Men or women like John Mercer Carter only come along once or twice in a generation. Mr. Carter was a man of extraordinary character, vision and energy who devoted much of his 102 years on earth to education, athletics and public service in and around Fannin County. In recognition of his many accomplishments and contributions to athletics, both as a participant and as a coach and administrator, John Carter has been elected to the Fannin County Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2018.John was born in the community of Cobbs, North Carolina, close to the Georgia border in September, 1886. His father J.M. Carter was an educator and evangelist of some note who moved the family to Mineral Bluff and then to a farm near Morganton, Georgia before John reached the age of 10. J.M. Carter was one of the principals in the establishment of the North Georgia Baptist College in Morganton, a school that provided a quality education to students between grade one through two years of college. It was here that John Carter received his rudimentary education before moving on to the University of Georgia to complete the requirements to teach in schools at that time. He began his teaching career at a one room school in Hemp, Georgia in 1908.John Carter discovered the game of baseball around the turn of the century. In his book ‘Trails of the Past’, Carter tells of visits to his grandparents in Bellvue, North Carolina after his family had moved to Morganton. Another young man, Ty Cobb, who was two months younger than John, also visited his grandparents in the same community around that same time. The two boys played together as youngsters and, most likely faced each other in baseball games during the early years of the century. John had begun his career with the team from North Georgia Baptist College and Ty was often drafted to play with the semi-pro team in nearby Murphy, North Carolina while visiting in Bellevue. Cobb began his professional career when he signed with the Augusta, Georgia team in April, 1904, just as John Carter was completing his high school education.
Baseball was without question America’s National Pastime from the early years of the 20th century into the 1950s and John Carter played the game with a passion. He was generally a catcher and, due to his playing ability, grasp of the finer points of the game and natural leadership qualities, usually found himself in the role of coach or manager of the teams for which he played. He played for some of the better semi-professional teams of North Georgia, Western North Carolina and Southeastern Tennessee for more than 50 years. In addition to Cobb, John Carter competed with and against some of the finest athletes of the day during his career including Hall of Famer Johnny Mize, future New York Yankees pitcher Spud Chandler, Cy Grant of University of Georgia fame, Joe Jenkins, a teammate at Morganton and member of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, as well as local legends such as Tiny Swafford, Harry McNally and the Tipton Brothers.
Carter states in his memoirs that he was offered several opportunities to pursue a professional baseball career. He was not inclined, however, to embark on a life of travel and professional uncertainty, preferring to remain with family and in his beloved teaching profession. Financially, a life in professional baseball during Carter’s playing days did not offer the huge benefits available to players today. In an era of fierce competition among strong local semi-professional teams, he was often recruited to play for teams in crucial games for the unheard of sums of $50-$100 per game. Added to his remuneration from his teaching jons, he felt that his financial condition was probably favorable to a life in professional baseball.
Although he enjoyed an outstanding baseball career as a player, John Mercer Carter’s contributions as a coach, educator and administrator left a much more permanent on the landscape of athletics in and around Fannin County.
Beginning in the fall of 1908 Carter taught in the schools of Fannin County until the autumn of 1917, with two interruptions. During this period, he was a teacher and coach at North Georgia Baptist College for two years and also served as a teacher and coach at North Georgia College in Dahlonega for one year.
In the fall of 1917, Carter was brought to Copperhill High School as a teacher and to modernize the athletic program at the school. At that time Copperhill High School served roughly equal numbers of students from Tennessee and from the nearby town of McCaysville, Georgia and its environs. The only other high school opportunities for students in Fannin County at the time were at the Epworth Seminary, a high school at Mineral Bluff (until 1925), the North Georgia Baptist College in Morganton (which became a public school in 1926) or the Mary Willingham School for Girls in Blue Ridge. All were a considerable distance from Copperhill/McCaysville and were difficult to reach considering the primitive transportation conditions at the time. So the logical alternative for local Georgia students was to pay a tuition fee and attend school at Copperhill High School.
When Carter arrived at Copperhill, the school’s basketball teams played on an outdoor court and the school did not have a football program at all. Two of John Carter’s chief contributions at the school were the building of a modern basketball facility in 1923 and the establishment of a football program in the fall of 1925. After taking the position as coach and teacher (he later was elevated to the position of principal) he quickly recognized the need for a community club-type facility to provide for recreation, including competitive basketball, for the young men and women of the area. He organized a community club, including a facility for basketball competition, in an existing building shortly after his arrival. When local civic and business leaders recognized the positive impact of the endeavor, funds were raised from the citizenry and the Tennessee Copper Company to build a new facility that was called the Copperhill YMCA. The gymnasium at the Copperhill YMCA served as the venue for Copperhill and McCaysville High School and elementary school games until the 1950s.
Establishing a football program was no small endeavor in but Carter, along with another visionary teacher at Copperhill, B. Fred German, accomplished that task in the fall of 1925. German coached the first football team and Carter continued to coach the basketball teams. He continued in that role until he left Copperhill at the close of the 1928-29 school year.
The 1929-30 school year found John Carter as the head baseball and basketball coach at North Georgia College in Dahlonega.
After a few years as coach and school principal in the Asheville, North Carolina area John Carter returned to Fannin County as the principal and coach at Fannin County High School in Morganton. The school had made the transition from North Georgia Baptist College to a public school in 1926 and much of the physical plant needed a major overhaul. The gymnasium, for example, also housed the Morganton Elementary School. Under the direction of John Carter the facilities were modernized and by the 1934-35 school year Fannin County High School boasted a gymnasium which according to Carter “would seat about 1800 people comfortably and was considered to be the best lighted gym between Atlanta and Knoxville”.
Carter’s greatest coup at Fannin County High School was persuading the decision-making powers in Georgia District 9 athletic circles to hold the District tournament for the Western Division schools at Morganton in the early spring of 1935. In an upset of monumental proportions, the Fannin girls rose to the occasion and defeated Duluth, Hiawassee (Towns County) and perennial power Jasper (Pickens County) to win the Western Division championship. They then journeyed over to Clarkesville and defeated the Eastern Division champions to capture the overall Georgia District 9 girls basketball championship. Georgia did not hold a girls basketball state tournament at that time so the Fannin girls, under the leadership of John Carter, accomplished as much as was possible for them at the time.
Following the 1934-35 school year John Mercer Carter had devoted most of his 50 years of service to education and athletics and his participation in athletics to Fannin County and its immediate environs. Opportunities came his way from the east in Buncombe County, North Carolina, however, so John Carter packed up his family and returned to Fairview High School near Asheville where he was hired as principal and coach. He devoted the next 23 years of his professional life to the Buncombe County School System as a teacher and coach until his retirement in 1958.
John Mercer lived an additional 30 years after his retirement from teaching, coaching and playing the game of baseball. He remained in the Asheville, North Carolina area until his death in 1988. He stayed busy and found time to pen his memoirs ‘Trails of the Past’ in 1977. In the Introduction of this book an unnamed writer described the final 30 years of Carter’s life thusly: “Retirement for ‘Pop’ Carter was the start of new activities including farming, construction work and lecturing. Most importantly, he continues to teach each person he comes in contact with how to live better with themselves and with their fellow man”. A great tribute to a great man.