LOTW 62: Martha Berry as a Real Person

by Olivia Mund

On my first ever official day spent editing documents for MBDA, I came across a letter that literally brought me to tears. Martha Berry wrote a letter to her friend Lula King, which contained the information that her mother had passed away two weeks before. In the letter, Miss Berry described her loneliness and grief at losing her mother. She said it was hard not having anyone to call “mother.”

In a letter Martha Berry wrote to Clayton Henson after her mother’s death, she thanked him for his words of sympathy and explained that outside the Berry schools, her mother was all she had. I can’t imagine how it must feel to believe you are that alone in the world, even though it wasn’t true. Miss Berry had many close friends and relationships that she relied on, like the strong friendship she had with Ellen Chase. In a letter Martha Berry wrote to her she described her fond thoughts towards her and the love she had shown to Miss Berry. However, Martha Berry’s claims of loneliness despite having treasured friends reveal her more flawed and humanistic traits, reminding us that she was an ordinary woman who accomplished greatness in the face of many hardships. Reading her descriptions of her isolation remind me that even a person surrounded by smiling children and loving friends can feel utterly alone.

This letter was so impactful to me because I think Berry students can have a tendency to forget Martha Berry was a real person. For those of us who do not have any immediate connection to her writings or work, it can be easy to see her as merely the Berry College mascot, in a twisted sense. Before joining MBDA I had no real sense of who Miss Berry was as a person and more specifically in her personal life. Reading this letter, among others, opened my eyes to the reality of who Martha Berry was. I was able to understand her on a more intimate level than the average Berry student is able. I can see the love Martha Berry felt towards others, like that which is expressed in her letter to Frances Ball explaining her willingness to help their family even though she was still recovering from bronchitis. I also see her devotion to the students in every letter she wrote on their behalf, asking and praying for donations to give the young boys and girls better lives.

Stories like these reveal Martha Berry’s great strength of character, which I greatly admire. While I don’t know the pain of losing a parent, I have lost a number of people I loved in my life. I know enough about loss to respect Miss Berry’s ability to move on and continue fighting for her cause after dealing with such an intense time of grief. The ability to overcome is one of the qualities I find most admirable in Martha Berry, and I am so glad for my early exposure to that side of her. This letter was perfect to read as one of the first documents I have edited and I could not be more excited to continue working with MBDA.

Letter to Mrs. King

LOTW 61: Virginia’s Scholarship

by Daniel Warner

It has always been interesting to me how the identities of the quiet lives of scholarship recipients are represented to donors. Having been a scholarship recipient, like most Berry students, I have had to go through the process of taking pictures and giving biographic information for the Alumni Center so that donors can put a face and a story to the person whose education their money is funding. Most of the time, this information has a positive, success-oriented slant. In this particular letter from Russell Sargent to Martha Berry, it is a little different. I feel that it makes an especially interesting type of personal appeal through biographical account.

Martha Berry sent many letters in her days at the Berry Schools seeking to solicit funding for particular students’ continued educations. She sent out these letters so prolifically that much of my reading in the MBDA has been of her donation solicitations. But in this letter, we see a bit of a different scenario from the typical perspective of Miss Berry writing to a potential benefactor, and instead the letter is addressed to Miss Berry with the intent of convincing her to take on a new student. This is significant because, instead of raising money for the schools, taking on a new student would naturally cost the school money. And with Miss Berry’s characteristic prudence, this would not appear an easy task. However, the presence alone of letters such as this shows another characteristic of Miss Berry, equal in vigor, which drove the Berry Schools toward their success: passion for opening up opportunities for people of otherwise limited means.

Sargent, in the letter, begins by talking fondly of the Berry Schools, and how he hopes to one day be able to contribute financially to the schools. He speaks of how he has seen the Schools grow and expand their influence, and how it delights him that they are touching more and more lives. He then goes on to talk of a little girl in the mountains of Georgia who wants to get to know the Schools named Virginia Gowen. The story he tells is that a certain Miss Allen found this girl at a Fresh Air Camp in the mountains, adopted her, and wants to give her an education specifically at the Berry School for girls.

He tells that she is a small child in the fourth grade who is bright, eager to learn, and very sweet. The only problem he can foresee that would prevent someone from immediately falling for Virginia is that she is rather small and cannot yet obtain her health certificate. But, he explains, this is because she has only recently started getting over the flu, which might be a contributing factor to her diminutive size. He ends the letter thanking Miss Berry for everything she has offered to him, and requests that she let him know of anything he can do to ensure Virginia’s enrollment in the Berry School for girls.

