Sandlapper Society

Finding Refuge

Writer Dot Jackson and her friends celebrate mountain culture in Pickens County.

by Aïda Rogers | photos by Patrick Wright

It would be impossible to tear Dot Jackson away from the land. On a sunny April day, she sits at the edge of her raised garden bed, planting okra, squash and tomatoes. She sits because she cannot stand. The ravages of age and an adventurous youth have left only a ceaseless optimism. For her, there’s perfect contentment at her home near Table Rock. “It’s glorious,” she exults. “I guess I’m the luckiest person in the world.”

Despite her wobbly health, many would agree, especially those who’ve been captivated by her novel Refuge. That’s what she’s found for herself in this craggy nook of Pickens County. With her colleagues— also gifted writers— she’s formed the Birchwood Center for Arts and Folklife. Although the center isn’t ready for visitors— it needs about $190,000 and a few more years of repairs— its spirit is moving. People from across the Upstate are swarming to Birchwood events. Poetry readings, Americana music concerts, art shows, Halloween storytelling, political stump meetings, family history workshops— even hikes to find the elusive Oconee Bell— have made Birchwood symbolic of the authentic Appalachian lifestyle. Since 2003, members of the Birchwood board of directors have been presenting programs to celebrate what’s all around them.

“I have always preferred the vernacular,” Jackson says. She’s talking about something other than the “letter-perfect English” her schoolteacher mother spoke, which she and her fellow Birchwood board members speak, too. But the Appalachian dialect and ways she loves came through her father. You’ll find that dialect in Refuge, as well as her high regard for mountain people. In Refuge, her characters live off the land, gather with family and bask in community fun, namely fiddle music and dancing.

In that vein, Birchwood organized a program on Appalachian dance at the State Museum in Columbia. Lessons about canning produce are at the top of the “To Be Offered” list. But kitchen classes will wait until a kitchen can be built at the 200-year-old homestead being upfitted for the center. For now, programs are presented at Table Rock State Park, Southern Wesleyan University, and auditoriums and libraries in Pickens County.

“We are prejudiced in favor of cultural activities that feed people’s minds and spirits because they feed ours,” explains Tom Johnson, a Birchwood co-founder. Well-known in academic circles for his years as director of the South Caroliniana Library and professor of literature at the University of South Carolina, Johnson says the response to Birchwood activities has been “phenomenal.” Board members, not the co-founders, plan the programs.

“We’re not trying to superimpose an elitist agenda, but to promote a down-to-earth selection of activities.”

With Dot Jackson as on-site manager, and Refuge readers making pilgrimages to visit her, Birchwood can’t fail, Johnson believes. After all, that is country ham sizzling on the stove.
Dorothea Mauldin Jackson is the daughter of a highly educated mother and an orphaned father who finished seventh grade. Both grew up in South Carolina’s upstate and, when her mother’s marriage caused a family uproar, the couple escaped to Miami. “U-G-L-Y” is how Jackson describes the city where she grew up, being taken to operas and learning to play piano and clarinet. At the University of Miami, where she won a music scholarship, she studied to be an arranger of classical music. Early marriage and motherhood changed those plans. But it didn’t change her love for the Carolina mountains, of which her parents constantly spoke.

So it figures that in the trailer where she lives, country ham is frying in a cast-iron pan while biscuits rise on the next eye of the stove. Homemade jam waits on a rickety table set with Tupperware and paper plates. Breakfast is about to be served and nobody’s going to go hungry— for food, conversation or laughs.

Coffee is made in a percolator and it’s important to state that this is a trailer, not a mobile home. “Paradise,” the friends call it, but they spell it “Pair-a-dice,” as in the rearview mirror decoration. Indeed, a pair of dice once hung from the trailer’s kitchen light.

It’s humble, but Table Rock rises majestically out back. And to the side is the dream of a lifetime, the future Birchwood Center. It’s an unpainted two-story house, with a red tin roof and heart of pine floors. Its two chimneys and four fireplaces have been removed so the interior can be straightened, but every stone has been saved and will be put back, Jackson promises. Its derelict look doesn’t bother her; not too long ago it looked far worse. She knows what it can be, because she remembers when her good friend Augedine Masters lived there. Breezes blew through white sheer curtains, and flowers grew all around.

“It’s such a sturdy, strong, utilitarian shelter,” Jackson describes. “It’s like an old mother hen; it shelters whomever comes into it.” Five rooms can be studios, and the old ice house underneath will be used for “a can house, or wine and root cellar, for homegrown stuff and preserves.”

