Who was the namesake of Rome’s Berry College?

Martha Berry. Courtesy of Berry College.
Martha Berry. Courtesy of Berry College.

Q: Who was Berry College in Rome named for?

A: Berry College is a coeducational, private, four-year institution that enrolls nearly 2,200 students. Berry spans 27,000 acres of woodland and grassy hills, making it the largest contiguous campus in the world, according to its website.

Martha Berry, its namesake, grew up in Rome during the Civil War Reconstruction era and founded several schools in the north Georgia community.

In the late 1890s, she spotted a few young boys from a town in the mountains. When she learned they had never attended church or school, Berry began telling them stories from the Bible, said Tim Brown, director of The Martha Berry Museum at Berry College. The boys returned each week and brought people with them, so Berry began hosting Sunday school on her family’s property. In 1902, she added a dormitory and opened the Boys’ Industrial School, later renamed Mount Berry School for Boys.

“She threw herself into educating the poor people around her,” Brown said.

Applicants had to demonstrate financial need to be accepted. Students had to work on campus to pay off their $30 annual tuition.

“These kids were given an opportunity that no one in the world was getting at that moment,” Brown said. “They were able to go to school without debt.”

Today, Berry students are guaranteed a paid, on-campus job through the college’s Work Experience Program. Though this does not offset tuition completely, more than 90 percent of students participate for at least one semester, according to its website (berry.edu).

As her schools grew, Berry sought financial support and received aid from philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie, Emily Vanderbilt Hammond and Ellen Axson Wilson, the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson. Henry Ford hired stone masons from Italy to construct eight of the Gothic-style buildings on campus, including Clara Hall, which remains a dormitory.

At a White House luncheon in 1908, Berry met President Teddy Roosevelt, who suggested she open a girls’ school. She had always intended to do so, but her trustees disagreed. When she returned to Rome, she advertised that a Berry girls’ school was accepting applications. By the time Roosevelt visited in 1910, the Martha Berry School for Girls was open.

In 1926, she established Berry Junior College, which became a four-year institution in 1930. After her death in 1942, the high schools struggled. The girls’ school closed in 1955, and the boys’ school, renamed Berry Academy, became coeducational in 1971, before closing in 1983.

Though Berry never attended college, she received eight honorary doctorates, including from the University of Georgia, and of course, from Berry College.

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