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By Tom Bennett
Special to Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition

MURPHY, NC, deep in the Back of Beyond, May 30, 2019

Horace Kephart said, “Man is ennobled by the pioneer experience and by an engagement with the wilderness.” Camping in the woods was very, very big with him. A son told authors George Ellison and Janet McCue how, at a residence where Horace Kephart lived in St. Louis, Mo., there were, in order for him to be able to drop everything at any time and go camping:

“On shelves and in closets in orderly ranks, compasses, knives, camp clothing, medicines, condensed foods and all the paraphernalia used in camping… In racks on the walls were rifles and a few revolvers… in a special corner were the table and cabinet where he experimented with bullet molds and cartridge loading.”

Elsewhere in their monumental new book, the authors cite a magazine article Kephart wrote on what the “wilderness sharpshooter” needs to be “always ready.” They are “a well-oiled rifle, hunting knife, clothes designed for the backwoods, and a stash of ‘rockahominy’ (parched corn finely ground) and jerked venison.”

It’s good that Ellison of Bryson City, N.C., and McCue of upstate New York are steely longtime students of Kephart and his legacy. They shared the iron will and patience to collaborate in this first book-length biography of the man. Even for them and in a nation with First Amendment speech and press freedoms, it had to have been a grueling task to sort out candidly the facts of his complicated life.

I hold Back of Beyond in my hands, so the authors made it through the subtleties of Kephart being born into an influential United Brethren in Christ family in Pennsylvania. How by his twenties, he was abusing tobacco that his father had written a United Brethren tract scorning. Then the authors solidly take Horace Kephart from Lebanon Valley College in Pa., on to further study at Boston College, Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y. and Yale in New Haven, Conn. He became the “consummate researcher” and then found work as, of all things, a university assistant librarian profoundly skilled in the classification of books.

This took him by ocean steamer as far away as Florence, Italy in the very heart of Classicism that then absorbed academicians. There, for a former Cornell boss of his made wealthy by a controversial inheritance from a dying donor, Kephart wrote a bibliography of everything that newly rich man had collected about the Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-74).

‘A two-finger tattoo on a typewriter’

Once back in the U.S., the prestige of his Petrarch bibliography quickly earned Kephart a job as director of the St. Louis Mercantile (meaning, charged subscriptions) Library. He didn’t have a secretary, so he “spent most of his day there beating a two-finger tattoo out on a Smith-Premier typewriter.” Now here comes some of the authors’ candor. Kephart was married but had a “strained relationship” with his wife, Laura. He appears to have “escaped family responsibilities by going into the wilderness or to the saloon.”

In a grim and distressing early 1904, Kephart lost his job after 12 years because the library board members were alarmed by his absences from work. Laura, with whom Kephart was estranged, took their children and moved them back to Ithaca, N.Y. The authors of this book relate how a distressing mental-health crisis occurred in Horace Kephart’s life. I leave it there and move on.

Deciding upon a ‘Back of Beyond’

Kephart was released from St. Louis Emergency Hospital and returned to his parents’ home. That was in New York state, where he certainly would have had a long talk with his dad about tobacco and liquor.

Horace Kephart decided that he would go south from New York and be “ennobled by the pioneer experience and engage with the wilderness.” His estrangement from Laura and family remained ever after unresolved. His permanent natural getaway, his “Back of Beyond,” was to be here in western N.C.

I’ve searched in vain for any reference by the authors to an earlier University of Tennessee Knoxville Press author’s familiar quote of Kephart, explaining as follows the choice of his getaway locale:

“I took a topographic map and picked out on it, by means of the contour lines and the blank space showing no settlement, what seemed to be the wildest part of these regions; and there I went.”

No, Ellison and McCue are more in harmony with the explainer to be found in the 1921 edition of Our Southern Highlanders. Here Kephart writes:

“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, with no help from servants or hired guides.”

Rustic headquarters for cultural exploration

For me at least, Ellison’s and McCue’s greatest gift to readers is to nail down at least five locations where Kephart lived following that rough early 1904 in Missouri. The five were:

  • Granville and Lillie Calhoun’s home on Hazel Creek at the Bushnell stop on the Murphy Branch of the Southern Railroad where the Calhouns – in what is part of the enduring lore of Swain County — nursed Kephart out of a mental-health crisis, feeding him fish from the creek and strawberry wine;
  • The Hall cabin herder’s shack (cattle then roamed free) atop Siler’s Bald 1.9 miles west of Clingman’s Dome. Dwelling there obligated you to lead an annual cattle roundup, which you gather Kephart must have done;
  • The Little River Lumber Camp in Elkmont in Avery County near Banner Elk;
  • A shack at abandoned copper mines in Medlin, two miles from Hazel Creek. Rival Louisiana- and Massachusetts-based mining companies quarreled. Each hired 11 lawyers and together spent about $500,000 in costs over 26 years of litigation, according to the authors; and
  • A boarding house in Bryson City starting in 1910. Here he would live for the rest of his life until his death at age 68 in 1931.

