Chester Martin Remembers How His Mom Went To Central High School

Tuesday, April 11, 2017 - by Chester Martin
Miss Mabel Willett Young at age 17, from her Central High School yearbook of 1913
Miss Mabel Willett Young at age 17, from her Central High School yearbook of 1913

Second only to her St. Elmo upbringing, my mom wore her years spent at Chattanooga Central High School as a badge of honor!

She seems to have thoroughly enjoyed her four years there, and I do not remember her ever mentioning any tension or friction between herself and any student or teacher. They were basically happy years, before the horrors of World War I and the later Great Depression upset those more placid times. Mom willingly participated in Glee Club activities, and I still have the hardcover songbook that was used in that club. She has written quite a few marginal notes throughout - the cheers used for athletic events, etc. It is fun to look at those notes and try to re-construct  the joy she experienced as a teenaged schoolgirl. I even admire her direct, easy-to-read handwriting - the penmanship that was NOT transmitted to my DNA!

Her glee club seems to have composed special songs from time to time - especially about faculty members. Never anything "mean" or demeaning - just pure fun. Kids of her day seem to have improvised a lot, choosing their own way to do things, as there was not yet any radio or TV to copy, or give them ideas. (In her day there were only traveling "Chatauqua" and Vaudeville events to give them ideas to try and mimic). One of these songs written by her Girl's Glee Club, and that I remember her singing, was done to the tune of an old Victorian song, called "All Through the Night". Their adaptation of it commenced with the words, " 'Baldy' Kirkman, Enos White..." etc., etc.  I only remember those starting words because "Baldy" Kirkman became the founder, in later years, of Kirkman Vocational H.S., my own Alma Mater! His real name was Otis C. Kirkman; the "Baldy" must have referred to some noticeable physical characteristic somewhat similar to my own! (Or so I am guessing).

Getting to Central from St. Elmo never seems to have been a problem even though she had to first go straight into the main part of downtown, then transfer to another streetcar. Her home was right beside the "St. Elmo Carline", as it was commonly known back then. There was no problem getting aboard, and I never heard her complain about any difficulty incurred in making the transfer to a second line. Market Street had several "passenger islands" in the middle of the street to allow passengers to disembark from one car and wait for another. Since streetcars could not divert from their straight line of track, this system worked for years. Few people had yet been spoiled by private autos in those days, so hopping from one streetcar to the next was considered to be a normal way of life. And buses were as yet unknown.

My mom, Mabel Willett Young, (Never leave the Willetts out!), did well in all her subjects, making the Honor Roll most of the time, and I have just recently seen her name on that list from her Senior year at Central - 1913. She excelled so well in her "Business" classes (Typewriting, actually, though including short-hand) that the school asked her to remain as a teacher. (That was before teachers were required to have college degrees). She indeed taught at Central for one year, but with her sound Business knowledge found that she could easily make more money doing office work for private businesses - however that is another story. My mother is believed to be the first Central student who was asked to remain as an assistant faculty member.

Mabel Young also took Spanish while at Central. A "Major McGuffey" was her teacher, and he was somehow related to the McGuffeys of the famous grade school "McGuffey's Readers". This gentleman seems to have been a "live wire", as he inspired my mom to learn all the Spanish she could. He also composed a song in Spanish for the Glee Club to sing for some visiting dignitary who spoke Spanish as his "first" language. (I remember every word of that song, but promise not to sing it for you!) Years later, mom was working for the railroad and was able to get free passes for two. So she got her now retired mother to accompany her on a trip to Havana, Cuba, long before the name Castro ever influenced politics on that island nation. (Yes, you could buy a railroad ticket from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Havana, Cuba, which included a 90-mile overnight ocean ferry ride!) Mom's enthusiasm for Spanish rubbed off on ME, and it became my Minor subject at the University. I still try to read a page from an online Spanish newspaper every night, thanks to the lasting inspiration of Central's Major (Charles D.) McGuffey! (More on him in another story, folks, as he was a truly charismatic character).

Mom had known Kate Gothard of St. Elmo since grammar school. Then they went to Central together, becoming lifelong friends. Kate's father was a Confederate veteran who became the long-time gate keeper of Forest Hills Cemetery: Adolphus Gothard. (You can still see the foundation remains of his little gate house just west of the cemetery's reception center). Kate married a Mr. Kellerhals, who was a prominent dairy farmer in the Boynton, Ga., area. (I am disputed on that location, but that is what I remember). The Kellerhals name is still known in local North Georgia politics. Kate and my mother remained in touch with each other well past the mid 1970's.

Folks, there is a LOT more to tell about Central H.S., but I have told you all that I can remember about my mom's life there between 1909 and 1913!. Her picture accompanying this story shows a brave, almost stoic, young woman's face which does not betray the hardships of her home life - where her father had died 10 years before, at age 43, when she was only seven. Her mother suddenly became head of the family, which by then included HER widowed mom, from Washington, (Rhea County), Tennessee - plus my mom's sickly brother. Meantime, a dear maiden Aunt (Linnie Smith) came to live under the same roof - making a total of five who all lived together in a very small house on the north edge of St. Elmo. My grandmother, Mattie Young, now as true head of the household, had to rush off to a new job at Chattanooga Medicine Company (Chattem, as it is known today) every morning, leaving my mom in virtual charge of everything. I have told bits and pieces of that story earlier.  My mom never once complained about those meager circumstances, so am just relating them here for their value as "behind the scenes" facts. The family seemed happy enough, and that is all that really matters. One can imagine that there were many other similar stories behind those brave young faces in the yearbook of 1913!  Just be advised that Central presently has an excellent library and archive, with many volunteers to help in making its accessibility easy. Anything else you want to know about the school will probably be found there. Mr. Charles Sedman is one of those wonderful people who understands the overall picture, having inspired me to write this story today.

The Central H.S. of my mother's day was on the east side of Dodds Avenue, on property now  owned by McCallie School. One small yellow brick portion of it survived until recent years, but I think every trace of it is now gone.


Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at

A page from her Glee Club songbook, which includes the marginal note: "Central plays Brandon Training School today, November 8, 1912. O that we may win!"  A sub-note says, "We lost however. Que lastima". (The Spanish words meant, "What a pity!" - and were doubtless inspired by Major McGuffey, above).
A page from her Glee Club songbook, which includes the marginal note: "Central plays Brandon Training School today, November 8, 1912. O that we may win!" A sub-note says, "We lost however. Que lastima". (The Spanish words meant, "What a pity!" - and were doubtless inspired by Major McGuffey, above).

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