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Franz Rickaby Helen Keller Correspondence

finding aid


Franz Rickaby Helen Keller Correspondence


Rickaby, Franz, 1889-1925
Keller, Helen, 1880-1968

Date range:

1915, 2017

Call number:



After seeing Helen Keller speak in August 1915, Franz Rickaby wrote a poem for Keller and sent it to her. This collection includes Rickaby’s poem, Keller’s response, and Rickaby’s Pinery Boys book (1926, 2017).


.25 linear feet, 1 ½ size document case 



Processed by:

Jen Hale and Susanna Coit, 2021

Biographical/Historical note:

Biographical note:

Franz Rickaby (1889-1925) was a poet, musician, playwright, printer, professor of English, and folklorist who is best known today for his collections of traditional American folk music. He was born in Rogers, Arkansas. In 1896, at the age of seven, Rickaby’s family moved to Taylorville, Illinois and then to Springfield, Illinois in 1904. After his sophomore year, Rickaby dropped out of high school and returned to Rogers “with his violin and cornet in hand” and worked a number of odd jobs. After his long absence in northern Arkansas he returned to high school in Springfield before taking classes at Knox College in 1912. While at Knox, he met his future wife Lillian Katar (m. June 19, 1917) and participated so fully in college activities that he was nicknamed “Frenzy.” Rickaby continued his education at Harvard University, obtaining a M.A. in English in 1917. The same year he graduated, Rickaby was invited to teach English and direct the theater group at the University of North Dakota. Throughout his career, Rickaby wrote poems, directed one act plays, and collected the songs of the upper midwest lumberjacks. While at the University of North Dakota, Rickaby completed his most significant work, a collection of lumber camp songs which was published in Pinery Boys: Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy in 1926, one year after his death. These songs were collected on a 914 mile trek from Charlevoix to Grand Forts, which he began in 1919, but Rickaby continued to wander the Upper Midwest until 1922 or so. Rickaby moved to Claremont, California and began teaching at Pomona College in 1923. He died after many years of suffering from rheumatic fever. He was 35 and was survived by his wife and one son. It was his wife Lillian who ensured that Pinery Boys would still be published after his death.

Historical note

In August 1915, Franz Rickaby heard Helen Keller speak, at an unrecorded location. It is likely that he heard Keller in Illinois, possibly in Springfield. A letter dated September 15, 1915 from Helen Keller mentions traveling that August through Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, “doing Chautauqua work.” Chautauqua was an adult education and social movement in the United States, popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1915 Keller also helped found Helen Keller International, an organization working to fight the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition. 

Sources of information: 

Dykstra, Gretchen. “‘Boes in Faculate’: The Short, Creative Life of Franz Rickaby,” California History 88 (3), 6-65. 201

Dykstra, Gretchen, “In Frenzy’s Footsteps: A walk through history with the grandfather I never knew,” Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era, University of Wisconsin Press, 2017, pp. 15-76.

Greene, Daniel W. “‘Fiddle and I’: The Story of Franz Rickaby.” The Journal of American Folklore 81(322), 316-336. 1968.

“Letter from Helen Keller to Lenore Smith about her lecture tour. September 15, 1915.” General Correspondence. Helen Keller Archive, New York NY.


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It is the responsibility of the user to obtain permission to publish from the owner of the copyright (the institution, the creator of the record, the author or his/her transferees, heirs, legates, or literary executors). The user agrees to indemnify and hold harmless Perkins School for the Blind, its officers, employees, and agents from and against all claims made by any person asserting that he or she is an owner of copyright. 

Credit line/Citation:

AG180 Franz Rickaby Helen Keller Correspondence, Perkins School for the Blind Archives, Watertown, MA 

Scope and contents:

This collection documents Rickaby’s reaction in poetry to hearing Helen Keller speak in 1915, and her reaction to his poem. It also documents Rickaby’s work as a folklorist through a well known book of traditional lumberjack songs he collected. 


B1:F1 = Box 1: Folder 1

Container list:

Box: 1: 

B1:F1: Rickaby poem and Keller letter, 1915

B1:F2: Pinery boys: Songs and songcatching in the lumberjack era book by Franz Rickaby, 2017

Related collections:

Franz Rickaby Collection. Mills Music Library in Memorial Library, Libraries University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.

OGLMC698 Franz Rickaby Papers, 1918-2012. Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND.

List of digital collections related to Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan that are available online.

Franz Rickaby Poem and Helen Keller’s response digitized on Flickr


Donated by Rickaby family members in 2021.


Folk music

Keller, Helen, 1880-1968


Rickaby, Franz, 1889-1925