We think so frequently of Berry as a college, but there is such a rich history of teaching and learning at Berry for younger ages as well. Sargent’s earnest desire to enroll Virginia, this girl who he had only known for a few weeks, shows his view of the importance of education early on. We can also draw from the appeal he gives to Miss Berry that he feels she will hold the same view, which surely has been substantiated over Berry’s history, and with the current existence of the Child Development Center and Berry elementary and middle schools. It is a very personal, emotion-based appeal that he gives to Miss Berry, a targeted entreaty to the generous and empathetic side of her that I feel we sometimes lose track of in considering her meticulously cultivated image of stalwart strength.

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LOTW 60: Knitting and Hooked Rugs

by Rachel Renaud

I began knitting at the end of my junior year of high school. It was definitely an experience learning how use the needles and how to knit patterns, and at times it was very difficult. But since learning to knit, I have gained an appreciation for all things crafty. I enjoy looking at quilts and other projects like that because I understand the hard work that goes into them. While I have never tried my hand at weaving before, I can imagine the hard work the girls at the Berry Schools had to go through to make hook rugs. Going through documents on the site, I have encountered a lot of letters that ask Miss Berry for a rug, or thank her for the rug that they received.

The girls had to work very hard on these rugs and especially given that they were in school at the time, I cannot imagine that they had a lot of free time between school work and weaving. Learning the skills and becoming good at weaving also takes time, as shown in this letter where Miss Berry explains she cannot fulfill an order for hooked rugs due to the girls’ inexperience at making them. Teaching the girls to weave must have been a time-consuming ordeal, and given how pressed for money the Berry Schools were during this time, to be unable to fulfill an order would have been very unfortunate.

It would be interesting to see how the Berry Schools taught the girls to weave during this time and if there are any documents that go into more detail about the process. I do know that the weaving took place in the Sunshine Room at Sunshine Cottage. The room has been closed down by this point, but the looms have been relocated to another area on campus, the Hoge Building. The equipment is not used often, but during the Alumni Work Week, some alumni work the looms to produce blankets and other items.

You can see other letters relating to weaving and crafts in our Handicrafts and Weaving collection on the website.

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LOTW 59: A Creative Writer’s Perspective

by Daniel Warner
(Introduction by Meg Ratliff)

It is always nice to have new perspectives added to the MBDA team. Recently, we have hired two new members to the team that incorporate the ideas and visions of the creative writing major. For those of us in the humanities that deal with facts and monographs, this is a territory unknown to us. One new member, Daniel Warner, began scanning a few weeks ago and we have figured out that different letters and topics catch our interests. For example, I, Meg, find documents more interesting if they relate to time periods or important figures in American history, while Daniel enjoys reading every letter and trying to look into the minds of the people who wrote them.

This letter in particular caught my attention both due to the neat penmanship and the singular voice of its writer. On the first page, Mr. Misskelley, the letter’s author, writes “I am lonely not for the lack of friends, for I have these. But there is something I can’t explain and don’t know how,” and that he has “missed the old friendship, for Berry is the only place where you will find it.” The idea of being lonely while having plenty of company is something that I think any college student can understand, and it is something that speaks of a deeper emptiness than being alone. Furthermore, the thought of exiting the world of Berry with its huge pool of peers and social possibilities to enter the much more exclusive real world is daunting and no doubt would cause one to feel this sort of longing for the ease and familiarity of Berry. It seems that the loneliness he feels is a result of this separation from Berry.

Misskelley tells that he has been all the way to Montana searching for a sort of satisfaction that he apparently never found because he still doesn’t feel satisfied. Later in the letter Misskelley touches on this, seemingly seeking to fill that earlier void with the resolve of a new direction, talking about God’s plan and how he feels called to go back to school. His tone is eager and direct in addressing Martha Berry and the act of sending a letter alone obviously requires some forethought. However, in various parts of the letter (where he discusses God’s calling, how Montana wasn’t enough, how he misses Berry and the Berry boys and feels lonely being away from them) he indirectly acknowledges the yearning that he has to come back to Berry. Perhaps this is the implicit request or hint that he wants to give Miss Berry, but when faced with such an influential figure—the very woman he would have to humble himself in the presence of in order to try and revisit his education at Berry—he cannot clearly put forward this desire. For whatever his reason, in the end Misskelley chooses to ultimately exist outside of the bubble without directly re-entering it, requesting to be sent the Southern Highlander so that he may keep up with Berry and sending his best wishes and prayers from a distance.

