When Margaret Cox ’72 thought about her future as a child, it didn’t involve owning a strawberry farm. However, it would turn out that she would find her way back home and do just that.
Cox grew up in Grant, Ala., the oldest of six children. Despite coming from a large family, she said her parents never let their finances stand in the way of their aspirations. “We didn’t have much money, but our parents had all kinds of ambition for us.”
Cox attended Kate Duncan Smith, a unique high school funded by the Daughters of the American Revolution. She took a special interest in her science courses, where she excelled, catching the eye of her teacher, Kenneth Burns. Burns and his wife, being Berea graduates, recommended that Cox consider Berea, too. Burns helped her get an application and a college catalog, and, soon after, she was on her way to Berea.
In the fall of 1968, Cox arrived on the Berea College campus, elated to be on her next adventure. She found the distance from her family difficult at the age of 17, but it was quickly overshadowed by the excitement of the novel setting and new friends. She shared that it was a balanced experience of diversity and familiarity. “I had a great deal in common with my immediate friends,” Cox said, “but it was nice to be around people from different countries and states, too.”
Although still interested in the sciences, she was undecided about what to study. Cox found herself fascinated
by the courses offered in the English department. “I loved to read, I loved to write, and I loved anything literary. It just seemed like the perfect fit.”
While Cox made her way through the English program, she worked in a variety of labor positions on campus, including the development office in correspondence with donors, and perhaps most interestingly, in the Candy Kitchen. It opened on campus in 1931 and became wildly popular and well known even among wealthy New Yorkers and celebrities. Although it closed in 1970, Cox remembers it fondly. “We decorated tea sugars for tea time at hotels and bed and breakfasts, made wedding cakes and beaten biscuits. The biscuits were my favorite.”
Cox had originally pursued English with hopes of becoming a teacher, but after graduation, English teaching positions were slim pickings. “There were virtually no teaching positions available,” she said. While she was able to secure a short-term teaching job for a year, she knew she would have to alter the course of her career.
Cox ended up working for the Social Service Agency of Alabama, primarily serving disabled, elderly and youth communities. She helped elderly individuals navigate resources for financial aid and provided support for those in less-than-ideal environments. After working in the division for 28 years, she was promoted to supervisor of the office for the last decade of her career.
But the excitement was only beginning. After retiring, Cox met her husband, bought a small parcel of land in her hometown, temporarily moved to Arkansas while her husband finished out his career, and then moved back to Grant. There, she found that some of the other owners of adjoining properties had either passed away or were looking to sell. In what now seems like serendipity, Cox went ahead and bought the additional properties.
What to do next? “We decided that if we were going to buy the property, we needed to find a way to make it profitable,” she said.
Her husband had a vision for a strawberry patch, but Cox admits she was not onboard at first. “When he mentioned it, all I could see was buckets of strawberries sitting in the kitchen, and what in the world was I going to do with them?”
With some reluctance, she agreed to go forward with the idea, and following years of hard work and love, they are now owners of a very successful enterprise, Maggie Valley Berry Patch and Gardens. What began as a small berry patch with about 5,000 strawberry plants is now a full-fledged farm with 85,000 plants and a very loyal clientele. “People come in from about 50 or 60 miles away for the strawberries,” Cox said.
COVID-19 certainly posed a threat to the business of their farm, but through sanitization, social-distancing and mask-wearing, the farm continued to thrive. Cox shared that she and her husband are able to maintain connections with customers as they return year after year.
The Maggie Valley Berry Patch and Gardens, although famous for its delicious strawberries, also sells blue-
berries, pecans, jams, salad dressings and homemade ice cream. The farm provides an immersion experience, complete with antique farm relics and a pick-it-yourself option in the berry patches. “We try to make it a more fun experience than picking up a box of berries at Publix,” Cox said.
Grant, Ala., is located in a rural area, and Cox says she thinks the farm also serves as a learning opportunity for her Appalachian community. “There is a lack of education for healthful options for food,” she said. “We like to do tours
of the strawberry and blueberry patches for kids and walk them through the process.”
After 11 years of farming, Cox reflects on the impact her childhood and upbringing has had on her relationship with her business. “I chose to come back here because this is where my roots are. The core values of respect for family, respect for your country and respect for God were ingrained in me from the very beginning.”
Although Cox is now 70 years old, she doesn’t have plans of retiring anytime soon. “We aren’t ready for the rocking chair yet,” she said. “We enjoy serving our community.”