FROM SUCH LOCATIONS at least during what seems for me a surprisingly brief period, from late 1904 to 1910, Kephart remained what Granville Calhoun always termed an “outsider” as he did what’s familiar to us as readers. I mean his exploring, listening and writing of pungent journal entries.

Eye-to-eye and firsthand is best for effective reporting. Ranging out from the locations at various times and with his essential supplies I enumerated earlier, Kephart pitched his seven-by-seven-foot tent directly among the abrupt, reclusive and not socially adept highlanders.

He said highlanders loved to argue. He documented what he counted were “eight hundred dialectical or obsolete words.” For examples of their speech that soar, see chapter 13, “The People of the Hills,” of his masterpiece, Our Southern Highlanders.

‘I will perpetuate a book of my own’

At age 30, believing his life half over, Kephart the book classifier decided he better “perpetuate a book of my own.”

Stable and reclusive security happened for him not only in the boarding-house room but also in a Bryson City office that overlooked the Tuckaseegee River. With steady freelance writing, we can imagine, he was able to afford it. That creative space was near the Indian reservation and future national forest. It was fitted out with (a) a roll-top desk; (b) a typewriter and (c) his brain’s enormous store of the lore of the highlands people he’d gathered hiking and camping.

He could mail his manuscripts to American Rifleman, Field & Forest, Outing, Shooting and Fishing, Sports Afield or others from the Bryson City post office. Then they could go out to Asheville and the nation via the Murphy Branch of the Southern Railroad. He had found a freelancing workplace and became a successful U.S. non-fiction freelance writer and editor, historian and anthropologist.

‘Nothing equals the Smoky divide and its outlooks’

The life crisis he’d experienced in St. Louis now receded as a bad memory, it appears, as he evolved into a respected Bryson City civic leader.

He became secretary of the National Park Campaign Committee of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce. It sounds mundane but in that role, he was the leader upon the typed page at least (as George Masa and Jim Thompson were with their cameras) for lobbying for a national park. He became influential in saving from Tackyville land development a grand sweep of the nearby wilderness sprawling across two states and that grew to 522,419 acres.

Kephart’s 1924 letter to U.S. Rep. Zebulon Walker of Asheville was read on the House floor and now is in the Congressional Record. “I have hiked the White Mountains and the Adirondacks and have seen nothing that equals the Smoky divide and its outlooks,” Kephart wrote.

A resolution backed by President Calvin Coolidge allowed surveyors to establish park limits, according to Western Carolina U. Hunter Library’s timeline. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, now 78 years old, is of enormous size and global environmental significance. Its reach stretches across a range of the Appalachians of 16 mountains 5,000 feet or taller. There are more than 100 species of trees, 65 species of mammals, more than 200 varieties of birds, 67 native fish species, and more than 80 types of reptiles and amphibians. There’s not a crushed-car junkyard in sight. Save this wilderness, Americans. S-A-V-E.

The long essay in the Bryson City Chamber’s 1925 tract, “A National Park in the Great Smoky Mountains,” is Kephart’s. The route of the Appalachian Trail is one he helped to plot. Had “Smokies Life” magazine of the Knoxville News-Sentinel not named him in 2016 as one of the 100 most influential people in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, then that publication stood to get a lot of complaint letters to the editor including from me. He is the namesake for the 6,217-foot Mt. Kephart in the national park.

Kephart is accorded a generous 2 minutes, 45 seconds in Ken Burns’ 2009 Public Television documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”
Kephart invented glues for libraries and cooking kits for campers. He designed the “Ideal Bullet 30826” for .30 caliber rifles.” His Harper’s magazine article, “The Birth of the American Army,” is illustrated by Frederic Remington. Kephart once got a letter from Wild Bill Hickok.

HERE AT A RUGGED LOCALE 48 miles west of Bryson City making that town appear urbanized and sophisticated, Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition encompasses four counties in two states that are roughly at the center of four national forests in three states. HRWC is nearing its 25th anniversary of its own bold and incessant teaching of Kephart’s lesson. It is that the wildernesses must be saved for all to see.

Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., was a retired newsman, Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition member/volunteer/donor and recipient of the 2015 Holman Water Quality Stewardship Award. Tom died on December 28, 2020.