Literature survived loss for a great mountain writer
by Rob Neufeld
The woman was the celebrated playwright, poet, and novelist Olive Tilford Dargan. The bag contained gifts she gave out to local kids. The muttering was poems she recited in the act of composition.
Perhaps one of the poems she was turning in her head was “Annie’s Garden,” which appeared in “The Spotted Hawk” years later. It expressed the solace Dargan had taken in her West Asheville refuge, Bluebonnet Lodge (located at the end of Balsam Avenue, since razed) before having to leave it for a while because of dark clouds of suspicion.
The rain it raineth every day
From skies of wrath and rue,
But I’ve a garden where I play
Whatever skies may do.
While living in West Asheville, Dargan had published the novel “Call Home the Heart,” and its sequel, “A Stone Came Rolling,” in which the author had followed her beloved mountain characters to the mills in Gastonia, wrote about it, and gotten labeled a proletarian writer.
She used a pseudonym, Fielding Burke, but a New York reviewer blabbed her identity.
The folks in Almond saw Dargan as a person, and not as a public figure. They loved her short stories about them, published first as “Highland Annals” and republished with Bayard Wootten photos as “From my Highest Hill.”
“Nobody knew anything about it and no one cared,” Almond resident Sylvia Latshaw recollected about Dargan’s blacklisting. “We weren’t even reading the daily papers. We don’t get them out there. And we didn’t have time to read them if we did. There she (Dargan) stayed until the hue and cry died down.”
Eventually, Dargan returned to Bluebonnet Lodge. She lived there for thirty more years, dying in 1968 at age ninety-nine.
In 1944, Dargan sold her Almond land, and loggers stripped it of trees. At the same time, the Tennessee Valley Authority was flooding much of low-lying Almond to construct Fontana Dam.
At age 87, Dargan published two more books, including the award-winning volume, “The Spotted Hawk.”
In her last years, Dargan sold a couple her Bluebonnet House with the stipulation that she could continue to live on the top floor. Though she willed her papers and library to the University of Kentucky at Lexington, her native home, her death was followed by the accidental disposal of her material.
Dargan is buried in Green Hills Cemetery in West Asheville. A state highway historical marker was erected in front of the West Asheville Library in 2000.
Her legacy is her published work. One poem in “The Spotted Hawk,” titled, “Vain Rescue,” imagines her death amid woodland wonders:
But rising now no inner fires outflow,
No gleam around me save a pale moon’s haze.
I know a wood of beech and birch and snow
That waits my step. And come the June-warm days,
Where two brooks wed I’ll find a lulling seat,
And stir white pebbles with my slow, bare feet.
A thirty-page account of Dargan’s life and career by Neufeld appeared in “May We All Remember Well, Vol. II,” with twenty photographs.
Olive Tilford Dargan’s grave in Green Hills Cemetery
Rob --As a native of Swain County, I've always been fascinated by Olive Tilford Dargan. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this unusual woman--local folks described her, accurately, as "quair"--was the manner in which she managed to become close with folks living in the Round Top area. Her political and social views were in many ways about as far removed from those of the local folks as one could imagine, yet she got on quite well with her neighbors. I've got a world of Dargan lore stored away in my feeble mind and have writte about her a bit, but sharing one anecdote will give a good indication of her scatterbrained nature. It was passed on to me by my good fishing buddy, Marty Maxwell, who is also a fine source of Graham County history and lore as well as an authority on Horace Kephart. His mother grew up at Almond and knew Dargan quite well.
One morning Dargan stopped by the house where Maxwell's mother lived (this was when she was a child and long before she married) and asked if the young girl wanted to go to town (Bryson City) with her. Amazingly, she was adamant about not wanting to go, never mind that a trip to town was usually considered a great treat. Finally her mother took her in another room and asked her what in the world was wrong with her. "Momma," the young girl said, "I don't want to go with her because she has her dress on backwards." Such was indeed the case.
On a different note, Rob, thanks for sharing my tribute to Dad. His 101 years were full and for the most part joyful ones, and except for the first five of them (he was born in Clay County) and two short spates of work away from the mountains before he married, he spent all of them in Swain County. That included a boyhood growing up truly "back of beyond" in what is now the Park.