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The story behind the man: First-ever Horace Kephart biography explores a complex man and momentous life

The story behind the man: First-ever Horace Kephart biography explores a complex man and momentous life

Horace Kephart has been dead for 88 years, but his name and his story still pull an undercurrent through Western North Carolina. 

Kephart is acclaimed as the father of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an outdoorsman gifted with an adventurous soul, and the author of such staples of regional literature as Our Southern Highlanders and Camping and Woodcraft. He’s derided, too, as a man with a severe drinking problem, a shirker of family responsibility and an outsider who profited off of sometimes less-than-flattering depictions of the locals. 

Love him or hate him, the pull of that story is undeniably foundational to what the Great Smokies region has become today. But it wasn’t until his 42nd year on earth that Kephart first visited the Smokies, after his former life in St. Louis fell apart and very nearly ended — until the mountains saved him. 

 “He got the release that he wanted, but it didn’t come in quite the way he had envisioned,” said George Ellison, a Bryson City-based writer and co-author of the newly released book Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography.

 

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Kephart and an unidentified man dress in traditional attire for the Eagle Dance. Horace Kephart Family Collection/GSMA photo

 

Writing Kephart

Ellison, 77, is no stranger to the Kephart story. In fact, it’s the Kephart story that brought him to Western North Carolina in the first place. 

In the 1970s, Ellison was an English professor at Mississippi State University in the midst of researching a piece about Kephart that would eventually be published as the introduction to the 1976 edition of Our Southern Highlanders. In the course of his research, he traveled to WNC in 1973 to get a firsthand look at the place Kephart had called home for nearly three decades. Within months, he and his wife Elizabeth decided to move there themselves. It would be a much-needed change of pace, they thought, a chance for Ellison to refocus his career on nonacademic writing and Elizabeth to put her energies into painting. 

Kephart has remained in the background — or the foreground, even — of Ellison’s life ever since. 

The studio where he writes and Elizabeth paints is a second-floor unit that overlooks Bryson City’s Main Street, in a building that’s right beside the property where the Cooper House — Kephart’s home from 1910 onward — once stood. 

“I think that probably was the happiest period of his life,” mused Ellison, sitting before the studio window below which flowed the weekday comings and goings of modern-day Bryson City. 

It’s an assessment that’s come at the conclusion of five years spent researching the life of a man who was at once a public figure and an intensely private individual. Ellison tackled the task together with Back of Beyond co-author Janet McCue, 69, working to synthesize the resulting mounds of research into a 460-page book that is the first full biography of Kephart ever written. The book is edited by Frances Figart, interpretive products and services director for the Great Smoky Mountains Association, which published the book. 

“He certainly is a man of contradictions,” said McCue. “He is sometimes portrayed as this lonely figure, but he had this wonderful circle of friends who were amazingly supportive of him. He was often indebted yet he was incredibly generous with his friends when he had money. I think that those sorts of contradictions make him an interesting person to try to research.”

Released this spring, the book comes with endorsements from multiple best-selling regional authors. Serena author Ron Rash said that it is “so well written and informative that one reads it with the pleasure of a riveting novel and an admiration reserved for the finest scholarship,” and Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier called it “a great contribution to the history and culture of the Southern Appalachians.”

While Kephart was a prolific writer, he often kept silent when it came to his personal life. Before Back of Beyond, the only real biographies of Kephart were Ellison’s introduction to Our Southern Highlanders and Jim Casada’s introduction to another Kephart book, Camping and Woodcraft. Neither were full-length treatments of the man’s life. 

“What I think our book does is pull together all the information that’s in scattered sources, some of it in his own writing, some of it in archives, some of it in published pieces, and make that into a coherent story about a very interesting man who played a pivotal role in establishing an exquisite park,” said McCue. 

In addition to Kephart’s own work and contemporary newspaper articles, the biography relies heavily on personal letters from Kephart, his friends and family. The information is scattered in geography as well as in form — McCue’s travels while researching the book included St. Louis, Missouri; Brown University, in Rhode Island; and Cornell University and the Rockefeller Archive Center, both in New York. Both McCue and Ellison looked at the archives found at Western Carolina University and in Asheville’s Pack Memorial Library.

It was a collaborative partnership — McCue took on much of the traveling and brought her research skills as a retired librarian to bear on the project. Ellison, meanwhile, contributed his deep understanding of the Great Smokies region and its people. And they both worked on the writing. 

