Berry, Martha McChesney (1866–1942)

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Berry, Martha McChesney (1866–1942)

American educator regarded as one of the most outstanding women in Georgia's history. Born Martha McChesney Berry on October 7, 1866, near Rome, Georgia; died on February 27, 1942, in Atlanta, Georgia; second daughter and one of eight children of Thomas (a cotton dealer) and Frances (Rhea) Berry; educated by private tutors; attended Edgewood Finishing School, Baltimore, 1882.

Martha McChesney Berry was a soft-spoken Southern belle, born into wealth and privilege, who devoted her life to educating poor Southern mountain children. At the time of her death in 1942, Berry's Schools—established in 1902 in a crudely constructed log cabin—were housed in 125 buildings on 35,000 acres of land in the mountains of northwestern Georgia. Of the 1,300 students enrolled, most did not pay tuition but earned their education instead by working for the institution.

Born in 1866, Martha McChesney Berry grew up on a cotton plantation, Oak Hill, near Rome, Georgia, on the edge of the highest Appalachian belt, where her early contacts with the impoverished highlanders of the area came through her father Thomas. As a volunteer in the Georgia infantry during the Civil War, he had enlisted large numbers of the mountaineers for his company. After the war, as he stoically rebuilt a successful cotton business with loans from wealthy business friends, he continued to help the men who had served him and then returned to lives of poverty. He often took young Martha with a him on Sunday trips into the mountains to dispense supplies or offer advice. In a gesture characteristic of what would be her life's work, she once gave her best coat to a mountain child who was shivering in the cold.

As was the custom of the day, the Berry children were tutored at home by their governess, Ida McCullough , while "Aunt Marth" Freeman , a black woman, managed the household chores and kept the children in line. To prepare her for a place in southern aristocracy,

Berry was sent, at 16, to an exclusive finishing school in Baltimore, which she hated. Among the big-city girls, she felt self-conscious about her country clothes and manners. Before the end of her first year, her father suffered a stroke and she was called home, where she helped with the family business and became her father's companion. Captain Berry provided his daughter with the lessons in charity that would shape her future. "If you simply hand things to somebody you destroy his pride," he told her, "and when you do that you destroy him." He believed in charity that afforded an opportunity to work. When he died a few years later, she inherited a substantial tract of land, as well as his abiding concern for the mountain people.

Berry's career began on a Sunday afternoon while reading in the log cabin her father had built on the property as a playhouse. Suddenly aware of three grimy, wide-eyed mountain boys standing outside, staring in, Berry invited them in and entertained them with Bible stories and refreshments. On succeeding Sundays, more children arrived, sometimes dragging along other family members. Soon, the congregation was overflowing the cabin, and Berry held sessions in an abandoned wooden church at Possum Trot, which she encouraged her students to fix up by holding work parties. Soon, she began to utilize other abandoned church buildings, enlisting the help of her sister and some friends from town to assist in conducting classes. Concluding that Sunday school was not enough to satisfy the curiosity of her students, she used the land she had inherited to build a small day school. Before long, four such day schools were in operation. But Berry's work cost her a fiancé, who did not envision a wife with interests outside the home.

After initial success with the day schools, Berry planned a year-round, live-in educational experience designed to prepare mountain boys for life experiences. In January 1902, she opened the first Boys' Industrial School, a crude log building outfitted with castoffs from Oak Hill's attic and items she procured from neighbors. Aware of her own lack of training as a teacher, Berry hired Elizabeth Brewster , an impressive graduate of Leland Stanford University who had a particular interest in educating the underprivileged. The two women, over objections from Berry's family, took up residence in the dormitory of the new school.

In a pioneering work-study program, Berry's first dozen or so students contributed two hours of work a day in addition to their studies, which kept the school operating and provided what Berry considered valuable vocational training. The boys planted gardens and raised livestock, often bringing the animals with them when they came to school. In 1909, Berry opened a school for girls, which she hoped, among other things, might provide suitable wives for her male graduates. (Reportedly, Berry was so pleased when a marriage occurred between her students that she personally gave the bride away.) The schools offered high school-age students scholastic as well as vocational, agricultural, and domestic training, in a religious but nondenominational setting. Berry was said to hold her students to high levels of performance and discipline, reflecting both the demands of the mountain parents and her own. By 1912, the state of Georgia had opened 11 schools using Berry's model; other states soon followed.

As the schools flourished, surviving fire and flood, Berry soon had more applicants than space. Forced to solicit more support from outside, she was undaunted in her attempts to raise money, though early efforts in the East yielded little. "I will go anywhere and talk to anyone," she said. She once took afternoon tea with a potential donor but generated only pleasant conversation. Around one o'clock the following morning, she was urgently called back to his house, and he handed her $10,000, her largest contribution to date. The patron wanted to be sure, he said, that the school was important enough for Berry to come out after midnight.

Berry also pursued philanthropist Andrew Carnegie tenaciously but proved unable to enlist his support until she presented herself at his residence in New York. Their meeting took place while he posed for a portrait and produced nothing more than a long endowment application form. After she returned the completed document, Carnegie offered $50,000, with the condition that Berry raise a matching $50,000 from other sources. Berry went to work raising funds, but a few weeks later had only collected $7,000. She then received a call from Carnegie, inviting her to tea, where she met Margaret Olivia Sage , widow of the American financier Russell Sage, who was also soliciting Carnegie for a contribution to a foundation she was establishing. In a move approaching blackmail, Carnegie explained to Sage the terms of his contribution to Berry and added: "Wouldn't you like to help Miss Berry, as you want me to help you with that Foundation you're setting up?" Sage contributed $25,000.

Theodore Roosevelt Medal of Distinguished Service">

She … is a dreamer, whose visions were born in human sympathy and given substance by the magical touch of faith; an educator who trains equally the heart and the hand, the spirit and the head.

—On citation awarding Martha Berry the Theodore Roosevelt Medal of Distinguished Service

In addition to using her charm and eloquence to raise money, Berry entertained philanthropists during carefully orchestrated on-campus visits; indeed, she was known for her skill in dramatizing her achievements. Perhaps her greatest conquest was Henry Ford, who was so captivated by what Berry described as "a home-grown meal, a home-cooked dinner and a home-spun school" that he became a frequent visitor. During the 1920s, Ford donated a collection of Gothic-style buildings worth four million dollars. In 1926, Berry College was established, and later a Model Practice School was added. The campus became a self-sustaining city, with a mill, orchards, goat and cattle herds, a bakery, and an automobile shop where Ford puttered during his visits while his wife took in the more domestic activities in the girls' wing.

A woman of indomitable faith, Berry took the first harbingers of the Depression lightly. Gradually, however, her pledges dried up, and checks bounced with regularity, even while the self-supporting campus of the school flourished. Berry offered some of her vacant acreage for campsites to house some of the increasing legions of homeless, who labored for the school in exchange for food and shelter. Now in her 60s, she worked alongside her students to cope with the extra load, as did her staff. The school kept hundreds of people alive through the Depression years, although institutional finances continued to dwindle. At one point, had not an eccentric benefactor written a generous check to keep it going, the school would have closed.

Over the years, Berry's schools won national attention. President Theodore Roosevelt paid a visit, and a quote from the speech he gave that day, "Be a lifter, not a leaner," became the school's slogan. Berry was showered with awards and citations, becoming the first woman regent of Georgia's university system and the first woman member of the state's planning board. She received numerous honorary degrees and in 1925 was named one of America's 50 greatest women by journalist Ida Tarbell . That year, she was also awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Medal for Distinguished Service. At the White House award ceremony, presided over by President Calvin Coolidge, Berry brought five of her recent graduates. When newspaper reporters expressed surprise at this, she retorted: "Who deserves the honor more?" In 1934, Berry was received at the Court of St. James by England's King George V and Queen Mary of Teck . In 1939, when she was 73, Berry was awarded a gold medal from the National Institute of Social Sciences. Previous recipients of the award included Madame Marie Curie , Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes, and presidents William Taft, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.

Berry still fretted over her schools. Hospitalized in October 1941 with cancer, she called her new board chair, John Sibley, telling him that, more than death, she feared well-meaning people who might change Berry, making it into just another school. "It's different," she told Sibley, "and it must remain so."

Martha Berry died on February 26, 1942, the same day that Atlanta experienced its first complete blackout of World War II. Amid great fanfare, she was laid to rest on the campus of her school. Although the next to last of Berry's Schools, Berry Academy, a preparatory school for young men, closed its doors in 1983, Berry College still stands as a living monument to its founder, with the world's largest college campus and an enrollment of over 1,600 students. Fostering a self-help attitude, Berry College provides financial assistance through an extensive work program, whereby full-time students are assured an opportunity for on-campus employment. In addition to campus buildings erected in the early 1900s of Gothic, Georgian and Early American design, Oak Hill, the Ford Buildings, the Roosevelt Cabin, and the Possum Trot church and schoolhouse are preserved landmarks. Every fall, a homecoming is held for relatives and friends of families who lived near Possum Trot when the area was a farming community. Preserved also is the Berry motto: "Not to be ministered unto, but to minister."


Block, Maxine, ed. Current Biography 1940. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1940.

Flemming, Alice. Great Women Teachers. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1965.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Kane, Harnett T., with Henry Inez. Miracle in the Mountains. NY: Doubleday, 1956.

Myers, Elisabeth P. Angel of Appalachia: Martha Berry. NY: Julian Messner, 1968.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts