Ridgefield notables: Matilda Ziegler, Heiress aided the blind

An heiress who found Ridgefield a retreat spent much of her life aiding the blind. Nearly a century after her death, she still is.

Electa Matilda Curtis was born on a farm in 1841 in Saratoga County, N.Y., and, when she was about 18, married a local boy. They had a son, Charles, who was blinded in an accident as a child. By 1870, she was divorced and living with the 10-year-old boy at her parents’ farm in Schuylerville.

Within 15 years, her life had changed. She was living in New York when she met William Ziegler, a millionaire industrialist. They married in 1886.

William Ziegler later created one of the most valuable estates in America, buying Great Island in Darien and building a mansion, a 20-stall stone stable with indoor ring, a polo grounds, and a yacht basin. In 2016, the family offered the 63-acre property for $175 million, then the fifth highest-priced home for sale in the U.S.

He had little time to enjoy his estate, dying in 1905. He left most of his estate — $884 million today — to his adopted son, William Jr. Matilda got some $70 million in today’s dollars.

Soon after she began focusing on the blind, founding in 1907 a monthly, free-of-charge, general-interest magazine in Braille.

By 1919, the magazine was producing 96,000 copies annually — over 6,000,000 pages per year printed on a special Braille press. The print edition lasted until 2009; an online version continued with audio feeds until 2014.

Ziegler’s printing plant also produced many Braille books. In 1929, Ziegler established the still-extant E. Matilda Ziegler Foundation for the Blind to pay for the magazine and for other services that benefited the blind.

In 1912, she bought Hawley Cottage, a Main Street mansion built about 1892 that is now Wesley Hall of Jesse Lee Methodist Church. Why Mrs. Ziegler bought a house in Ridgefield when she already owned a six-bedroom mansion 15 miles away on Great Island is unclear. It’s also unclear how much time she spent there.

In 1924, she sold the house to Sanford Freund, a New York City attorney. She died in 1932 at age 91.

William Ziegler Jr. (1894-1958), continued her work, serving as president of both the foundation and publishing company as well as the American Foundation for the Blind. His son, William Ziegler III, his son, became president of the foundation and the publishing company, serving until his death in 2008.

Today, while the magazine is gone, the foundation is active in providing money for vision research into vision — in the past decade, more than $4.5-million in grants were awarded.

— Jack Sanders