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Wednesday, 27 August 2014 14:25

Digging deeper into the Kephart-Calhoun relationship

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mtnvoicesThe meeting between Granville Calhoun and Horace Kephart (the quintessential highlander and outlander, respectively) is a noteworthy event in this region’s cultural history. Janet McCue and I are especially interested in events associated with that encounter for the Kephart biography we are writing. The ongoing exchanges in the pages of this newspaper have been more than informative.   

Granville’s father, Thomas Joshua Calhoun, moved the family from South Carolina to the Smokies region after the Civil War. By 1904, Granville was married to Lillie Hall. They built a store at Medlin, situated alongside Hazel Creek at the mouth of the Sugar Fork. In Strangers in High Places: The Story of the Great Smoky Mountains (1967) Michael Frome described Granville as “squire of Hazel Creek … a man with a sparkle in his eye and flood of mountain stories rolling from his lips … a famous hunter … and a credit to the mountain breed in every way.” 

The bare bones of Kephart’s story involving alcoholism, a broken family, a lost profession, and subsequent retreat to the Smokies are well rehearsed. 

He arrived by train in Western North Carolina in early August 1904. Shortly thereafter, he established a base camp on Dicks Creek about a mile west of Dillsboro. By October he had discovered the idealized “Back of Beyond” for which he had been searching. A copper mining company that had gone into litigation gave him permission to use one of its abandoned cabins at the Everett Mine near Medlin. Calhoun had been asked to meet Kephart at the train depot in Bushnell, 16 miles southeast of Medlin. 

I noted in an introduction to the 1976 reissue of Our Southern Highlanders by the University of Tennessee Press that aspects of Granville’s accounting of events “conflicts with available sources.” I had in mind, in particular, the assertion that Kephart remained in the Calhoun residence for three weeks. In a chapter devoted to Kephart in Strangers in High Places (1966), Michael Frome provides this account: 

“When they arrived at the house it was dark ... ‘You need a stimulant,’ said Granville, pouring a half glass of wild strawberry wine mixed with a little sugar. Now Smoky Mountain wine is reputed to awaken the dead and delight the angels; besides, Kephart’s nostrils were attuned to the smell of such medicine, and stronger. His hand shook reaching for the glass. ‘If it helps, I’ll bring you a little more ye a little more,’ said Granville encouragingly and hopefully. Kephart drowned the wine in three gulps and held out the glass. His eyed brightened; for the first time he seemed more alive than dead; then he fell away to sleep.

“In an hour Granville woke him with a glass of milk, but Kephart pointed a finger beyond the milk, silently pleading for more wine. ‘No you try this sweet milk,’ insisted Granville.

“So it went for three week. Granville spoon-feeding Kephart, first milk, then bread and butter and fish from the stream, while Kephart arose very slowly from his torpor and tremens, the long hangover, the flight away from himself and the world he knew before.”

In a version published in Carson Brewer’s Valley So Wild: A Folk History (1975), Granville recalled, 70 or so years later, that the strawberry wine was “a pale red wine and you could smell it all over the room when I took out the stopper.” 

That is not realistic description. It is the colorful and playful sort of language utilized by a gifted storyteller who knows how and when — to borrow a phrase Sylva storyteller Gary Carden sometimes uses — “to gild the lily.” Any index of motifs in American folklore will turn up a category devoted to stories relating how an outlander is saved or outwitted by the locals. 

In their Letter to the Editor of Aug. 20, 2014, Jim and Don Casada point out that “the category where exaggeration is most likely to occur with any story is that of measurement,” and they cite the accuracy of his route description. In this instance, however, the exaggeration occurs in regard to time.     

(Before moving on, however, I’ll get readers of this column to serve me up a big helping of crow, which I richly deserve for transposing Bushnell to the mouth of Hazel Creek from its actual location near the confluence of the Little Tennessee and Tuckaseigee rivers. Geography is important, and I messed that up.)                  

I do, as the Casadas infer, “place considerable reliance on the index to the lost Kephart diaries.”

And I also place considerable reliance on Kephart’s Photo Album, which they don’t mention. Both are available via the “Horace Kephart: Revealing an Enigma” digital web site maintained by the Special Collections department of Hunter Library at Western Carolina University: www.wcu.edu/library/DigitalCollections/Kephart.

Kephart kept a diary following his departure from his parent’s home in Dayton, Ohio. The two volumes are presumably “lost,” but being an inveterate library cataloger he created an ‘Index to Diary’ that has been preserved in Journal 1 of the 27 Kephart journals on deposit at WCU.   

The Casadas downplay the Index, maintaining that it is a “rough table of contents, and while Ellison cites the relevant dates of coverage as November 1 there are no actual dates with the notes.” That’s true, but in several instances captions of related photos in the album do confirm dates. 

In late October, Kephart broke camp on Dicks Creek and headed for Medlin. The event is noted in section 35 of the Index with the brief notation “Addio!” But in the “Camp on Dick’s Creek” section there is a photo of Kephart dismantling a lean-to captioned: “Addio! / Sunday, October 30, 1904.”   

There is no entry in the Index for Monday. Section 36 has the following notations: “Off for Medlin,” “Second Class Travel,” “Grade at Nantahala,” “Tramway,” “Delayed freight,” “Barefoot kid (chores, barefoot in snow),” Blacksmith (butteris),” “Trip to Medlin,” “Ginseng,” “Buzzards and hog cholera,” “Holly,” “mistletoe,” “ivy,” and “The Mail Rider.” 

[The steep grade in the Nantahala Gorge was infamous and Kephart would have known about it even if he had never been there. The “barefoot kid … in snow” theme reappears in Chapter XIII of Our Southern Highlanders. A butteris is a steel instrument used for paring the hooves of horses and mules.]

There is no indication of where he spent the night (probably at Medlin with the Calhouns), but the first two notations in section 37 of the Index read: “The Everett Mine” and “The Cabin.” Page 21 of the Photo Album provides photographs of or from the cabin. One is captioned “The Cabin in Autumn” and just above it is Kephart’s notation: “Lived here alone, Nov. 2, 1904, to Jan. 1906.” 

The opening sentence of volume 2 of Kephart’s Camping and Woodcaft (1917) reads: “From the autumn of 1904 until the winter of 1906 I lived, most of the time, alone in a little cabin on the Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains.”     

According to a page in Kephart’s journals captioned “Southern Appalachians — Seasonal Changes” five inches of snow had fallen by Nov. 13, when, according to Granville Calhoun, Kephart still had a week to go in his recovery from “the torpor and tremens.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .      

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