Perhaps the letter speaks of the limitations of the rhetoric of a partial education, and could serve as a message that students should take their education as seriously as possible. Perhaps we have to take away from Misskelley’s letter that it is never too late to try and make amends with kind words, even if we are unable to take action. I am not sure if Martha Berry ever responded to him, but there is a courage in Misskelley’s action of writing the letter in the first place and a sincerity in his words that make his letter an especially engaging read.

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LOTW 58: Little Martha

by Adriana Spencer

One thing that’s cool about this job is that you learn how patient you can be when it comes to trying to decipher age-old handwriting. Just imagine sitting in a cold room, staring at a crumbling letter, trying to figure out what the writer was trying to say before the paper gets turned into ash. It can be pretty depressing.

But after a while, you somehow gain the abnormal skill of being able to read some of the distorted lettering and then you feel like a pro. Especially when you can read some of the letters better than the Archivist can. That’s a feeling of pride right there.

So imagine how I felt when I was able to read a nine page hand-written letter. I was pretty proud of myself. Sure the letter wasn’t so long, but it took a while to understand what words were being used and whatnot, so I did a little happy dance once I figured everything out. And after I let the message sink into my mind, I realized that Martha Berry has done a lot more than I thought when it came to children.

The letter I read was written by Edna Adams, a past student of the Berry Schools, asking a favor from Martha Berry. Ms. Adams opens her letter discussing her mission work with Unitized Charities for the past three years. She mentions how she has resigned from her work and is soon planning on returning home and then marrying a Chattanooga man named Walter Morris.

After explaining her future plans, Ms. Adams then goes on to talk about a baby girl that has been in her care. The girl’s name is Martha Francis Davis and has been in the care of Ms. Adams since she was about a month old. The child was left by her parents but supposedly, they took her twin sibling with them. From the letter, Ms. Adams states that the girl is currently two years old.

Even though Ms. Adams seems to be very attached to the young girl, she tells Ms. Berry that she is no longer able to take care of her. Her future husband is opposed to the idea of helping the little girl and Ms. Adams is desperately trying to find a good home for her. That is when she asks Ms. Berry if she could take in little Martha at her school. Ms. Adams explains that she is does not want to put her in a private home because she wants to see the little girl as she grows up and she wants to help her in any way, shape, or form possible. She thinks that leaving the girl at the Berry Schools would be a good fit for her and is unwilling to let her be raised any place else. She believes God spared little Martha for some greater purpose in life and with the training that she would receive at Berry, she would be able to live out that purpose in the most beautiful of ways.

Below is an excerpt from Ms. Adams’ letter and Martha Berry’s reply.

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LOTW 57: The Berry Schools and Germany

by Rachel Renaud

Martha Berry had correspondences with many diverse and interesting people, as evidenced by the documents on this site. I find the many different places these people were from, and even the places she visited herself, fascinating. I decided to focus my search for intriguing letters on one specific area, and I chose the country Germany. I have always found that European nation interesting because of my own familial connections.

Martha Berry travelled everywhere up and down the east coast of the United States, and she even crossed the Atlantic Ocean and made it to Germany. In this postcard Miss Berry writes to Alice Wingo. While rather short, the postcard shows Miss Berry surrounded by German citizens. Dated September 1929, this was only a month before the stock market would plunge and a year before the Nazi Party’s stunning victory in German Parliament elections. A couple months after that postcard, there is this document, which provides a list of addresses which I assume Miss Berry would use to ask for donations. There are only a few addresses here that are from Germany, in the Bad Nauheim and the Frankfurt area.

Miss Berry was not the only one from the Berry Schools to go to Germany though. Grady Hamrick, the principal and superintendent of the Boy’s School, sent a postcard from Munich, or München. While I cannot read his handwriting, the picture on his postcard is most interesting. It features Johannes Lang Hans playing someone in a Passion Play. But perhaps the most interesting document I found which inspired this LOTW, was a letter from the Atlanta Constitution. They were writing to tell Miss Berry that Pierre Van Paassen would be interested in visiting the schools. Mr. Paassen sounds like a very interesting man according to the letter, at the time of the letter Mr. Paassen was on his way to Spain but previously he had been in Ethiopia and also had been beaten for being a spy by the Nazis. It does not mention if this happened specifically in Germany, but it is a nice piece of history. Miss Berry responds enthusiastically, but we have found no other correspondence as of yet that relates to an actual visit to the Berry Schools by Mr. Van Paassen.

