When I first began researching area history and heard the name Zenobia Addington Chastain, I was fascinated by it. When I learned further that she was a noted teacher in the latter half of the 19th century and a few years into the 20th century, I knew I had to find out more about this outstanding mountain lady and what motivated her noble work.
It is interesting that I would call her work "noble," for indeed it was. Her nickname was "Nobie," short for Zenobia. Her parents were March and Amy Elizabeth White Addington. By his first wife, Sarah Moore Addington, 11 children were born into the March Addington family. Two daughters, Emily Elizabeth and Mary Zenobia, were born to March's second wife. Mary Zenobia's birthday was May 10, 1848. Zenobia was not a common name to give a girl in 1848. It can be assumed that her father March was a history buff, naming his baby daughter for Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, an ancient province in present-day Syria. Perhaps March Addington had read about the well-educated queen, who after her husband, King Odenathus died, led his armies in a successful revolt against the Roman occupation army of Palmyra. Later when she was captured by Roman Emperor Aurelius, Queen Zenobia was led captive through the streets of Rome with a gold chain in respect to her position and bravery.
March Addington was a slave owner. When secession came, he was 60 years of age. He enlisted in the Confederate Army, Georgia Cavalry Volunteers, in the Sixth Regiment in 1862. His enlistment was for three years. Life was not easy for March's wife Amy Elizabeth, who was looking after her two children, Emily and Zenobia, and the younger ones of March's first wife, Sarah.
The story is told of how March Addington bought his first land in Union County. He was riding his horse one day and found two men digging and searching along Coosa Creek. When they saw him, they fled. March saw that the land had gold, so he sold his beloved horse and bought the land for $40. It has been reported that the gold extracted from the Coosa mines was the yellowest gold of any from several mines in Union County. March Addington (b. 1802) died in 1885, 20 years after he returned from the Civil War. He was buried beside his first wife, Sarah Moore Addington (b. 1804) who had died November 25, 1844. Sarah's marker bears the oldest date in the Old Blairsville Cemetery located north of the Blairsville Middle School.
Zenobia Addington, like her namesake Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, loved learning. Early on, she showed intellectual acumen, and read as many books as she could get at the place and age where she lived. She had the good fortune to study under one of the outstanding teachers of the area, Professor M. C. Briant. She learned Latin and Greek as well as the classics. In Ward's History of Gilmer County, Briant was praised as a teacher of distinction and Zenobia Addington was noted as one of his outstanding students. It is assumed that she boarded and attended the Academy where Briant taught at Ellijay, Ga. (note Ellijay on Morganton Area Map).
Zenobia Addington began a school in Fannin County at Morganton in 1868. Called "Zenobia's Academy," the school drew students from a wide area. They found places to live with citizens of the town, then the county seat of Fannin County, formed in 1854 from parts of Union and Gilmer counties. Records show that Zenobia employed three or four teachers, depending on the enrollment, besides herself. She was enterprising, applied for a grant from the Peabody Foundation, and received money for the school at Morganton. In the summers, students could attend free, but in regular sessions, the cost was $1.00 per student for tuition, with the parents making arrangements for room and board.
Then romance came along for school administrator, Zenobia Chastain. At the time of their courtship, Oscar Fitzallen Chastain was working in a store in the city of Morganton. They were joined in holy matrimony on December 18, 1872 in Union County by the Rev. Thomas M. Hughes. No doubt he had been attracted to the industrious school teacher who had a good reputation as a fine educator. Oscar Fitzallen Chastain had been old enough to serve in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. His father, Colonel Elijah Webb Chastain, also served with the South. The elder Chastain had been a representative to the state legislature at the capitol in Milledgeville when Georgia seceded from the Union on January, 19, 1861. Mary Zenobia Addington's and Oscar Fitzallen Chastain's marriage joined two outstanding families, one of Union and the other of Fannin.
On May 17, 1884, Oscar Fitzallen Chastain was ordained as a minister at Morganton Baptist Church. Teacher and minister were to join forces to extend the educational outreach even beyond Zenobia's Academy at Morganton. Even in those days the quality and extent of the Academy's outreach enabled a grant from the Peabody Foundation and for a time it received funding and was known as a Peabody School. The couple's interests continued in "Zenobia's Academy," but began also to take another turn. Rev. Oscar Chastain was one of the founders of the Morganton Baptist Association, and the group of churches assumed leadership of a high school already organized but needing some help in Mineral Bluff, Ga.
Then, in 1899, the association voted to found the North Georgia Baptist College in Morganton. Unbelievably, the school opened in the fall of the same year. In its 26 year history, from 1899 through graduation of 1925 (when it closed, with buildings and grounds deeded to the Fannin County Board of education) the school offered classes from first grade through two years of college, with an outstanding "normal school" for training teachers. It was a natural transition that the already established "Zenobia's Academy" could be absorbed into the new school. Classes were held in the old Fannin County Court House at Morganton as the county seat had moved to Blue Ridge in 1895.
Zenobia Chastain continued as a teacher there, with her husband a strong supporter, business manager and chairman of the Board of Trustees. At one time, the couple mortgaged their own house and land in order to provide necessary income to keep the college open. In 1906 the North Georgia Baptist College was named one of "The Mountain Schools" of the Home Mission Board. Funds were received for a new administration/classroom building, and later for a dormitory. A companion "Mountain School" was operating in Blairsville from 1904-1930 as the Blairsville Collegiate Institute.
Zenobia and Oscar Chastain opened their home for relatives and others who needed a boarding place so they could attend the North Georgia Baptist College. The couple had three children of their own, daughters Mariam E., Mary E. and Nettie A. The girls were listed as ages five, three and one in the 1880 census. The daughters preceded their parents in death. Two married, and evidently died in childbirth or shortly thereafter.
It has been said of Zenobia Addington Chastain that she was the "educational mother of the mountain area." In a time when women's work was mainly as a homemaker and helpmeet to her husband, she was establishing and maintaining an academy and later supporting and teaching at a college that touched countless lives. Records show that graduates of both Zenobia's Academy and the North Georgia Baptist College went out to be teachers, lawyers, businessmen, ministers, doctors and nurses, all giving credit to an industrious and visionary mountain woman who worked hard to help them attain their goals.
This noble lady, born in Union County but spending productive years in education in Fannin County did not deviate from what she considered her mission and calling. Her husband, the Rev. Oscar Fitzallen Chastain, died in 1906 at age 62 and Zenobia died in 1907 at age 60. They were buried near the graves of their daughters at the Morganton Baptist Church Cemetery, not far from the site of what had been "Zenobia's Academy" and of the North Georgia Baptist College. The epitaph on the joint tombstone for Rev. and Mrs. Chastain reads: "They loved God and their fellowman."
Zenobia and her husband had a vision and worked to make it a reality. Indeed theirs were noble lives, nobly lived.