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Judging Kephart: Legacy of author, outdoorsman still debated

George Ellison never knows when a Horace Kephart pilgrim will come calling. But invariably, they will come — creaking up the wooden stairs that have smooth depressions worn into the treads from years of use — to Ellison’s second floor office where his writing desk overlooks Main Street in Bryson City.

Crude bookshelves tower around him, boards of various sizes straddling cinder blocks, packed cheek to jowl with an extensive library of nearly every book in print and out on the Southern Appalachians. The finish, if there ever was one, has long since worn off the wooden floor boards, and his writing chair is nearly threadbare.

Just around the corner 100 years ago, Kephart would have been found in a similar upstairs office, hunkered over a writing desk, penning passages on the wilderness and backwoods people who carved a hardscrabble living out of the mountains, and in his later years, tirelessly cranking out advocacy pieces calling for the creation of a national park in the Smokies.

Ellison himself first came to Bryson City more than 30 years ago on a quest of his own to learn about Kephart. Ellison was commissioned to write the introduction for a republishing of Kephart’s famed Our Southern Highlanders.

Little was known about Kephart then. What moved him to come to the Smokies and embark on a life in the wilderness among the mountaineers was a mystery. And much of his life still remains an enigma despite the best research by Ellison and other Kephart scholars.

After arriving in the mountains from St. Louis in 1904, Kephart took up residence in an old blacksmith cabin at an abandoned copper mine in Bone Valley, a sparse settlement high above Hazel Creek in what is now part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Kephart not only immersed himself in the rugged mountain landscape, but in the unique breed of people he coined “mountaineers.”

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“I became more absorbed in the study of my human associates in the backwoods. They were like figures from the old frontier histories that I had been so fond of, only they were living flesh and blood instead of mere characters in a book ... They interested me more than the ultra-civilized folk of cities,” Kephart wrote.

These were a “people apart” living in the “back of beyond,” according to Kephart, and he strove to become one of them.

“He knew how to immerse himself. When he went into a room, he didn’t try to assert himself. He asked for recipes or told a joke,” Ellison said. “He had time. He lived with them. If they didn’t say what he needed that time, well maybe they would next week.”


Over-reaching or spot on?

Kephart’s critics claim he painted the region with a broad brush in his acclaimed Our Southern Highlanders. While the characters in Kephart’s tales may have existed true to form, what about the mountain equivalency of landed gentry, living in painted clapboard houses with front porch columns, who wore starched white collars on Sunday and set their tables with china, and who sent their children off to college?

Instead Kephart’s characters were those living in steep hollows in poorly chinked cabins, wearing tattered overalls and threadbare socks, and relying on moonshine as their sole source of cash.

“He decided to take the qualities that many people would find offensive — pride, independence, suspicion of outsiders, clannish behavior, a propensity for violence, feuds — and romanticized them and made those qualities admirable,” said Gary Carden, a writer and Kephart scholar who lives in Sylva. “He compares them to clans of outlaws in the highlands of Scotland and Ireland. He was looking for the brigands and outlaws.”

While portrayed as poor and uneducated, Kephart’s backwoods characters typically triumph over their more educated counterparts. They show wit and cunning, strength and ingenuity in the face of adversity, and a wry sense of humor. They overcame a harsh environment to survive where others couldn’t.

Duane Oliver, a descendent of the very first settlers on Hazel Creek where Kephart took up residence, doesn’t fault the portrayals.

“He was a superb writer and historian,” said Oliver, 77. “He really loved these people and felt for them living on the backside of nowhere.”

Oliver hardly fits the stereotype promulgated by Kephart. His father was alternately an accountant, storekeeper and postmaster around Kephart’s old stomping grounds. Despite his early years in a one-room school house, Oliver studied in Europe and mastered in Greek and Roman art.

Oliver said Kephart’s writing wasn’t intended as a documentary on mountain culture.

“When you go to a place you find the colorful people to write about. The problem is when you read his book you think those are the only people who lived there, that everyone was ignorant and made moonshine,” Oliver said. “What my mother always said about him was he just wrote about the drunks.”