Several readers “steeped in Kephart history” read the manuscript for factual errors, said Figart, while she read and edited each chapter to create one consistent narrative draft. Two separate proofreaders gave the manuscript a final look before publication. That process took a little over a year.

 “It’s probably pretty evenly distributed between the two of us,” said McCue of the writing. “In fact, George (Ellison) was noting as was I that it’s hard for us to tell whose writing is whose anymore.”

 

Near disaster

At 40 years old, the direction of Horace Kephart’s life seemed pretty well set. He was the director of the St. Louis Mercantile Library, a prestigious position that offered him the opportunity to oversee an outstanding collection of books in an elegant new building. He was married to Laura Mack Kephart, whom he’d met while a student at Cornell University, and the two had six children together. 

But in 1903 and 1904, things veered badly off course. Kephart began to spend more and more time in the woods, camping, away from his job and his family. The confidence of the library’s board of directors, once so supportive of him, began to erode. In fall 1903, they demanded his resignation, and in January 1904, he gave it. At some point in 1903 Laura and the kids moved back to be with her family in Ithaca, New York, while Kephart remained behind, renting a room in a boarding house and trying to make a go of it as a writer. 

As Kephart told The Asheville Times in a piece published April 3, 1931, after eight years at the library he had burned himself out, and the next four years he did “nothing of consequence.” Then came his resignation and a nervous breakdown. 

“I suffered insomnia for years,” the article quotes him as saying, “but that was nothing. When I began to hear voices I was afraid.”

The voices came to him during a spring 1904 camping trip he took with some friends to a hunting lodge about 50 miles south of St. Louis. He woke up at 1:30 in the morning, shouting that Sicilian workmen had surrounded the lodge, intending to blow it up with dynamite. The outburst scared his friends, who strove to get him home as quickly as possible when his agitation continued into the next day. 

But once in town, Kephart’s condition only got worse. The following night he woke the entire boardinghouse with shouts that burglars were about to enter it, and the next night the same thing happened. The following morning Kephart headed to Marre’s Saloon and handed the bartender a suicide note, promptly leaving to go end his life on the Eads Bridge. The bartender called the police, who arrested Kephart and had him transported to the hospital. The episode was front-page news in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

It was against this backdrop of professional and personal collapse that Kephart remade himself into the icon still remembered today. 

 

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From 1910 onward, Kephart lived in a boardinghouse that stood to the left of the brick N.C. Clampitt Hardware building. Holly Kays photo

 

Seeking ‘the back of beyond’

Kephart left St. Louis to spend the summer with his parents in Dayton, Ohio, and Mt. Gretna, Pennsylvania — to recover from his breakdown, and to plan his next move. 

“Through the years Kephart’s explanations as to why he decided upon the Smokies as his initial destination varied,” Ellison and McCue wrote in The Back of Beyond. “As articulated with verve in Our Southern Highlanders, he was looking for ‘a strange land and a people that had the charm of originality’ — a ‘back of beyond’ where he could ‘begin again’ and see ‘with my own eyes what life must have been like to my pioneer ancestors.’”

In late July or early August 1904, Kephart left the train station in Dayton and got off some 50 miles west of Asheville, in Dillsboro. From there he walked up Dicks Creek and established a camp. By wintertime, he’d secured permission to live in an old copper mine cabin up Hazel Creek, which was his home for the next three years or so. Kephart’s father Isaiah, who like his son was a romanticizer of the wilderness, was doubtless a “co-conspirator” in the venture, coming to visit his son a year after the move. 

Today, Kephart is strongly associated with the Smokies and particularly with Swain County, but his initial arrival wasn’t a permanent move. He took extended trips up to the Hall Cabin on Big Chestnut Knob, lived for a stint in a logging camp in eastern Tennessee, and returned to Ohio in 1908 to visit his father when he fell ill, dying on Oct. 28 of that year. 

After his father’s death, Kephart traveled to Ithaca, where he apparently attempted to reconcile with his wife Laura, living with the family for about six months before leaving again — it would be the last time he’d attempt to live with his wife and children. From there he headed down to Georgia, living with some friends he’d met during his time in Hazel Creek.

