Dromgoole — a Rutherford Original
As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, December 20 and 27, 2009
By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society
There are two short Dromgoole pieces for Christmas; there were at least two Dromgoole Societies; the Murfreesboro city hall once had a Dromgoole; and in a Nashville convent there are fragments of a Dromgoole library. So, what's a Dromgoole?
As the nation headed into civil war, Murfreesboro mayor John Easter Dromgoole and his wife Blanche had their sixth child. With five daughters, the parents-to-be were confident that a son was coming and settled on a name accordingly. When the sixth daughter arrived, the name stayed-William Dromgoole. (As a child, she adopted "Allen" as a middle name and was called "Will Allen.") Raised as a "tom boy," she hunted and fished with her father, and developed a love and respect for the hills and forests of Middle Tennessee and its people.
Will Allen Dromgoole grew up in Murfreesboro, spending summers in the mountains to the south. She graduated from the Clarksville Female Academy, and in 1876 attended the New England School of Expression in Boston.
Mayor John Dromgoole earned admiration among his fellow Southerners by refusing to surrender his town to the advancing Yankees, but following the capture and occupation of Murfreesboro lost most of his fortune. After the death of his wife in 1884, he relied on his youngest daughter for both emotional and financial support. They studied law together, and moved to the family home near Estill Springs where they lived until his death.
Will Allen was small in stature (4'10") and plain of face, but strong-willed and resourceful. Although as a woman she was barred from legal practice in Tennessee, she gained appointment as the assistant engrossing clerk for the state House of Representatives in 1883, and was elected engrossing clerk for the state Senate in 1885. She was reelected to that post in 1887, but voted out in 1889.
During her legislative service, she began writing and publishing poems, short stories and novels about people and places in Middle Tennessee. In her career, she published 13 books, 7500 poems, and 5000 short stories and essays, making her probably the most prolific of Tennessee writers.
Her major works were produced during the literary "Age of Dialect" (1886-1904) when reading was the national pastime and authors emphasized the different dialects of the many American ethnic groups. According to literary critics of the era, Dromgoole won a popular following for her skill with three distinct dialects of the period:
"To one who knows the Middle Tennessee 'colored folks' her negro dialect seems irreproachable. It is particularly delightful to read for the reason that she does not overdo it, but produces the natural speech of the negro of this section. Her writings in the dialect of the East Tennessee mountaineer and the 'po' white folks' of Middle Tennessee are equally as true to the vernacular of these native Tennesseans of the uneducated classes."
It appears, however, that she lost her job with the state Senate because of her skill with the "vernacular." A news account dated September 20, 1889, states: "Miss Will Allen Dromgoole...is a literary lady who has cut her official throat with her little pen. Some of her recent magazine sketches of life in the Tennessee Mountains carried a sting to the denizens of that section, and when Miss Dromgoole recently sought election to a Senate clerkship, a big, rough-bearded Solon from an up county arose and roared out: 'She wrote agin the mount'ns!...and I'm agin her!' The Senate sat petrified and Miss Dromgoole incautiously giggled. It sealed her fate. Another hill-country legislator was hoisted to his feet by his indignant colleagues to second the objection. He did it tersely and effectually. 'She 'lowed the wimmen folks went barfoot an' ther men talked a diurlec. I'm agin anybody as is agin the mountains.' The issue was joined ... and Miss Dromgoole was beaten."
In 1904 Dromgoole went to work for the Nashville Banner. For 30 years she edited the popular "Song and Story" page for the newspaper, publishing many of her own songs and essays. Her newspaper career was interrupted in 1917, however, when she volunteered for the U. S. Navy at the age of 57 and served in World War I as a base clerk with the rank of Chief Yeoman. (Some sources believe her to be the first woman in the Navy. She is probably the oldest female to have ever enlisted.) Her duties included making patriotic speeches and recruiting, and she continued writing for the Banner on her wartime experiences.
Like other authors of her period, Dromgoole frequently included moral themes in her work, such as charity, religious faith, and the duty of the individual to make the way easier for those who follow. Two of her short stories present Christmas themes of charity and faith, and showcase her use of dialect. One is a Charles Dickens style story of a Christmas "conversion." The other depicts a Christmas "experience meeting" at a country church.
In "Christmas Eve at the Corner Grocery," published in 1892, the setting is "the little grocery on the corner of East Main Street and Maney Avenue in Murfreesboro." (Although the characters in the story are fictitious, it was the author's style to base her characters on real observations and personalities. According to one source, the identified store location was owned by Thomas Moore King, Sr.)
Reversing the roles in the Dickens' tale, the business owner is the Christmas celebrant and his clerk/bookkeeper is the character who resents the traditions and merriment of the Christmas season. Declining the opportunity to close and go home to his "Christmas supper" (meager fare with a motherless and crippled child), the clerk leaves the child with a sitter and keeps the store open while he attempts to complete the bookkeeping.
At the outset, the resentful clerk favors his own account at his employer's expense. As the evening progresses, however, various "visitations" begin to work a change as he sees among the customers those less fortunate than himself: the fallen aristocrat, the mother of four who had just buried her fifth, the colored woman who must cook for others all Christmas day trying in the last hour to buy presents with a few coins which for her amounted to a month's wages, the newsboys bargaining for firecrackers, a drunk beggar, two cold and homeless children, and the abused wife carrying an infant-each with a need and a story that shamed the heart of the selfish and resentful clerk.
Presenting each character with a distinctive dialect, the author portrayed a charitable change in the clerk who begins charging his own personal account for those items that the less fortunate customers need but cannot afford. Eventually he is reminded by his own child of the verse: "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye did it unto me." In a concluding dream scenario the unbalanced ledger is taken from him by a needy throng and when returned shows that his own life's ledger sheet has been balanced.
She also wrote almost exclusively about the places and circumstances she knew firsthand from her travels or her home environment. Familiar characters were drawn from her Murfreesboro childhood and from her life among the “hill folk” in surrounding counties.
One unique Tennessee ethnic group, the Melungeons, piqued her curiosity in the late 1880s. Some have speculated that Dromgoole may have had a family connection with the Melungeons, who trace their ancestry to Portuguese adventurers who were among the earliest European settlers in Middle Tennessee. To learn more about these people, Dromgoole traveled to the Newman Ridge region of Hancock County and lived with a Melungeon family for several months.
When Dromgoole published a series of articles on the Melungeons in the 1890s, she was severely criticized for the “bad things” she wrote. Current historians, however, find that her depiction of the lifestyle and unique origins of this particular ethnic group provides “much valuable information that cannot be found elsewhere.”
detractors, Dromgoole’s writings were quite popular during her
lifetime and a number of literary societies focused on her work. The
“ladies only” Dromgoole Literary Society at the State Teachers
College (now MTSU) in the mid-1920s was one of the largest student
organizations on campus with more than 100 members. The club fielded
debate and essay teams for intercollegiate competition. There was
also a Dromgoole Literary Society at the Estill Springs Grammar
in the path I have come,” he said,