edges of the sheet of an otherwise very normal typed page.
The top of the letter also caught my attention – it noted: “this letter written by Edgar Millar (a blind man), on October 5, 1936 on an ordinary typewriter.” The content of the letter confirmed my thoughts, that the pieces of linen were added as tactile guides for Edgar to help ensure his typing was centred on the page.
How fascinating that this part of our collection held an unknown origin – a very early example of assistive and adaptive technology, and in this case, completely self-made. I looked further into Edgar Millar’s life and found that he was truly an amazing man.
He was a First World War veteran, a president of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a married father of young children, and then – during the influenza pandemic of 1918, he contracted the virus which caused him to lose his eyesight.
In these difficult times, Edgar proved resilient, as he worked hard to learn Braille, taught himself how to use the typewriter using modifications, and he opened and managed a local kiosk under the direction of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) an organization that he later would call “one of God’s noblest institutions.”
Edgar was also one of the first people in Alberta to utilize the support of a service dog. Hearing news from the U.S. of the new idea of a “guide dog” for assistance to the blind, Edgar had written to a Minneapolis breeder to plead his case.
Eventually, a match was made closer to home, through a breeder out of Lethbridge, and Edgar met his service dog Jerry in 1935. Edgar’s companion was a purebred Airedale Terrier, born on Christmas Day, 1935.
From then on, the two were inseparable. Jerry was given a beautiful collar which was engraved with the words: “Her Master’s Eyes,” and she served Edgar through the rest of his life. The two were often seen operating the souvenir kiosk near the railroad crossing on Second Street SE.
Edgar ensured he sold Minneapolis souvenirs to pay homage to the organization which had helped him secure a guide dog. Sadly, Jerry outlived her master, as Edgar passed away in 1939. His legacy of perseverance and adaptability lives on in our Collections, in tiny pieces of linen, and in a story larger than life.
You can make your own discoveries in our Collections, both in-person and online. You can visit the Archives Reference Services in person Tuesday-Friday, 12-5 pm or do your research anytime using our Online Collections Catalogue at collections.esplanade.ca
Jenni Barrientos is an assistant archivist at the Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre