Her schools earned plaudits from Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt. The Boys Industrial School motivated communities throughout the South to begin educating their young people in earnest, blazing a trail for the establishment of an agricultural and mechanical school in each of Georgia’s congressional districts. As a result of her 40 years of work in education, Martha Berry (1866-1942)—the Sunday Lady of Possum Trot— is among Georgia’s most prominent women of the first half of the 20th century.
In the 1890’s, the young Berry had come back home to Floyd County from a finishing school in Boston. She often spent time reading and writing in an old log cabin on her family’s property. One Sunday, goes the story, she noticed that mountain children were peeking in to watch her. Inviting them in, she told them Bible stories. Week after week, more children and even adults came to listen to the Sunday Lady. Berry was taken with the bright youngsters, who had virtually no chance of obtaining an education. In 1900 she opened a small Sunday School in the old Possum Trot church near Lavender Mountain, painting scriptures on the walls to compensate for the lack of Bibles.
Soon she came to believe that these children needed a live-in school, not just a few hours of classes a week. But the state was poor, and mountain conditions made schools hard to maintain. So in January 1902, Berry, who came from an affluent plantation family, dedicated her family inheritance, 83 acres of land near Rome, GA, to be the site for The Boys Industrial School. The county supplied her one teacher for five months. Berry gave of her own money, and Elizabeth Brewster, a Stanford graduate and friend of Berry’s, worked with her for the first four years to help raise additional funds.
The students—there were 5 to begin with—did pay a nominal $50 yearly for boarding, but mainly earned their way by running a self-supporting farm and doing construction work. The first structure the students constructed, a two-story building with attached dormitory, cost $5,000.
Berry inspired fierce love & loyalty from her students. When one of her young charges from the early years died, his parents marked his tombstone: “He was faithful unto death; by request of Martha Berry.” She named the gate leading to the campus The Gate of Opportunity and believed that every building on the site should have a spire, “to keep people looking up.” And look up they did. One of the five original students at the Boys’ school subsequently graduated at the head of his class from the University of Georgia.
Martha Berry traveled widely, seeking support for her schools, and became an accomplished fund raiser. Among the largest donors were Andrew Carnegie and, later, Henry Ford. President Theodore Roosevelt, who held a dinner in the White House to raise money, encouraged her to build a girls school as well.
On Thanksgiving Day 1909, Berry did open a girls’ school, with a dormitory built by the boys. Early classes aimed to teach everything connected with homemaking, such as sewing, nursing, and gardening. In 1926, the complex became a junior college, and in 1932, Berry College, a four-year college.
And the original Possum Trot church building? Three rustic school rooms were added in the 1930s, and the grammar grades were moved there from the log-cabin area on the main campus. Today the building is used for staff housing at Berry College. The college has continued its founder’s focus on providing students with a comprehensive education of the head, the heart and the hands. Her motto still endures: “Not to be ministered unto, but to minister.”
UNIQUE EDUCATIONAL EXPERIMENT PUT TO THE TEST AT POSSUM TROT; Miss Martha Berry’s Industrial School for Country Boys in Georgia and Its Possibilities., NY Times, April 23, 1911, Magazine Section, Page SM9