History Book: A Lasting Inspiration

March 1, 2016 in Featured, Spring 2016 Issue by oliviagrider

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Martha Berry’s determined spirit and vision for a better future are the cornerstone of Berry College.

By KATHRYNE SLATE MCDORMAN

My mother loved reading and enjoyed giving book reviews. She belonged to two “literary” clubs that required book reviews from all of their members.

For reasons not at all apparent to my younger self, she preferred biographies of women who had accomplished great things. At some point in her reading, or during her extensive preparation for the review, she would look up from her book and notes and comment to no one in particular, “she was quite a gal.” I suspect that this was her version of the adage “well-behaved women seldom make history.”

The book “Miracle in the Mountains: The Inspiring Story Of Martha Berry’s Crusade For The Mountain People Of The South” (by Harriett T. Kane), one of her choices, tells the story of the educator and founder of Berry College in Rome, Ga., and may offer a challenge to that adage.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Martha was born in Alabama just at the end of the Civil War to the family of a prosperous cotton broker who, like all businessmen, lost much in the war.

Unlike some of his colleagues, Thomas Berry honored all of his debts to clients in the North. His ethics were rewarded when after the war, northern financiers loaned him money to re-start his business. The family managed to survive on depleted resources until the businesses began to prosper. He moved his family to Rome, and while Martha was a small child, her father purchased land and built a classically designed house that he named Oak Hill after the original farmhouse on the property burned.

Martha was the youngest of four daughters and inherited a portion of the family land and home. She received little formal education, in line with the conventions of the day that a properly brought up young Southern belle was sent to “finishing” school.

At Edgeworth School in Baltimore, Martha was miserable, experiencing for the first time in her life how an outsider could be discriminated against simply for appearances when her contemporaries deemed her wardrobe inadequate.

Perhaps this helped inspire Martha’s life’s work that was devoted to a single purpose: to improve the lives of her mountain neighbors through education. In her singlemindedness and her determined and prolific fundraising she was certainly unconventional, but, in true Southern tradition, never guilty of bad manners or misbehavior.

Martha’s determination grew from seeing the poor conditions of the mountain people whose homesteads and hard-scrabble farms were scattered in the deeply wooded hills that surrounded Oak Hill.

Her father had introduced her to the mountain folk as father and daughter explored the mountains on horseback. Martha continued these rides, building friendships and trust with to offer simple Sunday schools to introduce Bible studies. From those modest beginnings she developed ambitions that ultimately produced an accredited four-year college. That she succeeded so brilliantly is the “miracle” that gave the book its title.

Visitors to the Berry College campus today are smitten with the sheer beauty of its natural setting in the foothills of the Appalachians and the Gothic architecture of the Ford Complex and other buildings. The campus is reputed to be the largest in the world with 27,000 acres, a tribute to Martha’s determination to establish the permanence of the campus by land acquisitions.

In a recent popular survey site on Facebook, Berry College was recognized as the most beautiful campus in the world.

One can take a leisurely drive around the two campuses – the first, with an entrance off the highway, is known as the “Main” campus, where most classes are held and students live, and the second, the “Mountain Campus,” is about three miles away, where many of the older buildings, including the old Possum Trot Church, are to be found.

Oak Hill, the Berry family home, will be familiar to visitors since it served as the Carmichael home in the movie “Sweet Home Alabama.” Scattered throughout the campuses are four chapels, each worth a closer inspection, that attest to Martha’s vision of a strongly non-sectarian institution deeply rooted in religious values. It was in her efforts to teach the mountain people Bible stories that “her schools” were born.

It surprised everyone, Martha especially, that the first time she offered biblical instruction, scores of mountain folk emerged from the woods to squeeze into her small schoolroom. When no more would fit, they spilled out onto the lawn of Oak Hill.

As Martha instructed them, she realized that most could neither read nor write, and both adults and children were not only denied learning in the most basic sense, but also could not take advantage of agricultural advances that would have greatly benefitted their land, productivity and income. It quickly became her life’s work to change that.

Martha commandeered her old school room and a nearby derelict church, Possum Trot (known as “the cradle of Berry”) to serve as classrooms. Various experiments with day schools followed, but the long intervals when the students were away from their studies could not produce satisfactory results.

In a gamble that many considered unwise, Martha founded a boarding school just for young men, the Boys Industrial School, that opened 1902. She had to employ all of her persuasiveness to convince her mountain families to send their high-school aged sons to live at the school for a continuous eight months. The tuition was minimal, and all students would work to defray that cost.

Only then were the circumstances favorable for more in-depth instruction and measurable results in educating the boys and helping to improve life on the farm back home. Those early students who built the first rude planked buildings of their dormitories that had no heat and offered only the most basic amenities would be astonished by the lovely brick, Gothic-style buildings that now grace the Berry campus.

In the early days, the school endured despite having the major building burn to the ground, rains and floods that disrupted the first graduation ceremony and the vicissitudes of Martha’s relentless fundraising. She employed both drive and charm to develop a large network of prominent donors whose investment was rewarded by seeing the increase in student enrollments and accomplishments in battling Appalachian poverty.

Even President Teddy Roosevelt visited the school and left enormously impressed with what could be done for education through dedication and private funding. The students built a log cabin that became known as the Roosevelt Cabin to celebrate his visit. It became the place to host all visiting dignitaries as students entertained them by reading, reciting poetry and performing traditional mountain songs. It remains standing today among the historic buildings on campus.