The people he chose to describe, however, he did so accurately.

“They were true to form,” Oliver said.

The problem, however, is that the outside world believed Kephart’s broad brush applied to all mountain people.

“The characters that emerge from Our Southern Highlanders are not representative of mountain life and folkways as a whole,” said Jim Casada, a popular outdoor writer who hails from Bryson City and is yet another Kephart scholar. “I think he fell into the trap of writing to sell.”

It’s no secret Kephart spiced up his writing. Ten years after Our Southern Highlanders was first published in 1913, Kephart added several chapters at the behest of a publisher: one on feuds, one on a bear hunt and three on moonshining. After all, it was the era of Prohibition, and the nation was fixated on alcohol.

“They said ‘Now you’ve got it Horace. We can sell this,’” Carden said.


A master observer

There’s one point on which Kephart critics and admirers agree: Kephart deserves accolades for his study of mountain dialect.

“He had a great appreciation for mountain talk,” Ellison said. “He had a wonderful ear.”

Kephart filled reams of pages in his journals with examples of the unique local vernacular. When it came time to write Our Southern Highlanders, Kephart produced rich and lively dialogue thanks to his years of careful notes. He clearly admired mountain talk and countered the notion that it was somehow less sophisticated. He in fact argued that it was more sophisticated. For example, Kephart recorded nine different phrases used by the same man when Kephart greeted him. His casual reply when Kephart asked what he was up to was alternately conveyed as “santerin’ about, brougin’ about, spuddin’ around, shacklin’ around, loaferin’ about, cooterin’ around, prodjectin’ around and traffickin’ about.”

“And yet one hears that our mountaineers have a limited vocabulary,” Kephart wrote.

Even Carden admits Kephart’s skills as an anthropologist were excellent.

“His assessment of people was rational and scientific. He treated them as a species to be studied,” Carden said.

Kephart’s depiction of mountaineers offered invaluable insight for government surveyors and appraisers orchestrating the massive upheaval of people to make way for the park.

“They were very well-versed in Kephart. They all had a copy of the book,” Carden said.

Even in the 1940s, when the creation of Fontana Lake would again force the exile of people from their homes, farms, churches and schools, Tennessee Valley Authority employees gleaned insight from Kephart’s pages before they embarked.

“They were cautioned they had to work with the local people, Appalachian people, and that they were a different people,” Carden said. “They were all given a copy of Kephart so they would understand who they were dealing with.”


Local color goldmine

When Our Southern Highlanders published, locals could have been offended by Kephart’s characterizations and cast him aside. But they didn’t know to do so, Carden said.

“The number of local people who read the book was so paltry,” Carden said. “Kephart had a distinct advantage. He knew they wouldn’t read it. They weren’t going to write a retort. They couldn’t contradict the portrait because they didn’t know it existed. He had a free hand. He could take liberties, and he admitted that.”

His audience was the literate elite of the time, “wealthy people like the Rockefellers who shared his concern that the wilderness was vanishing,” Carden said.

There was an en vogue school of writing in the early 20th century known as “local-color” writing. Authors played to regional eccentricities, peppering their books with real people and anecdotes that played up differences in attitude and speech. If his intention was to capitalize on that literary era, Kephart had stumbled into a goldmine.

Fitting in at first couldn’t have been easy, however. Ellison believes Kephart ultimately proved himself useful to his remote neighbors.

In a place with no doctors, Kephart knew enough first aid to set a broken arm or treat a goiter. He could write letters and address envelopes for those who couldn’t read. If Kephart was on a walk and encountered someone fixing a tub mill, he would stop to help, Ellison said.

Kephart was an excellent cook, indoors and out. He earned a place on many a bear hunt and fishing trip by the graces of his outstanding culinary skills over a campfire. Kephart’s book on backcountry cooking, Camp Cookery, was one of his most popular.

A profound expertise of firearms also got him a long way.

“He was a noted authority on guns and even had at least one patent on a bullet design,” Casada said, calling him “a true pioneer in ballistics.”

