Olive Tilford Dargan, ca. 1914
I never thought I would read a better account of picking wild strawberries in the Smokies than William Bartram’s journal entry from May 1775. The tantalizing sensuality of his descriptions verged on a lustful licentiousness that some might find objectionable. And with good reason. Bartram’s account was really more about his craving for ripe fruit, so to speak, than it was about wild strawberries.
I’ll admit that I may have taken too much vicarious pleasure in Bartram’s adventure and was too willing to overlook its disturbing undertones. Just recently, though, I discovered another story about picking wild strawberries in the Smokies. It appears in Olive Tilford Dargans’s From My Highest Hill.
Dargan (1869-1968) was a fascinating character. The child of two schoolteachers in Kentucky, she had an interest in writing from an early age. A year at Radcliffe College sharpened her social consciousness and her commitment to the suffragist movement. Later, working as a secretary to a Boston industrialist, she witnessed a robber baron at close range. After moving to Blue Ridge, Georgia, she married South Carolina aristocrat Pegram Dargan, a Harvard grad with literary interests.
They soon relocated to New York City where her poetic plays drew rave reviews. The sale of performance rights for one of the plays allowed the Dargans to buy acreage near Almond, in Swain County, and in 1906 the couple moved to a log cabin on the mountain.
Sharing the small cabin with her husband, Olive was deprived of a “room of one’s own” where she could pursue her writing. But circumstances never lessened her interest in human rights. During time spent in London before the First World War, she observed the plight of working women and children struggling to escape dire poverty, and wrote: “It is impossible to live and not join the fight.”
In 1915, her troubled marriage ended when Pegram was lost at sea during a voyage to Cuba. The next year, she returned to her cabin in the Smokies and threw herself into physical work: “I find myself busy from dawn until I fall into the bed at night. I am mending fences, digging ditches, carrying rock, cutting poles, and other incredible things.”
The well-meaning outsider also intended to improve the lives of her tenant farm neighbors. As one might expect, in the years that followed, she learned as much or more from the Carolina mountain folks than they learned from her. She related her experiences of farm life and the mountaineers she grew to love in a series of stories first published in 1925 as Highland Annals, and later expanded and revised in the 1941 book, From My Highest Hill.
Dargan recognized how earlier Appalachian writers had exploited the highlanders through overly-romanticized stereotyping and she tried to avoid that in her stories. I’d say she succeeded. Dargan’s fictional alter-ego, Mis’ Dolly, is engaged in a wary dance with her native-born neighbors. They test her. She risks offending them with her notions of betterment. Often as not, her neighbors’ dry humor, and gift for understatement, impart a valuable lesson for Mis’ Dolly. With sensitivity and nuance, Dargan depicts the mutual affection that grows between herself and her neighbors, while interweaving descriptions of the landscape, old customs, farm lore, and the social currents affecting life on the mountain. Her stories ring true.
I’m told, by one who would know, that many mountain folks have accepted From My Highest Hill as a more authentic and respectful account than Horace Kephart’s acclaimed Our Southern Highlanders (1913), a book that some found condescending and exaggerated.
The 1941 edition of From My Highest Hills in distinguished by the contributions of Bayard Wootten, the pioneering photographer. Wootten is one of my favorite North Carolina photographers. She is one my favorite photographers, period. And her images are the ideal complement to Dargan’s prose.
Mis' Dolly was uncannily prophetic when she predicted that within a few years the mountain culture she had come to love would be as "dim in time" as "the ways and customs of Atlantis." Sure enough, even sooner than she imagined, the construction of Fontana Dam would inundate and obliterate the community of which she wrote.
I won’t attempt to excerpt or summarize Dargan’s story, Serena and Wild Strawberries. I would call it a classic of Appalachian literature…a fine introduction to Dargan’s work.
And, with apologies to William Bartram, I have to say it’s the best story I’ve ever read about picking wild strawberries in the Smokies.
Three Swain County men, a Bayard Wootten photograph from the book.