GPS May Day A Century Ago

Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - by John Shearer

Exactly 100 years ago this month, Girls Preparatory School held its first May Day. 

On Friday, May 1, 1914, nearly 100 enthusiastic students, teachers and alumnae gathered in the area of Burnt Cabin Springs on Signal Mountain – next to what is now Alexian Brothers – for the first pageant and celebration. 

Other than featuring mostly drama and humor skits instead of the musical dance presentations that became popular in later decades, the gathering still seemed to hint of the formal production that GPS’ May Day would become, despite the informal 1914 setting.

The 1914 event also had a May queen – Miss Margaret Anderson, who was the granddaughter of longtime First Presbyterian Church minister and city chaplain Dr. Jonathan W. Bachman. 

An inquisitive person might wonder what became of both the first May queen and the Burnt Cabin Springs area.

The spring still exists, although it is now perhaps more hidden in the woods, while Miss Anderson went on to enjoy a rich life and lived until almost the 75th anniversary of her coronation. 

But first a little history and background of GPS’ first May Day are necessary. According to some school archival information, the idea for May Day at Girls Preparatory School originated with Eula Lea Jarnagin, one of the three founders of the school.

She had seen a May Day celebration in a city park in Chicago while visiting that city in 1913, and this sparked the idea for GPS to have a May Day presentation in 1914. 

The first of May in Europe had historically been a time for children and others to get out and play and generally enjoy being outside, as it signaled the beginning of warm weather and the crop-growing season. Thus, the somewhat informal holiday of May Day developed.

Major cities like New York and Chicago also had May Days in parks that drew activities for children. A Maypole dance – a tradition that dated back centuries – was often also part of the celebrations.

The labor movement also began using May 1 as a time to bring attention to workers’ rights in commemoration of the labor rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886, when a deadly bomb exploded. 

The 1914 GPS May Day celebration apparently began that morning, when the girls and others climbed aboard the streetcars and rode up to the spring area. Both the springs and streetcar line were part of businessman C.E. James’ Signal Mountain Inn that had opened only months earlier.

At the time, GPS was located in the now-razed former home of fellow founder Grace McCallie on Oak Street between the western side of Memorial Auditorium and Georgia Avenue. 

Upon their arrival up at the springs that morning, the girls began the festivities on a knoll above the springs around late morning or perhaps as late as noon.

Exactly why this site was chosen by school officials instead of perhaps a more easily accessible downtown park like Warner Park or Jackson Park (now part of National Cemetery) is not known. Perhaps one of the founders or someone connected to the school somehow was familiar with it, or maybe Burnt Cabin Springs was quickly becoming a popular retreat or picnic area for Chattanoogans. 

But it no doubt offered a more outdoorsy and scenic setting and gave the event as much a field trip experience as a school pageant feel.

It also required a little more work, as the May queen dress/costume and other May Day outfits were carried in boxes, and picnic lunches for 99 people had to be transported. 

However, even in that slightly out of the way place, what quickly became apparent was that GPS and May Day were made for each other.

When that day’s festivities began, the May Day maidens – who were apparently seniors – came in first in green Grecian robes led by Miss Mary Bertha Allison. Then the queen, Miss Anderson, advanced in a white Grecian robe to a throne of greenery erected next to a tree. As she did, the maidens sang, “Oh May Queen, You’re Coming.” 

Elizabeth Montgomery crowned the queen and Marion Connelly presented her with the wand.

After a little more dancing, the maidens/fellow seniors then sat down around the queen. 

GPS seventh grader – and future longtime Bright School teacher -- Mary Ellen Lynde then entered the grass stage and asked to be presented to the court. Queen Anderson said yes, but only if some entertainment was given for her pleasure,

So the seventh-graders did some play-inspired skits, including “The Opening of Pandora’s Box.” 

The eighth-graders, led by Mary Rogers, did several charades from English history.

After that, a group described as second-year students acted out a scene in which they pretended to be kindergarten students. Student Rachel Cooke played a teacher, while Mary Louise Beckham was one of the students. 

The third-year class led by Ruth Williams did a humorous take on a GPS faculty meeting. Mary Elizabeth Swaney was fellow founder Tommie Payne Duffy, Elizabeth Stoops was Miss Jarnagin, Isabelle Griscom was Miss McCallie, Pansy Flemister was Miss Gertrude Oehmig, Louise Frazier played Mr. Wiley, and Ruth Williams was Professor Wilson.

The fourth-year class also went for cleverness, and acted out a new form of entertainment – moving pictures. Each class member played the part of a movie actor. 

