Mary Ann Rutherford Lipscomb: Education Advocate and Founder of Tallulah Falls School

Mary Ann Rutherford was born in 1848 to an old southern family in Athens, Georgia. Her father was a mathematics professor at the University of Georgia, where she grew up living close to the  campus. The future trajectory of her life was shaped by these influences.

She graduated with honors from the Lucy Cobb Institute in Athens. In 1869 she married Francis Lipscomb, son of the chancellor of the University of Georgia. He died five years later, leaving his wife to raise three young children. To care for her family, Lipscomb moved to Washington, D.C. to teach at the Waverly Seminary, an elite private school. In 1880, her sister, the principal of the Lucy Cobb Institute, persuaded Lipscomb to return home and teach at that school. She accepted the offer and taught at the institute until 1895, when she became principal.

Advocating Women’s Financial Independence

Lipscomb knew firsthand how difficult life could be for women, particularly those who were single mothers. She also knew that the more educated a woman was, the more options in life she would have. Driven by this belief, Lipscomb became active in the campaign for women’s financial independence, advocating that a girl’s education should include instruction in finance.

She also became a founder of the Athens Woman’s Club, which was focused on improving the quality of education in Athens schools by providing textbooks and school supplies. Lipscomb became aware that many children could not attend school, since they were working in mills. She took on mill owners in a campaign to keep children as young as six from working at hazardous mill jobs. Mill owners around Georgia strongly opposed this effort and defeated Lipscomb’s effort to curtail child labor.

Campaigning For Compulsory Public Education

Although acknowledging defeat, she broadened her campaign by calling for compulsory public education. In an article published in the Atlanta Constitution, she wrote: “Our women… are now dead earnest in advocating compulsory education for the state—a law which would take the child out of the streets and the fields and put him in the school room.” The Georgia legislature did pass compulsory education legislation…but not until 1916.

Lipscomb and members of the Athens Woman’s Club opened the first free kindergarten for working mothers, including African-Americans, in 1902. It was incorporated into the public school system in 1905. Lipscomb also believed that schools should educate the public about tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. She lobbied politicians for improved public health laws and worked to include hygiene as part of school curriculums.

Tutoring Children In Tallulah Falls

During summer months, Lipscomb vacationed at the family cottage in Tallulah Falls, where she became acutely aware of the poor state of education in Georgia’s mountains. In Tallulah Falls, children attended school only three months of the year in an unheated room above the town’s jail. The only other schools in the area were located in Clayton and Clarkesville, both 12 miles away. With poor roads that made for difficult travel even in good weather, those schools could well have been in another state.

Lipscomb began tutoring local children on the porch of her cottage. She also attempted to generate local support for building a school in Tallulah Falls. When this effort failed, she approached the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1905 and persuaded the group to finance a school. She also wrote to newspapers throughout the state to raise additional funds. In a letter to the Savannah News, she said: “In no part of our state are industrial schools needed as in the mountains…It is believed that, if cooking and caring for the home is to be carried into the future homes of these girls, they must be taught to practice it at school.”

Founding Tallulah Falls Industrial School

With sufficient funding in hand, work was started on a six-room schoolhouse on five acres of land on the southeast slope of Cherokee Mountain. Tallulah Falls Industrial School opened on July 12, 1909 with 21 boys and girls from Rabun and Habersham counties. The school was owned and operated by the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs, which has continued in that role since the school’s founding.

Lipscomb served as chairman of the school’s board of directors. Due to poor health, she retired in 1914 and died in 1918 at the age of 70. On reporting her death, the Athens Daily Herald wrote about the “untiring energy of the woman whose big brain and loving tender heart has done more for Georgia than perhaps any woman.”

Founded As Work-Study School

Like Rabun Gap Industrial School (which later became Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School), Tallulah Falls Industrial School was founded as a work-study institution. In addition to academic subjects, the school’s curriculum included a strong focus on “practical education.” During part of the school day, boys worked on the school’s farm; girls were taught homemaking skills and crafts.

In a retrospective on the school, the Clayton Tribune wrote, “It was decided from the beginning that if the school was to be of any use to the mountain people it served, it must above all else give its students a practical education that could be applied in their daily lives. So in addition to traditional academic subjects, the students were taught sewing, weaving, gardening, cooking, carpentry, farming and the care of animals.” The school term ran for nine months with vacation months in January, February and March.

Exchanging A Mule For Tuition

It was the school’s policy to never turn a student down for financial reasons. The Clayton Tribune noted, “The barter system of the mountain people was never so evident as in the payment of student tuitions…Some would pay with a sack of potatoes or a few bushels of corn or with the promise to dig a new well or help construct a new building.” One of the more unusual barter deals occurred in 1924 when two boys arrived on campus with instructions from their parents to offer their mule, Frank, in exchange for the tuition. “Frank Tallulah,” as the mule became known, pulled wagons and plowed fields at the school for 27 years.

In 1937 the school officially was renamed Tallulah Falls School. Beginning with the 1970-71 school year, the school became a totally private institution that no longer accepted public funds for its operation. Due to changing economic conditions and student needs, the school’s work-study program was curtailed, although students continue to perform daily chores. Today, Tallulah Falls School is a noted college preparatory school with an international enrollment of more than 500 students.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in February 2022.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.