Monday, August 26, 2013

Oak Hill, Martha Berry and her college

Martha Berry when presented at the Court of St. James. Photo © Debi Lander.
We were first attracted to Georgia's Rome because of its Southern version of Paul Revere (more about him later), but our attention was captured by Martha Berry, her home, museum and the schools she founded to educate the rural poor.

That her older sister became a globe-trotting, art-collecting Italian princess didn't hurt. You wouldn't expect less of the offspring of Thomas Berry who had been a lieutenant in the Mexican War, a Forty-niner in the California gold rush, married the daughter Alabama's richest man and was a captain in the Confederacy, after which he moved the family from Alabama to Rome to become a plantation owner and partner in a wholesale grocery and cotton brokerage.

Their home Oak Hill was filled with children, eight of their own plus the three orphaned by Mrs. Berry's younger sister's death.

Berry College and its wealthy supporters

Boys Industrial School
Martha adored her father and followed him on horseback as he rode his lands, checking on tenants and collecting rents. She saw first-hand the poverty of the area. What began as Sunday school stories told to area children in her log cabin playhouse turned into a school for boys and a separate one for girls, a two-year college and finally, in 1926, Berry College, a four-year institution where students worked for their tuition and graduated debt-free. In those days, only students from poor rural areas were admitted.

Berry College today. Photo © by Judy Wells.
She put them all on 83 acres across the road from Oak Hill, part of the inheritance from her father. Apparently as astute financially as he, she amassed more acreage as an investment for the college which now has the largest campus in the world, more than 27,000 acres where the deer outnumber the 2,000 or so students.

The Berry children had been reared as American aristocrats; their parents' wealthy northern friends would make annual visits to Rome and Oak Hill so they grew up with the country's elite.

Contacts Martha made good use of with a college to support. Henry Ford donated several buildings and President Theodore Roosevelt put the school on the national educational map when he visited in 1910. Presidents Harding and F.D. Roosevelt were also "collected" by Martha whose good friend Emily Vanderbilt Hammond visited at least annually through 1963 when she was 92.

Martha's desk. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Ever the diplomat, Martha had two pictures for her desk. If expecting a potential Northern donor, Grant's portrait came out; if a Southerner, Lee's. 

Martha at her desk. Photo © Debi Lander.

Berry College. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The college's stone buildings are expansive and impressive and the campus "grounds" - if you can call 27,000 acres by so mundane a term - are spectacular and open to the public. In addition to the college there's a dairy farm, stable (riding can be scheduled), two disc golf courses, two foster homes, elementary through middle schools, a couples' retreat center and camp for kids. 

It's well worth the drive through to catch glimpses of the 20 miles of walking trails and the vistas across the Appalachian foot hills between hardwoods and the long leaf pines Martha was instrumental in reintroducing. Wild turkeys are about as flighty as backyard chickens and the deer all but ask for treats. A fairly recent tornado took out 5,000 trees but you'd never know it.

The Old Mill. Photo © Debi Lander.
Do take the road to see the Old Mill, one of Rome's top attractions.  At 42 feet it's the world's second largest and tallest overshot wooden water mill if that means anything to you. Enjoy it for its idyllic setting and quaintness, but you'd do well to avoid the first Monday in October. That's the only day in the year when the mill actually works and it's also Mountain Day when Berry alums and supporters gather. Expect a traffic jam.

Oak Hill. Photo by Judy Wells.

Oak Hill

A winding road flanked by mature oak trees makes the arrival at Oak Hill a dramatic one. The striking white Greek revival mansion looms large but welcoming atop - what else? - a hill. Built in 1884 to replace the Victorian home that had burned, the interior of Oak Hill was totally remodeled in 1927, adding bathrooms, central heating, rearranging rooms and updating the kitchen.

The elevator. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Martha had developed a heart problem and an elevator was installed, a gift from from Berry alumna. It would get stuck so Martha asked for a chair, a light and a book to be added.

Dining room. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The house was truly a home and shows personal touches. Berry students, for example, made the dining room furniture; the coverlet on Martha's bed was made by her mother.
Martha's favorite room; coverlet made by her mother. Photo © by Judy Wells.

There is a portrait of Martha's African-American servant, Aunt Martha Freeman, supposedly the only person who could tell Martha what to do.

Princess Eugenia. Photo © Debi Lander.
Many of the furnishings are particularly fine. Martha's older sister, a wealthy widow, became Princess Eugenia Ruspoli when she married Italian Prince Enrico Ruspoli (17 years her junior) in 1901. With her money they purchased Castle Nemi near Rome from the Orsini family. Eugenia became a collector of good European furniture and art. She continued living in the castle after Ruspoli's death in 1909, but was able to get herself, her adopted daughter and the best of her collections to the U.S. before World War II erupted. The collections went to Martha for safe keeping and are now, like Oak Hill, part of Berry College.

Federalist mirror. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Chippendale, Federalist, Italian, Colonial, Berry student work all fits together and it takes a sharp eye to distinguish the extraordinary.

Outside the Colonial revival garden beckons. Walks, sunken gardens and ponds tempt visitors to explore and linger.

Bridal Walk, where Martha invited just married Berry students to make a wish at the wishing well in the gazebo. Photos © Debi Lander.

Garden photos © by Debi Lander.
It's a recovery in progress, says Oak Hill Director Tim Brown who hopes one day to have the lower garden cleared and pristine again.

Martha liked spires. Photo © by Judy Wells.
When I asked about the little white building with the cupola on top, Brown told me it was just a storage shed.

"Martha liked spires," he explained.

Martha's cars. Photo © Debi Lander.
There's also a garage with Martha's carriages and cars.














 Martha Berry Museum

Photo © Debi Lander.

Frieseke portrait. Photo © Debi Lander.
More of Princess Eugenia's art collection is on display at the Martha Berry Museum as are more of Martha's personal mementos and memorabilia as well as historical documents and accoutrements from the college.

Don't miss the art. There are some excellent Italian pieces and American portraits, plus Impressionist Frederick Carl Frieseke's painting of his daughter.
Some of Princess Eugenia's furniture. Photo by Judy Wells.

Deja vu

Oak Hill from the back. Photo © Debi Lander.
If, while you are wandering around the campus and Oak Hill, parts of it seem somehow familiar, it might be because scenes from the films Remember the Titans and Sweet Home Alabama were filmed here.

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