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LOTW 56: A Taboo Subject

The letters and artifacts that comprise the Martha Berry Digital Archive often touch upon social and political issues that dominated life during the 1920s and the 1930s. Finding documents that mention poor mountain children or the country’s economic situation during the Great Depression highlight the hardships and difficulties of the period.  Usually a letter will discuss the writer’s donation to help complete a new building on campus or to provide tuition to the children under Miss Berry’s care. This Letter of the Week, however, mentions an important issue rarely discussed in Martha Berry’s correspondence.

Eliza G. Suydam of Annapolis, Maryland mentions in this letter that she could only donate one dollar to the Schools from her small $95 per month income. While making a small donation due to the economic problems of the time is not news to seasoned veterans of MBDA, the rest of the letter provides an interesting insight into a different idea to deal with the problems faced by having too many children born into poorer areas than Miss Berry’s. Suydam wishes for the poor to use birth control “more judiciously” in order to ensure that no child has to live without clothes and food. Seeing a letter from 1930 discussing the use of birth control, especially in relation to the southern United States, comes as a shock.

The controversy surrounding birth control developed early in America’s history, so it is important to understand how it all began. After searching through the library’s database, I found Aharon Zorea’s Birth Control an interesting and valuable take on birth control controversy in the United States. Zorea’s book provides information on the history of contraceptives beginning with the American Revolution and ending at the book’s publication in 2012.

According to Zorea, while the US saw an increase in birth control activism during the 1930s, the earlier decades of the 20th century saw continued opposition from the late 19th century. The creation of the Comstock laws in the 1870s kept general information on birth control methods from being distributed, specifically through the mail, as well as prohibiting all use of contraceptives in the United States (35). Originally, the laws only aimed to ban pornography and general indecent materials, but Congress added contraceptives since they weren’t used for medical or scientific issues, only moral (37). These laws remained a hindrance for the Birth Control Movement until the mid-1930s when a federal appeals court ruled that the US government could not stop doctors from giving their patients birth control.

Margaret Sanger, a pioneer in the birth control movement for providing access to birth control in the United States, began her campaign in the 1910s. During the decade, she first coined the term “birth control” in a 1914 edition of her magazine, The Woman Rebel—No Gods, No Masters (192). Because of the publication, Sanger fled to England to avoid prosecution based on violations against the Comstock laws. After a few years overseas, she formed the American Birth Control League in 1921 to promote the legalization and distribution of birth control information for women in the US (43 and 192).

While Sanger never personally succeeded in repealing the Comstock Laws, her impact stretched into the 1930s when Congress passed new laws legalizing contraception for medical reasons. The court case United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries from 1936 decided that “laws prohibiting Americans from importing contraceptive devices or items…did not apply to physicians who used the items to protect the health of patients.” The director of a birth control clinic founded by Sanger, Dr. Hannah Stone, ordered contraceptives for her patients from Japan (51). This issue eventually legalized almost all forms of medical contraception later in the 1930s, with the beginning of World War II pushing the debate to a completely national issue.

Even if the Comstock laws were still in effect in 1930, Eliza Suydam obviously followed the contraceptive debate and understood the possible implications of using birth control methods to address the number of children born into financially strained communities. The controversy surrounding birth control grew in the 1930s because of the amount of work from Margaret Sanger and her birth control clinics, so Suydam’s interest in the topic is not fully unexpected. Still, seeing it in a letter addressed to Martha Berry is a surprise. Although the birth control debate is still controversial today, that does not decrease the significance of seeing such a taboo subject mentioned in a letter to Martha Berry.

Zorea, Aharon W. Birth Control. Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2012.

birth control letter
Read more of the letter here.

LOTW 55: World War I at Berry

by Jordan Brannen

World War I was a war the likes of which the world had never seen before. With almost all of the biggest and most powerful nations pitted against each other, there was no shortage of manpower. While the United States tried to stay neutral in this worldwide conflict, it was to no avail. The sinking of the RMS Lusitania, a passenger ship, catapulted the U.S. into the First World War. The war affected every part of the nation from factories to farms and even schools, including Berry College.

