In the late 1920s, when Francis Burdett was 63 years old, living in Wayne NJ, he decided to build a house. He didn’t arrange to have burly carpenters do it; he built it himself. He got the lumber, sawed it, fit it, and nailed it, until he had built a handsome Dutch Colonial home “3 stories high, seven rooms, bath and large attic.”
That would be quite a task for any 63-year-old. What made it unique was that Francis Burdett was quite blind. He had lost his sight at age 50 in a moving vehicle accident. And he wasn’t a carpenter, but had spent his life as a watchmaker.
So why build a house? According to one newspaper account, he had had a concrete foundation laid on a lot he owned. A smallish bungalow was supposed to have been delivered to the site from several miles away, but the deal fell through. So what’s a blind fellow to do? Build a house, of course.
Burdett didn’t have any formal experience as a carpenter, but — as many men did in that era — he had picked up the skills by doing odd jobs over the years.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Burdett and his house — two and a half years in the making — often found themselves the object of curiosity. Many newspaper articles were written about him, and he was even featured (briefly) in a 1930 episode of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. (It starts at about 1:16 – don’t blink or you’ll miss it.)
His neighbors kept an eye on his progress as well:
About this time all the nervous people that lived hereabout were in a constant unsettled state of mind. Nothing seemed to allay the fears of the people. Even the BLIND BUILDER’S continuous exhibition of skill and his daily performances before their eyes, did not tend in the least to abate their fear, and each day brought a fresh new anxiety. People talking together on the street would look up unconsciously to see if the BLIND BUILDER was still up there or on the ground ready for the hospital or morgue.
It must however, be said that everybody enjoyed the Blind man’s progress and looked on as if a war was in progress, and each day a battle won.— From “The House the Blind-Man Built: The House Built in the Dark”
Was he really blind? From all accounts, yes. Did he do the work himself? Again, written articles and a book agree that he did. He planned the house in his head, and was meticulously aware of his surroundings. From a newspaper article:
It is uncanny to watch this blind man, sixty-odd years of age, climb ladders, perch on narrow scaffolds and use the tools of the carpenter, from adz to plane. He knows where each tool is to be found. Every piece of material, from a ball of twine to the 24-foot timbers used in the construction is catalogued in his mind.
There’s more to the tale of Francis Burdette’s house, but if you want to know the whole story, by all means read the book “The House the Blind-Man Built: The House Built in the Dark.” Written by William Vahrenkamp, a cousin, the book lovingly explains, in superb detail, how Burdett did it. The book is lavishly illustrated with many drawings and photos.