In 1910, Kephart returned to the Smokies for good, and this time as a resident of Bryson City proper rather than as the occupant of a backwoods cabin. For the rest of his life, he lived in a boardinghouse — the Cooper House on Main Street — which stood where the Edward Jones Investments building is now, and he wrote in a top-floor room nearby, overlooking the Tuckasegee River. Over the coming years, Kephart saw increasing success as an outdoors writer, and he developed an increasing awareness of the value of the mountains where he lived — and the threat they were posed by an ever-rising population and ever-diminishing frontier. 

“Kephart sought his frontier but also realized that, like its western counterpart, it would soon disappear,” the authors wrote. “As he prophesized in Our Southern Highlanders, the leviathan, the ominous ‘snort of a locomotive,’ symbolized the destruction to come.”

In the 1920s, Kephart shifted his focus from merely chronicling the story of the Smokies to shaping that story. Perhaps his most enduring legacy is his role in securing the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — over a period of years, Kephart fought for the park through writing, through outdoors excursions and through countless trips to meet with the movers and shakers of the political realm. And in May 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill that allowed park administration to begin as soon as 150,000 acres of land had been purchased. 

It was a bittersweet victory for Kephart. 

“It was a big undertaking, one beset with discouragements of all sorts; but we’ve won!” he wrote in a Sept. 1928 letter to his daughter-in-law Pauline Maisch Kephart. “And now congratulations are coming in from all over the U.S. Within two years we will have good roads into the Smokies and then — well, I’ll get out.”

Kephart didn’t live to see the inevitable, however. It wasn’t until 1934 that North Carolina and Tennessee transferred land deeds to the federal government, triggering Congress to authorize development of public facilities. Kephart, however, died on April 2, 1931, at the age of 68, following a car accident east of Bryson City. 

 

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Kephart sits atop the first Mount Kephart. The name was later moved to another mountain after it was discovered that the peak was already known as Mount Collins in Tennessee. George Masa/Kephart Family Collection/GSMA photo

 

A complex life

More than 100 years after his midlife move to the mountains, Kephart is still a controversial figure. 

To some, he’s the father of a priceless jewel — the Smokies, a bastion of biodiversity and an economic driver for the entire region. He’s a talented writer, a dedicated chronicler of early 1900s mountain culture, an authority on camping and hunting and all things wilderness whose unique contribution to the world will not soon be forgotten. 

To others, he’s the instigator of a massive government overstep that ripped land from under the feet of poor families. He’s an opportunist who used local people who were unlikely to read or protest what he’d written to drive his writing career, an alcoholic outsider who left his wife to raise six children on her own.

“If everyone examines his or her own life, it feels very complex, and I think it’s hard to imagine the complexity of others’ lives,” said Figart. 

The book is a reminder of that, showing clearly how even iconic figures like Kephart, long dead, were real people, with intricate and complicated lives. Too often, said McCue, we reduce historical figures to a single adjective, flat pictures with objective titles. 

“What we tried to do in the Back of Beyond was broaden our understanding of who Kephart was and talk about the various facets of his life and how they all played out with each other and played an important part in his contributions to the local region, as well as the national audience,” she said. 

Of all people, Laura Kephart perhaps had the most right to cling to Kephart’s flaws rather than to his strengths. But to her children, she “always believed, and made us believe, that her husband was the most talented man alive,” Kephart’s daughter Lucy wrote in 1931. Though “insurmountable obstacles” prevented them living “under one roof,” Laura wrote in that same year, Kephart was “the only man in my life.” 

“Horace fought a terrible fight and won a marvelous victory,” she continued. “I have more than most women for which to be thankful.”

As for many people, Kephart’s abandoning his family is still a problem for McCue. But that doesn’t take away from his many accomplishments, and it doesn’t stop her from identifying with him in other ways.

Like Kephart, McCue is a librarian by profession, and like Kephart, Cornell is an important place in her personal history. Kephart attended grad school there, working in the library while a student, and McCue, now retired, spent 35 years as a librarian at the university. Like Kephart, she believes that “librarianship offers a better field for mental gymnastics than any other profession.”

Also like Kephart, the Smokies hold a special place in McCue’s heart — her interest in him began with a backpacking trip there in the 1970s. 

Ellison has never been a librarian, but he began his career in academia, and he’s always been a writer and an outdoorsman. 

“People ask me, ‘Why do you have interest in this guy who’s a drunk, left his family and his wife? What’s with you?’” said Ellison. “I say, ‘Well unfortunately those kinds of things are part of everyday life.”

