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May 28, 2022

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Clark County History: Emil Fries

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When the train from Seattle pulled into the Vancouver station early on a January morning in 1917, a blind teenager stepped onto the platform. A taxi driver bellowed to ask him if he was headed to the blind school. After a 35-cent ride, the driver let him out near the only lighted doorway on the school’s campus. It turned out to be the kitchen. The boy watched the cook prepare breakfast for the students until the breakfast bell rang. As students filed in for breakfast, the new boy sitting among them forked up pancakes doused with bacon gravy and no longer felt alone.

As a youth, Emil Fries (1901-1997) worked on his family’s farm in the Okanagan country despite his limited vision. Even seated at the front of his school classroom, he couldn’t see the writing on the blackboard. Worse, his country classmates teased him about it.

So his parents hatched a plan to get him into the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver. The school taught boys canning, broom making and piano tuning. Girls acquired domestic skills.

In 1917, when the Interstate Bridge opened, Fries and the other students stood in the crowd at the dedication. A year later, he found himself in isolation during the influenza epidemic. Piano tuning attracted Fries (pronounced “freeze”), but his lack of musical training made the tedious process challenging.

In time, he learned it well. After graduation, Fries tuned his way through the University of Washington and received a degree in 1930. Textbook learning was as difficult because low-vision students needed to pay readers. After graduation, he married one of his readers, Nettie Fried (pronounced “freed”), from a prominent Seattle family.

Fries returned to the state school for the blind and worked there until 1948, mainly teaching tuning but also other subjects, including physical education. When turned down for the school’s superintendency, he took a sabbatical and traveled abroad to explore his Danish roots and investigate how other schools for the blind operated.

On his return in 1949, he got a bank loan, funds from his wife’s family and mortgaged his home to start The Piano Hospital. It opened in the building the Evergreen Wine Cellar on East Evergreen Boulevard now occupies. His business thrived. Students came from around the world, and he taught both sighted and blind students. Fries never traveled without stopping in on at least one of his former students along the way. Eventually, he built a new building just a couple of doors down from his original school and later made the business a nonprofit. At one time, he had tuning contracts with most of the schools in Vancouver.

A student of Fries and longtime teacher at the school, Don Mitchell, remembers him as stubborn, determined and someone who got things done. Another student and Piano Hospital instructor, Ken Serviss, recalls racing to a tuning appointment with Fries. Driving a car out in the north county along a misty, narrow road, Serviss, who is legally blind, said he couldn’t find the road. To assist, Emil stuck his head and shoulders out the window as the car cruised along. Serviss shrieked for him to get back into the car before he bonked his head on a mailbox.

After almost 70 years, the Piano Hospital closed in 2016. Social changes, technology, increasing jobs for the blind and falling piano sales contributed to its end.


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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