Vachel Lindsay reached the Highlands plateau at last.
Main Street, Highlands, 1910 (Henry Scadin photograph)
Ten years after his 1906 hike, Lindsay wrote about it in A Handy Guide for Beggars. When Edgar Lee Masters prepared Lindsay’s biography in the 1930s he had access to Lindsay’s many diaries, including those kept on the Southern trip. So, we now have the luxury of two parallel versions of the long journey.
Here’s how Masters related the poet’s approach to Highlands:
It was Sunday and he met a boy going to Baptist Sunday school. The teachers there were a man and his wife, who took Lindsay home with them to dinner. At Sunday school there was a promising student, who had a minute knowledge of Christ and the alabaster box woman. His face “and little body were those of a cherub.” Lindsay gave him “The Tree of Laughing Bells.”
He arrived in Highlands in the evening of this day and went to the house of some people to whom he had been directed by a friend. The woman of the house cooked him an excellent omelet, gave him brown bread and sweet milk, and a couch for the night. The host was a Pennsylvania Dutchman, “earnest, scholarly, and a botanist, superintendent of the nursery at Highlands.”
In A Handy Guide, Lindsay reflected on his short stay as he departed from Highlands:
With no sorrow in my heart, with no money in my pocket, with no baggage but a lunch, the most dazzling feature of which was a piece of gingerbread, I walked away from a windswept North Carolina village…the gingerbread was given me by a civilized man, to whom John Collier had written for me a letter of introduction: Mr. Thomas G. Harbison, Botanical Collector; American tree seeds a specialty.
Back there by the village he was improving the breed of mountain apples by running a nursery. He was improving the children with a school he taught without salary, and was using the most modern pedagogy.
Something in his manner made me say, "You are like a doctor out of one of Ibsen's plays, only you are optimistic." Then we talked of Ibsen. He debated art versus science, he being a science-fanatic, I an art-fanatic. He concluded the argument with these words: "You are bound to be wrong. I am bound to be wrong. What is the use of either of us judging the other?" That is not the mountain way of ending a discussion.
For the purposes of the tale, as well as for his own merits, we must praise this civilized man who entertained me a day and a half so well.
Professor Thomas and Jessie Cobb Harbison and their daughters Gertrude and Margaret, ca. 1905
Thomas Grant Harbison (1862-1936) walked with friend Elmer Magee from their home state of Pennsylvania all the way to Highlands in the spring of 1886. Since Thomas and Elmer shared a love of botany, Highlands was a natural destination. They had survived the hike with rations consisting of a bag of ground wheat and a tin of brown sugar.
Harbison was a largely self-taught scholar who assembled a sizable library at a young age and earned his college degrees through correspondence courses. The people of Highlands were so impressed with the intellect of the ragged hiker that they convinced him to serve as principal of the new Highlands Academy.
Later, George Vanderbilt hired Harbison to collect plants for the Biltmore herbarium. And for two decades while in Highlands, he was a field botanist for Harvard. He conducted plant experiments in conjunction with the Clemson faculty. He also helped to establish the herbarium for the University of North Carolina. And in recent years, his name has been connected with a rather controversial botanical conservation project (that is a story for another day).
In addition to all that, Harbison taught poor mountain children in the Highlands vicinity, and said of that time: ”Those were the happiest and most satisfactory years of my life.”
If you drive through Highlands today, you’ll see the historical marker honoring Professor Harbison.
Although Vachel Lindsay couldn’t fault the hospitality extended by the Harbison family, he was likely rather relieved to get back on the road.
I’ll explain why, later.
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