This month marks the 200th anniversary of education in the City of Jefferson, a notable feat given that in the Old South, education was often seen as unimportant. For Jefferson, however, education has a long legacy that has shaped the town for two centuries.
There are several layers of stories here that paint a complex picture of the city’s educational history. Here are some of the highlights. The Jackson County Academy was chartered by the Georgia General Assembly on Nov. 20, 1818. Although charted by the state, the academy was a private institution and functioned mostly from tuition. At the time, there was not a public school system in Georgia.
The academy was for both male and female students and the early trustees advertised the school’s tuition as being “lower… than at any other similar institution of which the trustees have any knowledge in the state.” That focus on low tuition would be part of the school’s trademark for decades to come.
A little before the Jackson County Academy (often called “Jefferson Academy”) was created, a man from Virginia arrived in Jefferson who would have a profound impact on the school’s future.
William Duncan Martin had been a fairly successful farmer in Virginia, but lost it all when a friend defaulted on a note Martin had co-signed, according to historian E. Merton Coulter who wrote a profile of Martin in 1966.
Martin was pledged to be married at the time, but didn’t want to marry “Caroline” until he could provide for her. He left for Georgia and once he made his fortune in Jefferson, planned to go back and get his love in Virginia. But on the stage just before he left, a terrible letter arrived: Caroline had died. Martin never married and later in life was known as an eccentric old bachelor.
He continued to increase his wealth from a mercantile business he ran in Jefferson and in the mid-1820s, moved out of town to the Thyatira community where he had a farm, which included a major wine-making industry. With his growing wealth, Martin invested in land and stocks.
We don’t know a lot about the early years of the Jefferson Academy, but the institution did play a big role in Crawford W. Long’s 1842 discovery in Jefferson of ether for painless surgery. Teachers and students at Jefferson Academy had purchased ether from Long for laughing parties. It was at one of these parties that Long had the idea of using ether for a painless surgery. A Jefferson Academy student, James Venable, was Long’s first patient.
Another early leader connected with the Academy was Gustavus J. Orr, who served as principal at the school in 1847. Orr grew up in Jackson County, although he didn’t attend the academy.
In 1869, Orr wrote a paper which became the basis for the creation of Georgia’s public school system in 1871. In 1872, Orr was named as state school commissioner, a position he served for 15 years until his death in 1887. (Another Jackson County native, Gustavus R. Glenn, was another early state school commissioner, serving for eight years, 1895-1903. Other Glenn family members were connected to what would become the Martin Institute.)
William Martin died in 1854 at age 83. He had a complex will that left his fortune to a variety of people and institutions in Jackson County (including $100 to $500 sums to various ladies in town, married and unmarried.) Martin’s largest single bequest of 150 shares of Georgia Railroad and Banking Company was made to the Jefferson Academy, a value of $15,000.
But that donation proved to be difficult to collect. Various family members (whom Martin didn’t like) contested his will. It took four years of litigation to clear up the will and for the Academy to get its $15,000 bequest.
In 1859, the institution got its money and the state General Assembly set up a new board of trustees for the school and renamed it “Martin Institute.” It was one of, if not the first, privately endowed public schools in the nation.
The school took off, drawing in students from all over the state and even other countries. One of those non-native students was Joseph Jacobs, whose family moved from Chicago to Jefferson when Joseph was an infant. He attended Martin Institute as a young child from 1864-1866. Later, he was an apprentice under Dr. Crawford Long in Athens.
Dr. Jacobs went on to be a noted pharmacist in Atlanta (he owned a chain of drug stores) and is best remembered for having owned the Atlanta drug store that first sold Coca-Cola in 1886. (Jacobs had a large amount of stock in Coca-Cola, but didn’t see its potential and sold his shares to Asa Candler.)
In 1928, a year before his death, Jacobs came back to Jefferson to give the baccalaureate address at the Martin Institute where he fondly recalled his time at the school during the war years.
Throughout the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s, the Martin Institute flourished. One of its leaders during that time was noted professor J. W. Glenn.
In 1884, the school building burned and the City of Jefferson issued $5,000 in bonds to rebuild the facility. In 1899, the school’s charter was changed to allow the school’s board of trustees to sell the old Martin railroad stock and reinvest the proceeds. That netted $31,000, which was soon invested in the new Jefferson Cotton Mill. The following year, the City of Jefferson issued $5,000 in bonds and those proceeds were also invested in the cotton mill with its proceeds to go to an endowment for the school.
In 1909, the school began to give free tuition to students living inside the city limits of Jefferson. That move angered some living outside the town and in 1913, a lawsuit was carried to the state Supreme Court on the matter. The court overturned a lower court ruling and said the trustees didn’t have to give free tuition to other Jackson County students. (The in-district and out-of-district issue continues today as some in-city parents want to limit out-of-district students. The issue was also litigated in the 1980s when some out-of-district students were mandated to attend Jefferson High School under a previous court order.)
In 1911, the school hosted one of the nation’s most interesting public speakers when former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan gave a speech at the school in June. Bryan ran for president three times, but was defeated each time. He was later the leading voice in the anti-evolution Scopes “Monkey” Trial.
In 1912, the Jefferson City School System was created by the state. That system then leased the Martin Institute facilities and ran the school. By the mid-1920s, the trustees no longer put money into the school, according to a later lawsuit. That may be because the cotton mill the school had invested in went bankrupt around 1915, wiping out all of the school’s endowment that had come from William Martin. (That also resulted in a lot of litigation with the school’s trustees and a local bank over who got paid first when the mill was eventually sold. There is indication that some trustees of the school were also on the cotton mill’s board and bank board, a conflict-of-interest that may have resulted in the school losing its endowment funds.)
In 1942, the school burned again, an arson done by the son of the town’s police chief who didn’t want to go to class. That incident led to a bitter three-year court fight between the City of Jefferson and the Martin Institute trustees over the $66,000 in insurance money. In the end, the money was divided between the two groups, but for practical purposes, the school had become integrated into the Jefferson City School System.
Not long after that lawsuit was settled in 1945, the Bryan family, which had bought the old Jefferson cotton mill out of bankruptcy in 1917, began pouring funds into the school system. It was, in effect, a second private endowment to the town’s school. That funding lasted until the mill was sold in the 1980s.
In 1966, the remaining funds held by the old Martin Institute trustees helped build a library at Jefferson High School to be known as the William Duncan Martin Library (it’s now the school’s performing arts center.)
Over the decades while all the legal wrangling was going on, the Martin Institute and Jefferson School System was churning out graduates headed to college. In the late 1800s, it became a major prep school for the University of Georgia. For a time in the late 1800s, it could also issue college-level diplomas.
The Martin Institute had some notable students over the years, including Joseph Rucker Lamar from Augusta who served on the U.S. Supreme Court 1911-1915. Graduates and students of the Martin Institute also became noted congressmen, ministers, lawyers, judges, doctors, civic leaders, business leaders, professors, war heroes and many others who spread out all around the world.
Locally, the school injected a strong value of education in a small, rural town that might have otherwise never have been able to offer such a quality of education.
That valuing of education continues today. People still move into Jefferson for its noted city school system, just as they were doing over 100 years ago. And the school continues to be a focus in the community for its fine arts and athletic programs.
It’s difficult to overstate just how important the Martin Institute/Jefferson City School System has been to the City of Jefferson and all of Jackson County.
And on this 200th anniversary, that is worth noting.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher and editor of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at email@example.com.