And he was, of course, an expert on outdoor living. Kephart’s book Camping and Woodcraft has been in continuous print for nearly a century, remaining the most popular outdoor how-to book ever written. Casada, who has a Ph.D. in history, wrote a lengthy introduction that appears in today’s editions of Camping and Woodcraft.

Casada believes Kephart learned by trial and error, partly from his youth in the rural West and his weekend escapes outside St. Louis as an adult. Casada thinks Kephart was an introvert, and therefore took to the woods as escape.

“He loved being in a backcountry camp around the old-time hunters and fishermen, but he also savored solitude. A lot of his time was spent in one-man camps in the ‘back of beyond’ as he put it,” Casada said.


‘A losing battle’

Critics of Kephart usually derail him for being an outsider — or outlander, as Kephart himself would say.

“There is a great distinction between being in the mountains versus of the mountains,” said Casada.

Casada has been chastised and threatened by Kephart’s descendents, demanding he cease his negative portrayal of Kephart. But he won’t.

“I am not an iconoclast, but I am not willing to ignore the past,” said Casada. “It is not that I am a great foe of his. I greatly admire him and empathize with him. I also find decidedly repugnant parts of his character.”

Chiefly, Casada finds fault in Kephart’s alcoholism and the fact he left a wife and six children behind in St. Louis when he moved to the Smokies in 1904. While Casada extolled Kephart’s outdoor skills in his introduction to Camping and Woodcraft, and later nominated Kephart to the American Camping Hall of Fame, Casada said he cannot forgive Kephart for abandoning his wife and children.

While Kephart’s flaws are more widely known today than even a decade ago, Casada believes Kephart’s elevation as a folk hero will win out.

“We are fighting a losing battle to reflect what the man truly was, someone of wonderful abilities but also with great shortcomings,” Casada said.

Casada and Carden can’t seem to shake Kephart from the pedestal he’s been placed on. This year Bryson City is throwing its first annual Horace Kephart Day. Casada offered several times to be a speaker for the event but was ignored. Carden was unable to garner a spot on the program either.

“A tremendous number of mountain people speak reverently of Kephart, almost as though he was a prophet,” Carden said.

Meanwhile, the North Carolina General Assembly embedded glowing praise for Kephart in a resolution honoring the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

But others still harbor a deep resentment, not only for doing mountain people an injustice in his portrayals but for his hand in creating the park.

“Every time I had my hair cut in Bryson City I would say ‘Tell me about Kephart,’ and the barber would cuss the whole time he was cutting my hair,” Carden said. “I discovered that a lot of local people had a grudge against Kephart. They held him responsible for the fact that their grandparents had lost their land, that they had to move out for the park.”

Indeed, that’s what Commodore Casada, now 99, thought to himself whenever he saw Kephart walking down the street.

“There goes that feller that’s for the park,” Commodore remembers thinking. He was a public character in town, so nearly everyone recognized him, although he walked around with his head down, seemingly sullen most of the time,” said Commodore, the father of Jim Casada.


The grips of alcohol

Kephart’s tendency to over-imbibe was well-known in Bryson City, according to Jim Casada, who gleaned first-hand accounts over the years from those who knew Kephart, particularly the owners of the boarding house where he lived in town for years.

“Every time he got a letter from his wife you could count on him going on a weeklong drunk. He wasn’t troublesome. He would go in his room, stay in his room and get drunk,” Casada said.

Everyone assumed his wife’s letters were importuning him for money, given the passel of kids she was raising on her own, Casada said.

Whether or not Kephart sent money, we’ll never know, Casada said. It’s likely Kephart didn’t have much to spare, despite being a regular contributor to numerous outdoor magazines. Kelly Bennett, the owner of a downtown drugstore and park proponent, bought Kephart a suit for a trip to Washington, D.C., to speak on behalf of creating the park.

Kephart once wrote he had little use for money “beyond what is needed for books and guns and fishing tackle.” Disdain for a lifestyle that revolved around money was a recurring theme for Kephart. “People seem to get no satisfaction out of anything but chasing after dollars without let-up from year to year,” Kephart wrote in his ever-popular book Camping and Woodcraft.

