“When I first came into the Smokies the whole region was one of superb primeval forest. My sylvan studio spread over mountain after mountain, seemingly without end, and it was always clean and fragrant, always vital, growing new shapes of beauty from day to day. The vast trees met overhead like cathedral roofs. I am not a very religious man, but often when standing alone before my Maker in this house not made with hands I bowed my head with reverence and thanked God for His gift of the greatest forest to one who loved it. Not long ago, I went to that same place again. It was wrecked, ruined, desecrated, turned into a thousand rubbish heaps, utterly vile and mean.”
— Horace Kephart
As people throughout the mountains and around the country mark the celebration of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 75th anniversary, Horace Kephart’s role in this park’s creation is once again being thrust into the limelight. While his depiction of “southern highlanders” in his famous book may still be open for debate, two things about Kephart are certain: he was, as the passage above shows, a superb writer; two, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park might not exist had it not been for his advocacy.
Kephart was an outlander, a man who came to the Smokies in his middle age and found people and a place that would consume him for the rest of his life. He cherished his time in the Smokies, and his skills as a chronicler of the ways of the rural mountaineer have earned him a lasting place in Appalachian history.
But it was how he used that fame that is most noteworthy. As he witnessed the sudden change wrought by large-scale logging upon mountain communities and mountain landscapes — again, see the passage above — he began to see the necessity of preserving what at one time had seemed an endless forest.
Kephart began writing articles and advocating to whomever would listen about the need to create a national park in the Smokies. The idea riled many of the mountaineers who had become his friend, for many at that time did not see the benefit of locking away land that had for generations been hunted, fished and used for its bounty to house and feed entire communities. There was also the unheard of controversy of creating a park — in essence, taking the land — of hundreds of families whose farms and homes were in the area being considered for the national park.
As we realize now, Kephart and others who fought relentlessly for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were visionaries. They carved a jewel out of the remaining mountain wilderness, creating what has become one of the most bio-diverse habitats left in North America and the entire planet.
Early park supporters also gave this region another important legacy — an economy based on tourism rather than taking from the land. Although the logging and timber industry are still important and still a vital part of the mountain heritage, the preserved forests and wilderness also have fed generations of mountain families. People come here to connect with the mountains, to get that same feeling Horace Kephart describes in the above passage.
As we mark the creation of this great park, it’s a proper time to pay homage to those like Kephart who made it possible. This would be a vastly different place had they not prevailed.