Apparently, one or more of the teachers at GPS had a real knack for creative drama presentations.

The ceremony then ended as it does today -- with the Maypole dance. In the 1914 presentation, the senior maidens – not the sophomores – wound the pole as they sang, “Hail to the Merry Month of May.” 

At 1 p.m., a luncheon was served picnic style.

The rest of the afternoon before the 4:30 p.m. return was spent hiking around the Signal Mountain Inn-owned grounds. It was a completely fun day, and apparently the only blemish was when one of the “maidens” fell into a stream. 

The event also quickly seemed to take on a feel of permanence. The article in the next day’s Chattanooga Times hinted of this when it ended by saying, “The affair was most unique and enjoyable, and the school expects to make it the annual May Day celebration.”

And it would become a permanent experience as well, even though the location of May Day would change over the years, as would the pageant’s offerings ever so slightly. 

After two more May Days took place at Burnt Cabin Springs in 1915 and 1916, the pageant would soon start being held in a diversity of places. They included Jackson Park, Baylor and McCallie schools, the nicely landscaped home of Mrs. Sim Perry Long off East Dallas Road in North Chattanooga, and the University of Chattanooga quadrangle.

After the school moved to its current North Chattanooga locations in 1947, most – but not all -- of the May Days were held on the lawn in front of the academic buildings. 

While the 1914 article about GPS’ first May Day hints of a simpler time, the other stories in the newspaper show that the world was changing and becoming more complex. A number of coal mining strikes were taking place around the country, and, perhaps most important to GPS, next to the May Day article was a story about a suffragette gathering in Chattanooga to help women earn the right to vote.

Regarding first May queen, Margaret Anderson, she went on to enjoy a rich life. But, as with most people, her life was not without some misfortune. And for her, it occurred well before she was chosen as the school’s first May queen. 

According to her grandson, Dr. Peter Rawlings, Miss Anderson’s mother died when the future May queen was about 4. Later, her father became despondent and took his own life, Dr. Rawlings said.

As a result, relatives took care of the Anderson siblings, and Miss Anderson – whose full first name was Mary Margaret – was raised by Rev. Bachman, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War. 

After serving as May queen at the age of 19 and graduating from GPS, she attended Ward-Belmont (now Belmont University) in Nashville and later married attorney Charles Shelby Coffey, who was about 13 years her senior.

They had five children -- Charles Coffey Jr. (died in 1974), 1938 GPS graduate “Bitsy” Rawlings (2010), the Rev. Jonathan B. Coffey (2012), William Milton Coffey (2007) and Robert Lewis Coffey (2010). 

Dr. Rawlings said that his grandmother and grandfather, who died in 1961, lived in a home on Richardson Street on Lookout Mountain, and later gave it up to a son and moved into another one on the street during the tough Great Depression.

She later lived on Dale Way on the mountain before living in the Calstead facility and then at an Alexian Brothers nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients. She died in early May – when else -- in 1988 at the age of 93. 

Nicknamed Caulkie by her grandchildren because one of them had trouble pronouncing “Coffey,” she was considered a low-key person, Dr. Rawlings said.

“She was a wonderful woman who was very quiet and reserved,” he said. 

He remembered her mentioning that she had been the first May queen, although she did not dwell on it. However, he does remember her excitedly recalling seeing the first house in Chattanooga that featured light powered by electricity.

As for Burnt Cabin Springs where Mrs. Anderson Coffey was crowned, it is still flowing with mineral water ever so gently. But finding poison ivy, ticks and maybe snakes seems a little easier than finding the spring these days, as the area is completely in the woods. 

The spring is located about 100 yards from the Rainbow Lake trailhead off Ohio Avenue, and is reached by veering to the left via the old sidewalk that intersects the gravel trail.

An inspection of the springs on Tuesday showed a springhouse over it. Also, a sign identifying it as the Burnt Cabin Springs hangs under the rafters below the roof. 

The area just up the hill, where the May Day festivities were held, is now apparently much more wooded than when the GPS students gathered there. And no tree looks big enough to have likely been there 100 years ago and served as the backdrop for the throne.

The Signal Mountain Golf Club opened a few years after the 1914 May Day, and the edge of No. 13 fairway now sits about 30-40 yards up from the spring. 

But if one stands quietly amid the rustling of the leaves of the hardwood trees in that area, it is quite easy to imagine some young girls of old having fun and creating a Chattanooga tradition that would last more than 100 years.

 Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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