There are countless stories of how the more than five hundred Berry students that participated in the war with great honor. Ten died and many others were wounded for the Allied cause. While fighting in the trenches, one boy earned the Croix de Guerre for his special bravery. Many of the girls from the Schools helped out with the Red Cross and as Miss Berry put it, “the training in the kitchen helped them become dietitians.” Martha Berry was extremely proud of all the boys and girls who help with the war effort abroad; she prided herself so much on this that she sent appeals asking for money to help the younger breed of mountain children prepare for war. Because her students did so well during this time of war she felt that it was very important to keep up the work of the Berry Schools.

During her attempt to keep the Berry Schools in pristine condition, Martha Berry fought extremely hard to keep her entire staff on board in a time where several hundred thousand American men were being shipped off to war each year. In 1918 a teacher, Mr. S.H. Cook, was drafted into battle. Now being the woman that she was, Martha Berry would not let even a P. E. teacher go without a fight. This story is just an example of how Martha Berry believed that everyone she had on staff was indispensable, and of the tight knit community she wanted for Berry. In the hopes of pardoning Mr. Cook from the draft, she wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury William G. Macadoo asking to return her teacher to the school. In this letter, Macadoo responds and refers her to the Secretary of War, because as you can imagine the Secretary of the Treasury does not have much say in matters of war. In a separate letter, Martha Berry writes to Mr. Cook asking him to take a furlough to help open the schools in the fall. She says that the students love him and will be praying for him in the dining halls each night. Although Martha Berry did not get an exemption for Mr. Cook, this correspondence with the Secretary of the Treasury as well as one of her highly valued teachers speaks volumes for her persistence in always helping make her schools the best that they could be.

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LOTW 54: Thanksgiving Quail

by Rachel Renaud

As Thanksgiving is swiftly approaching, I am sure everyone is already thinking of the delicious food to be served. Yams, ham, green beans, turkey, and pumpkin pie all make up the stereotypical Thanksgiving dinner that we enjoy. With the gathering of families and friends to enjoy this feast, there is sure to be some drama and stress. But for Martha Berry in 1928, Thanksgiving was stressful in a different way.

In letters written about a month after the incident, Martha Berry mentions that over fifty quails were killed on Berry’s campus by various people for their Thanksgiving dinners. Looking through the tag and other documents, there is not much to be found about the quails, but I did want to find out the net price of the loss the Berry Schools suffered with these quails’ deaths.

Finding out the prices of quails today proved to be a little difficult but still interesting. On the Citarella Fine Foods website, a site featuring gourmet meat, a half of pound of quail costs $5.99. On the Meats USA site, a pound of quail would be $7.68. I looked up the weight of quails and assuming Martha Berry had American quails (a heavier type of quail) on the land, a mature bird would weigh about 220 grams, or .48 pounds. So using a calculator I figured that was about 24 pounds of quail meat that was stolen from the Berry grounds. Using the lowest price I found, that’s about $287 dollars in today’s money. Taking inflation into account, account the cost of the stolen birds in 1928 would be $20.62. That was quite a lot of money that could have been used to take care of the students, since the cost of tuition for a student for a whole year was only $150.

Perhaps Martha Berry realized just how much all those quails were worth, because she asked that there be a guard on duty on Christmas day so that no one killed her quails for their Christmas dinners too. I hope you found my investigation work amusing and hopefully even interesting. Hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving break!

LOTW 53: Two Presidents and a Business Mogul

by Jordan Brannen

It is well known that Martha Berry was a well connected lady. At the college today we have buildings named after some of the most prominent businessmen and politicians of the times. With names like Ford and Roosevelt on the front of the buildings, it is hard to deny that Martha Berry had some pretty important friends. While editing last week I came across a letter in which several of these people who are so well known in American history are mentioned by name. In a letter to Mrs. Emily Vanderbilt Hammond, (who is pretty well known herself) Martha Berry talks about a visit to Virginia where she saw her dear friends Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford. She also talks about a new couple she met — none other than Mr. and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson! Martha Berry says that Mrs. Wilson was a very nice lady and that she hopes to see her again. As if this were not enough, towards the end of the letter Martha Berry tells Mrs. Hammond that she needs to make a trip down to Warm Springs, GA to see then-Governor Roosevelt while he was relaxing in the springs to help his polio. Over the course of time I am sure that Martha Berry interacted with dozens of other important people of history, it was just so interesting to me that in this particular letter, all of these people were mentioned in the same place.

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Read the rest of the letter here.