Once a farm with 330 acres, the house had been the first stagecoach inn at Table Rock. Birchwood owns three-and-a-half acres, and trustees plan to build separate cabins for retreats.
Jackson figures the Birchwood Center is about 30 percent complete and “in this economy, a lot further than it should be.” Grants have been promised and financial support has come from Pickens County and the South Carolina Arts Commission. The Humanities Council SC helped finance a Birchwood documentary, Eastatoee: The Valley Speaks, scheduled for release
this summer.

As Birchwood manager, Jackson doubles as watchdog. When the house was abandoned, it was vandalized for its hardware, window frames and siding. Teenagers left graffiti. But when the home was bought— with the pensions of Jackson, Johnson, and their two friends Starkey Flythe, the former Saturday Evening Post editor in North Augusta, and Gayle B. Edwards, a retired journalism teacher in Anderson— a rescue ensued. Although the quartet planned to buy a place to share in old age, they decided the Sutherland-Masters home was too important not to share with the public. And so Birchwood Inc., a non-profit organization, was born. Jackson, Johnson, Flythe and Edwards gather regularly to participate in Birchwood programs. Johnson and Flythe have stayed on schedule with their plans to write and publish, regardless of the Birchwood restoration schedule. Both have new books coming out this year.

As for Dot Jackson, if she never writes another novel, that’s fine with her. She’s already co-author, with Frye Gaillard, of The Catawba River, based on their work at The Charlotte Observer, where she covered environmental issues. Their story was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. That happened again at The Greenville News, where she was on a team investigating the pollution of Twelve Mile River in Pickens County. She was named National Conservation Writer of the Year in 1980 for reporting on the displacement of people for the Tellico Dam in Tennessee. With Mike Hembree she wrote Keowee: The Story of the Keowee River Valley in Upstate South Carolina. This year she was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors and the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame.

With the publication of Refuge, Jackson has completed the wishes of Ben Robertson, her famed war correspondent cousin. Killed during World War II, Robertson penned the beloved Red Hills and Cotton, a memoir about growing up in the Clemson area. But he died before he could write a respected work of fiction.

While working on difficult stories for the Observer, Jackson— who never met Robertson because he was a generation older— would visit his grave in a Liberty cemetery. She would talk to him, explain her problems.

That shouldn’t surprise those who’ve read Refuge. Although written in Jackson’s unpretentious voice, the book is threaded with mystical elements. Its two main characters, Mary Seneca Steele and Ben Aaron Steele, meet in dreams before they meet in person. As cousins catapulted into a doomed romance, “Sen” and Ben Aaron aren’t parted by unexpected death.

The scandal of an in-family love affair stems from a story Jackson heard growing up. She used it as the seed for Refuge, and wasn’t sorry it took 40 years, until those family members died, before it was published. The manuscript waited under her bed for 15 years before Clemson literature professor Louis Henry stored it in his refrigerator so mice wouldn’t get it. When it was published in 2006, the author was in her 70s. She’d started writing it in her late 20s. She didn’t re-read her work until right before it was published. “I was just astonished; where did this come from? I sure did not make it up, because I’m not capable of making up anything. I do not have a creative mind. I have a reportorial mind.”

Refuge won the Appalachian Studies Association’s 2007 Weatherford Award, as well as the Appalachian Writers’ Association prize, the Appalachian Book of the Year. “There can’t be any serious study coming out about the literature of Appalachia that won’t take this book into account,” Johnson says. “It’s a very emotional book, but it’s also a piece of intellectual, serious work.”

And there lies the uniqueness of the novel and its creator. Classical culture and homespun pragmatism converge. Dot Jackson reads The Opera News and The New Yorker, grows her own vegetables and cans them, too. If she weren’t writing, mentoring other writers and tending to Birchwood, she’d be farming. It’s all about being where you belong. For her, that’s Upstate South Carolina, where her family’s been since the 1780s. Her two living children live farther in the mountains, in North Carolina.

“When my middle child died, the one thing that made it bearable is we could put him down among his own,” she says of her son Tom, who took his life as a college senior. “It was not so much like losing him but connecting him to this line.”

Such continuity comforts. Years ago, Dot Jackson started a sequel to Refuge and, if she gets “a peaceful year,” she might finish it. Fans can be certain the children of her earlier characters will be living impassioned lives, just like their ancestors, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.

To learn more about Birchwood Center for Arts and Folklife, visit birchwoodcenter.org, or call 864.898.1418.

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Aïda Rogers, one of Sandlapper’s favorite writers, is based in Columbia.

This article is sponsored by The Pendleton District Historical, Recreational, and Tourism Commission.

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