On one of her frequent and sometimes fraught fundraising trips to New York City, Martha met philanthropist Mrs. Curtis James, who anonymously gifted $50,000 to construct a permanent chapel for the students. She was especially attracted to Christ Church in Alexandria, Va., at which George Washington is thought to have worshiped. Plans were drawn up, and it became the first of the four chapels on campus when it was completed in 1915.

The College Chapel has been expanded and remodeled many times and still stands as a central focus of the main campus.

Miles away on a rise among some of the historic buildings sits another of the four, the Frost Memorial Chapel. This chapel, like all the buildings constructed during Martha’s life, was accomplished in record time as Mr. and Mrs. Howard Frost pushed the dedication date early to accommodate their travel plans. They arrived to find students working by flashlight to complete their tasks.

In 1937 it was dedicated in accordance with the donors’ wishes and remains a vital part of programs sponsored by the college. With these two buildings, Martha took a very active part in planning not just the architecture, but also the landscaping, even down to the roads and sidewalks that would provide a dramatic vista for viewing the structures.

Further changes to the original concept of the early school included the addition of education for young women in 1909 and, in 1914, formalizing a work program whereby all students were required to work as a way of offsetting tuition and living expenses.

Martha believed in training both heart and hand as an educational philosophy. Considering that these were high school students who would work an eight-hour day two days a week and attend classes for four, those who attended were both needy and dedicated. The requirement was dropped for Berry College students in the 1960s, but today all students who need or want to work are assured employment, and most students take advantage of this.

Like all schools, enrollment was diverted during World War I, but was fully restored shortly thereafter. Returning veterans who had seen much more of the world than any could have previously imagined, represented a different student population with different needs.

Many Berry graduates now wanted to attend college, but found that their unconventional curriculum of academics, agricultural and industrial instruction and mountain crafts made it difficult to fit most colleges’ expectations. In 1926, Martha took the bold step of adding her own junior college to the mix of secondary schools that she had founded.

By the 1930s the college was a four-year institution, and in 1932, the first graduating class was honored. Today the four-year college is what remains and flourishes.

Despite the economic hard times in the country during the Depression, Martha continued her extraordinary fundraising and invested wisely in the campus, adding acres to her family endowment so that Berry College then claimed some 30,000 acres of beautiful mountain and valley land. Her work was also coming to be recognized, and this also assisted in raising funds.

In 1930 she was named one of Good Housekeeping’s most influential women in the country. Other honors followed: honorary degrees, state recognition and, most noteworthy, the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Medal for Distinguished Service.

None of this mattered to Martha unless it enhanced the reputation and security of “her schools.”

There could be no single donor and no building project more important to securing that reputation than Martha’s successful wooing of the automobile magnate, Henry Ford. Although she had been warned that he was not receptive to most charitable appeals, Martha found a kindly supporter in Ford’s wife, Clara.

When the couple visited Berry in 1921, they were shown the girls’ school and were impressed that the female students managed to turn out a tasty meal in a tiny and inadequate kitchen. At first Mrs. Ford proposed giving the school a new stove, and that turned into gifts of seven major buildings built between 1925 and 1931.

When Ford invited Martha to submit plans for the buildings he proposed, he had to encourage her to make the buildings larger and more elaborate. He modified any plans that he considered too modest and insisted upon stone buildings in the Gothic style. These plans were beyond the skills of the student builders, so Ford assigned the work to outside contractors. The Ford Complex remains near the heart of the current main campus, housing administrative offices and academic departments.

The college continued to grow and transform itself after Martha’s death in 1942. It has weathered financial reversals and unpredictable student enrollments. Today it registers more than 2,000 students majoring in disciplines in five different colleges. New buildings that house both academics and residence halls have been built.

Former student Reesa Barton began her years at the college as a music major and reports that the music building, Hoge Hall, built in 1905, was “fairly ramshackle.” Music students “could hear the wind whistling through the cracks around the windows,” Barton says. Of course, that building has been extensively remodeled, and the music department now resides in the Ford Complex.

For Barton, ultimately the world of landscaping and plants captured her imagination.

“I was fortunate to be assigned my on-campus job in caring for the plants around Oak Hill,” she says. The design of Martha’s gardens – and more – was maintained. “We actually did cuttings from her original plants so that we have some descendants of Miss Berry’s cherished plants and shrubs,” Barton says.

As a traditional liberal-arts college, Berry enjoys a reputation for small classes that encourage a high level of individual student accomplishment. Students from all over the country and abroad have been attracted to its reputation for friendliness and tolerance.

When Barton entered Berry in the late 1970s, she began work on campus the summer after she completed high school. “Being at Berry was the first time I had encountered people of different faiths and cultures, but all of us had common goals and were embraced by the ‘spirit of Berry,’” she says. “That experience taught me so much.”

Berry College marries its proud past to a willingness to innovate and transform itself to meet changing needs. Its financial future appears stable as it has built an endowment that ranks among the best.

Martha would be very proud of the school’s academic reputation and financial stability. If she could advise my mother on how to evaluate her accomplishments, maybe they would agree that well-behaved and well-intentioned Southern ladies can indeed make history – and leave a legacy that perseveres and profits many generations to come.

Learn more about Berry College at berry.edu.

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