Archived Mountain Voices

A father’s influence

Horace Kephart (1862-1931) was the author of Our Southern Highlanders, Camp Cookery, Sporting Firearms, Camping and Woodcraft, Smoky Mountain Magic, and other books. He also played a well-documented role in the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most residents in and frequent visitors to the Smokies region know the basic story.

During 1903-1904, in a situation acerbated by alcoholism, he lost his position as a prestigious librarian in St. Louis and his wife and six children returned to her family in Ithaca, N.Y. He came to Western North Carolina seeking a “Back of Beyond” in which to heal himself, which he found from 1904-1907 in a cabin on the Little Fork of the Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek in the Smokies. From 1910 until 1931, when he died in an automobile wreck, he resided in Bryson City.

Those are the barest rudiments of the Horace Kephart story. This is the story of the little-known role his father, Isaiah L. Kephart, played in his son’s transition from St. Louis to the Smokies. It’s a role that can’t be overestimated.

Born on a farm in 1832 in Clearfield County, Penn. (west of State College and northwest of Harrisburg), Isaiah worked as a lumberman, teamster, raftsman, and river pilot before being licensed to preach in 1859 by the Allegheny Conference of the United Brethren in Christ. He was ordained in 1863. During the final year and a half of the Civil War, he served as chaplain for the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry, which lost 417 men killed or wounded and more than 200 captured. He participated in 19 engagements under fire, including the Second Battle of Cold Harbor and the Battle of Petersburg. Thereafter, he taught at colleges in Iowa, California, and Illinois. Although some sensed during the early portions of his career that Isaiah’s interests were perhaps too broad, that he was at times dilettantish, he was by this time firmly entrenched in Dayton as editor of the Religious Telescope and widely respected, even revered, in the family, church, and educational circles within which he moved.

The journey from St. Louis to Dayton required perhaps eight hours. Sitting with one another in a coach, the Kepharts would have experienced tense moments. Aside from their differences in regard to religious issues and Isaiah’s disgust with tobacco, the major source of tension between father and son would have been the use of alcohol. Isaiah had for years been a leader of the temperance movement in Ohio.

Nevertheless, Isaiah and Horace enjoyed one another’s company, especially when they could get together “for a tramp in the woods.” And they maintained mutual interests that allowed them to work through or set aside tensions as they arose. These interests were intertwined, involving matters of family history and lore that included a passionate nostalgia for almost anything having to do with the pioneer lifestyle — as evidenced in a poem Isaiah wrote dated ”September 1899”:

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Ah! oft in my thoughts do I wander

Away to the dear forest, home,

Far off in the pine-covered mountains,

Where the cabin stood silent and lone;

And I think, with a heartache pathetic,

Of the home circle, rustic and fair,

That there, ‘mid the wildest surroundings,

Dwelt cozy, contented, and poor.

‘T was a paradise, now as I see it ….

So in thought I go back to that cabin,

That clearing, that forest, that farm

Where father and mother and children

Dwelt contented—oblivious of harm.

And as memory retouches the picture,

And contrasts it with life of to-day—

With the hurry, the rush, and the clatter.

On the road thus far down life’s way.

My heart often yearns for the quiet.

The peace, the contentment, the joy

Of the life that I lived in that cabin

Back yonder when I was a boy.


Isaiah’s poem is chock full of sentiments regarding the degrading influence of urban “uproar” and “The peace, the contentment, the joy / Of life that I lived in that cabin / Back yonder.” Few readers of Our Southern Highlanders will have overlooked the connection between Isaiah’s dreamed of cabin “Back Yonder” in the Alleghenies and his son’s cabin-to-be in the heart of the Smokies.

In Isaiah Kephart’s biography published in 1909, a photo captioned “Elder Kephart’s home in Dayton, 916 N. Main Street” provides an image of a large double-storied frame house with an L-shaped front porch. The residence of Horace’s father and mother looks quiet and inviting, a better place than most from which to plot a new start. While trying to sort things out — to see what he might make of a life now in such disarray — Kephart had already decided upon a literary career of some sort. With his father’s counsel, he intuited that living in a setting similar to the one experienced by Isaiah and their pioneer ancestors (while writing about such a place and its people, if he could find it) might become part of a healing process. As if to get their bearings, father and son journeyed to the “Old Goss” cemetery “on the hill one mile east of Osceola Springs, Pennsylvania,” where many of Horace’s ancestors on his mother’s side are buried. (These descriptions are based on a series of “snapshots” Horace made with penciled inscriptions on their backs.) Horace carefully photographed the site and recorded the inscriptions on each headstone. Of note is the fact, not previously known, that Isaiah had accompanied his son on this venture. The inscription on the back of “the old Center school-house” snapshot indicates that the building’s logs “were hewed by Rev. Henry Kephart [Isaiah’s father] in 1847, 8 or 9, and in which in the winter of 1855-56 one Bishop, two preachers, two physicians, one lawyer, one editor, and eleven Union Soldiers of the Civil War (then in their boyhood) all attended school. The Snap-shot was taken  ...  by Horace Kephart, son of editor I.L. Kephart (who stands in the fore-ground) and grand-son of the said Rev. Henry Kephart.”

This mid-July 1904 outing to ancestral sites in central Pennsylvania took place not more than two weeks before Horace left Dayton headed south, looking for a place in the Smokies where life was still being conducted, he supposed, as it had been in the Alleghenies. By November, three months after establishing a base camp 45 miles west of Asheville, he had relocated to a cabin deep in the Smokies, where to a certain extent he could “realize the past in the present.” The following July, the 72-year-old Isaiah arrived on the scene — making what amounted to an inspection tour on horseback of the pioneer facilities in the Hazel Creek area and along the high state line between North Carolina and Tennessee, which Horace documented with photographs.

It appears that Isaiah not only played a more active role in his son’s overall plans than previously supposed, but that he was, in fact, a co-conspirator in the search for a “Back of Beyond.”

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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