Nation’s first guide dog lived in Linden Hills

Thomas D. Schall and his wife, Margaret
Thomas D. Schall and his wife, Margaret, pose with the senator’s dog, Lux, the first authorized guide dog in American history. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

To prepare for the Southwest Journal’s 30th anniversary, the staff has been reading through the paper’s back issues. 

Local history stories have always been a part of the Southwest Journal. In the paper’s third issue, published in April 1990, Mary Balfour wrote about “The Ladies of Linden Hills Boulevard,” sisters Ruth and Sally Crandall, who had moved into their house in 1906. They knew lots of neighborhood stories of quieter times and recalled their dancing lessons above the Linden Hills Masonic lodge and the fun they had in the winter of 1914-15, flying down the Park Board’s big toboggan slide and sliding far out onto the frozen lake.

At one point in Balfour’s story, Sally Crandall remembers a “big estate that had four lots, two on Queen Avenue and two on Linden Hills Boulevard.” By those breadcrumbs, I came across the story of how blind Americans achieved the right to bring their service dogs with them in public places.

That “big estate” referred to the large brick and half-timbered house at 4236 Queen Ave. S. Built in 1897, it sits on a double lot, and its former estate grounds (the two lots behind, facing Linden Hills Boulevard) were sold and built on decades ago. In 1934, after the original owner died, this exceptional, impressive house was bought by U.S. Sen. Thomas D. Schall.

Schall’s origin story is iconic and inspiring. He was born in Michigan in 1877 in a shack so meager that only a blanket nailed to the doorway kept the winter winds out. His father died or disappeared while Thomas was young, and he and his mother came to Minnesota, where she cooked for the railroad workers and tried to get by.

He grew up doing the jobs a boy could do to help out and got some schooling in Ortonville. There, he discovered his flair for public speaking and won a contest in oratory. This led to a scholarship at Hamline College, and Tom Schall was set upon his path to become a lawyer. He received his law degree from William Mitchell School of Law in 1904.

A few years later, he was blinded. He was trying to light a cigar with an electric lighter. It was plugged into the wrong circuit and exploded. That cost him his sight. Fighting through this adversity, his law practice began to focus on personal injury cases. His wife, Margaret, became his reader and most useful assistant. His law practice was successful in no small part because juries loved his orations.  

Schall ran for Congress in 1914 on the Progressive ticket, winning a three-way race. He represented Minnesota’s now-defunct 10th Congressional District, which included part or all of Hennepin, Anoka, Wright, Kanabec and Pine counties. He was the first blind man seated in the House of Representatives. To accommodate his blindness, the House allowed a page to accompany him at all times.

The Schalls’ Linden Hills house
The Schalls’ Linden Hills house at 4236 Queen Ave. S. Photo courtesy of the Hennepin History Museum

Tom Schall’s political life was intense and combative, but after 10 years in the House, he was elected to the Senate in 1925. Schall had worked on legislation to help the blinded veterans of World War I and had become acquainted with a St. Paul businessman who had seen firsthand what was being done in Germany to help blind veterans. Jack Sinykin, who founded the world-renowned LaSalle Kennels in 1926, imported to America a “German police dog” and trained him to work as a guide dog. Ultimately, he trained more than 3,000 guide dogs. The first was Lux of LaSalle. Lux was given to Sen. Schall, making him the first person in America to use a guide dog. The pair became famous, with Lux guiding Schall through Washington’s busy streets. Lux knew where to find Schall’s office, the Senate chamber and even the Capitol’s basement barbershop. With just a word, Lux could bring Schall anywhere he needed to go. He would growl at traffic until the cars stopped and he could guide Schall safely across a street. Of course there were fewer cars back then. Schall and Lux were irreplaceable partners.

When the railroads refused to allow Lux to travel with Schall and insisted that the dog ride in the baggage car, Schall introduced a bill to allow the guide dogs of the blind — which were an entirely new idea — to accompany them anywhere, even restaurants. That bill was enacted in 1926 and is still the law today.

Lux died at home in Linden Hills while Schall was absent on a trip, a funeral visit to a colleague in Montana. Ironically, he hadn’t taken Lux on the trip because he thought the train ride would be too hard on the aging dog. But Lux turned away from food and died, Schall said, of a broken heart. The news was published from coast to coast. 

Schall took up with another trained guide dog, but it was never that indispensible partnership he’d had with Lux. Sinykin’s kennel burned down in 1935 and his pioneering role in training guide dogs was subsequently overshadowed by others. And in an even greater irony, Schall was hit by a car and killed in 1935. The reports of his death do not say if his dog was with him.

Karen Cooper discovers the stories of Southwest houses. If your Southwest Minneapolis home appears in the Hennepin History Museum realty photo archives, you can ask her to write your house’s history.