Why Kephart left his life in St. Louis and sought out the Smokies will always be a mystery.

“You can’t put someone on the couch 100 years later and psychoanalyze him, but something happened in St. Louis, perhaps a concatenation of traumatic events, and he never got over it,” Casada said.

Kephart had garnered national fame as head librarian of the St. Louis Mercantile Library for more than a decade, but his growing penchant for extended camping trips, and possibly his drinking habits, led him to lose the job.

Around the same time, he had a falling out with his wife. There are minor hints of infidelity on his wife’s part, but they are far from conclusive.

At the same time, it seems city life had become oppressive.

“He said he was running from what he called ‘the maddening cities of babble,’” Carden said.

The mid-life crisis even included a “half-hearted attempt” at suicide, according to Ellison, who attempted to piece the story together. Ellison would find a line from a letter here, a newspaper account there. There were just enough morsels to postulate a theory, but not enough to know definitively — the perfect combination for yet another rollicking debate among Kephart scholars.

Kephart wrote a short autobiography in the 1920s, but it offered little insight into the traumatic personal events that precipitated his flight to the Smokies. Kephart wrote simply: “my health broke down,” and on another occasion called it “nervous exhaustion.”

Kephart wrote he was “looking for a big primitive forest where I could build up strength anew and indulge my lifelong fondness for hunting, fishing and exploring new ground.”

Ellison believes Kephart thought back to a pure time in his life, his childhood in rural Iowa.

“He got it in his head that if he could find a place where life was being lived as it had when he was growing up, he could go there and put his life together,” Ellison said. “He probably did find one of the few places in the early 20th century that met the requirement that he was looking for. I think it was probably dumb blind luck that he found the place he needed.”


True intentions

Whether Kephart set out to exploit the backwoods people of the Smokies for characters in a book will never be clear. Was his motive merely to start a new life, or find a place to launch his writing career?

Ellison believes Kephart always wanted to be a writer. In fact, he had been writing for magazines for a decade prior to his move to the Smokies. Kephart offers his own account of his motives in the following passage in Our Southern Highlanders:

“When I went south into the mountains I was seeking a Back of Beyond. This for more reasons than one. With an inborn taste for the wild and romantic, I yearned for a strange land and a people that had the charm of originality. Again, I had a passion for early American history; and, in Far Appalachia, it seemed that I might realize the past in the present, seeing with my own eyes what life must have been to my pioneer ancestors of a century or two ago. Besides, I wanted to enjoy a free life in the open air, the thrill of exploring new ground, the joys of the chase, and the man’s game of matching my woodcraft against the force of nature.”

But Carden wonders whether Kephart concocted the image of himself as an explorer as a clever bit of revisionist history. It made a better story for the public, not to mention a book publisher.

“I began to feel early on that he hadn’t come to be like Thoreau and back nature into a corner and reduce it to its lowest means,” Carden said. “Kephart said he had picked this place on a map as being one of the most remote sections of the United States and had come here to live. But I got the distinct feeling he came here to die.”

Carden points to the first-hand account of Granville Calhoun, the “squire of Hazel Creek,” who initially put Kephart up in an extra room in his house.

When Kephart disembarked from the train at Hazel Creek, Calhoun claims he not only couldn’t walk but kept falling off the mule. Calhoun and his wife nursed Kephart back to health. Kephart’s symptoms as described by Calhoun sound vaguely like severe withdrawal for a serious alcoholic, and the subsequent recovery like a period of detox.

Accounts claim that Kephart stayed sober for his three years on Hazel Creek, and didn’t return to the booze until taking up residence in town.

Perhaps Kephart knew, and perhaps he got lucky, that the Smokies would have a nearly instant and profound affect on him, both physically and spiritually.

“What ever happened to him saved his life,” Carden said. “He stopped drinking and got healthy, started hiking and was excited and enthusiastic about everything he saw. This place virtually saved his life.”

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