Kephart’s accomplishments, meanwhile, are much less so. 

“He helped found a truly significant thing in American culture, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, used by millions of people every year,” said Ellison. “As Kephart said, he wanted to help save them for the benefit of others, and that’s exactly how it worked out, despite the hardships of the local people who have gotten removed from the park.”

 

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The building where Kephart wrote from a room overlooking the Tuckasegee River, just around the corner from his residence in Bryson City, still stands today. Holly Kays photo

 

Musing on modernity

Kephart was right about the roads and the people that would come with the formation of the national park, though it’s hard to say whether he knew just how right he would be. 

The park, which today comprises 522,487 acres, contains a total of 384 miles of roads, 238 miles of which are paved. There are 342 structures, 10 developed campgrounds, 11 picnic areas, more than 100 backcountry campsites and 850 miles of backcountry trails. The Smokies boasts the highest visitation of any national park, topping 11 million for the first time in 2016. 

“Even though he knew it would be a park that would be close to major centers of population, I don’t think anybody really imagined the future and the number of visitors and the amount of car traffic, the fact that there are helicopter tours over the Smokies, that drones can give you a birds-eye view,” said McCue. “I don’t think he would have imagined the specifics, and I think he would be somewhat dumbfounded by the number of people who visit the Smokies.

“And yet I think he would also be proud.”

For a Kephart enthusiast, there’s a romantic appeal in imagining his reaction were he alive today, looking at the story that unfolded as the result of his actions nearly 100 years ago. 

“Everything I know about him is that he would have been a pleasure to be around and discuss things,” said Ellison. 

Ellison likes the idea of sitting around with Kephart, grabbing a beer and talking shop — the mechanics of writing, of interviewing, of stortytelling. 

Figart postulates that Kephart, had he lived longer, would have been true to his words, moving out with the advent of the roads to a more rural retreat. 

“If Kephart were alive today, I wager he’d be living over in the most unpopulated recesses of East Tennessee, where I live, away from the crowds,” said Figart. “He’d have already gotten out.”

Meanwhile, McCue thinks that — even with the park in existence and the roads built — Kephart might have stayed in Bryson City. 

“Frankly I don’t think Bryson City has changed that much, so I think he’d be very comfortable,” she said. “If he could get the barbershop to rent him a room on the top floor overlooking the Tuckseigee River, I think he’d be fine.”

In terms of population, Swain County changed quite a lot between Kephart’s arrival in 1904 and the launch of his efforts to create the park in the 1920s. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county had a population of 8,401 in 1900 but grew to 13,224 by 1920. In the same period of time, Bryson City’s population doubled to 886 people. 

Today, Swain County’s population is little changed from 1920, reported as 13,921 in the 2010 census. In 1927, social scientist Ellen Engelmann Black estimated Bryson City’s population at 1,500 — in the 2010 census, it was reported as 1,455.

“He would be rather proud of what went into establishing the national park, but he would question some of the things that have grown up around modern life,” Ellison mused. “I think he would have adapted. He would have been glad it is what it is.”

 

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Meet the authors

An extended release party to celebrate publication of Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography will be held in Bryson City June 7-9, with events including book signings, guided walks and more. 

  • Friday, June 7, a reservations-only evening event will be held at 5:30 p.m. at the Fryemont Inn. Following a cash bar and light hors d’ouvres, guests will have dinner at 6:30 p.m. with the authors, Kephart scholars and members of the Kephart family. A program will follow dinner. 
  • Saturday, June 8, will begin with a 9:45 a.m. ceremony at Kephart’s grave in the Bryson City Cemetery. The authors will sign books at the Swain County Visitors Center from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and in the Fryemont Inn lobby during a wine and cheese reception 5 to 6:30 p.m. Kephart’s great-granddaughter Libby Kephart Hargrave will lead a walking tour of Bryson City at 1:30 p.m. A reservations-only dinner at 7 p.m. will be held at Fryemont with the authors, Kephart scholars and members of the Kephart family. 
  • Sunday, June 9, will begin at 10:30 a.m. with a guided waterfall hike led by Libby Kephart Hargrave and Butch McDade. The authors will sign books 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee, and the weekend will conclude with a 2 p.m. brewery gathering. 

For the full schedule of events, visit www.horacekephart.com.

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