An icon of the Southern Appalachian region known for the seminal books Camping and Woodcraft (1906) and Our Southern Highlanders (1913), Horace Kephart was instrumental in efforts to establish the Appalachian Trail along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
But Kephart is perhaps best known for his decade-long crusade to help protect the Smokies as a national park. For Kephart, this campaign represented a personal commitment: “I owe my life to these mountains and I want them preserved so that others may profit from them,” he wrote.
The culmination of decades of tireless research and devoted scholarship, Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography is the compelling story of this librarian-turned-woodsman who had a far-reaching effect on wilderness literature and outdoor pursuits throughout North America.
Kephart’s advocacy for the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park earned him the title Apostle of the Smokies. But it is his enigmatic charisma and multifaceted backstory that will draw readers in and hold them spellbound when they pick up this new title by co-authors George Ellison and Janet McCue published by Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit with a mission of support for the national park.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1862 and raised in Iowa, Kephart went from graduate studies at Cornell University to a promising career as a librarian at Yale University and a director of the St. Louis Mercantile Library. With six children and a beautiful wife, Kephart seemingly had it all. Until he didn’t.
In Back of Beyond, Ellison and McCue reveal Kephart’s fall from grace, the depths of his despair, his complicated private life, and his fortitude in forging a new existence in the Great Smoky Mountains. They do this through in-depth historical research and an exploration of Kephart’s own major writings on frontier history, camping and woodcraft, and the lives of his neighbors on Hazel Creek, his personal back of beyond in the Smokies.
“As it should, the biography provides for the first time an understanding of Horace Kephart’s entire life—not just random bits and pieces such as those often heard in conversation, many of which are anecdotal or outright fabrications,” said Ellison, a writer-naturalist who has lived near Kephart’s eventual chosen hometown of Bryson City, N.C., since 1973.
“Kephart is a man full of contradictions—solitary yet a masterful storyteller; generous yet indebted; conventional yet unconventional; a loyal friend and an absent parent,” said McCue, a librarian and researcher living in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. “He explains in his autobiographical sketch ‘Horace Kephart by Himself’ that ‘much else has been left out.’ Given this natural reticence, much of his story is of necessity revealed by others—an ensemble cast of friends and family who help flesh out his fascinating character and personality.”
In evaluating Horace Kephart’s worthiness of a biography, "the simple fact that Camping and Woodcraft and Our Southern Highlanders, written more than 100 years ago, are still in print and still widely read speaks volumes about Kephart’s importance,” writes Daniel S. Pierce, professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, in the book’s introduction. Pierce adds that “not only is a biography of Horace Kephart a worthy and long-awaited undertaking, but George Ellison and Janet McCue are the perfect people to write it.”
Ellison has written extensively about Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Kephart and for more than 30 years conducted natural history workshops for the Smoky Mountain Field School. As part of the park’s centennial celebration, he was designated one of “the 100 most influential people in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” Since 1987, Ellison has written the Nature Journal column for the Asheville Citizen-Times. In 2012 he won the Wild South Roosevelt-Ashe award for “Outstanding Journalism in Conservation.” In 2016 he and his wife, acclaimed artist Elizabeth Ellison, were named “Blue Ridge Naturalists of the Year.”
McCue’s interest in Kephart began with backpacking trips in the Smokies in the 1970s and continued throughout her 35-year career as a librarian at Cornell University, where she specialized in library administration and digital library development—a career that took her all over the world. Like Kephart, she believes “librarianship offers a better field for mental gymnastics than any other profession.”
McCue and Ellison met at Kephart Days in Bryson City in 2009 and have since collaborated on several other Kephart publications, including the introduction to Great Smoky Mountains Association’s Camping and Woodcraft (2011) and the biographical chapter in the Horace Kephart Reader forthcoming from the University of Tennessee Press.
Back of Beyond’s 500-plus pages include more than 80 historic images from park archives, the Horace Kephart Family Collection and other sources. The co-authors began their research at Western Carolina University's Hunter Library, which houses the most extensive collection of Kephart material. Equally important, though, said McCue, are significant research collections at Brown University, Cornell University, University of Tennessee, McClung Library, Pack Memorial Library, and the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
“George and Janet are so creative, so steeped in the literature of the Smokies region, and so attuned to all things Kephart that it has been mesmerizing and magical to interact with them on a daily basis,” said the book’s editor and GSMA’s Interpretive Products and Services Director, Frances Figart. “They are passionate scholars who have worked devotedly to chisel out this intricately detailed portrait of a legendary figure.”
Even for two writers who had been chasing Kephart’s story for decades, Ellison admitted there were plenty of new discoveries and insights to uncover along the way.
“Over the long haul, what surprised me most from our research was the depth of connection between Horace Kephart and his father,” he said. "Isaiah Lafayette Kephart was, as they say in the mountains, ‘much of a man.’ Despite areas of disagreement, Isaiah stuck by Horace through thick and thin. He instilled the desire that fueled Horace’s now-famous venture into the southern hinterlands; in the biography I describe him as a coconspirator in the quixotic search for a back of beyond.”
Ellison said it was difficult to fill in the “mostly blank period” when Kephart left Hazel Creek in 1907 and didn’t return to Bryson City until 1910. “The surprise for me is that Kephart lived in East Tennessee for a good while,” he said.
The book’s pages begin with praise from more than a dozen authors and Appalachian scholars, among them David Brill, author of GSMA’s popular 2017 title Into the Mist. “Those of us who have read Horace Kephart’s books have come to treasure the writer, but with Ellison and McCue’s richly detailed Kephart biography, we come to know the man,” he said. “Ellison and McCue are exacting historians; they’re also fine writers, and this book is a joy to read.”
Great Smoky Mountains Association’s publications are designed to enhance greater public understanding, enjoyment and appreciation for the national park. A national park partner, GSMA has provided more than $44 million to support the park’s educational, scientific and historical programs since its inception 66 years ago. Support for the association is achieved primarily from sales of educational publications and from annual membership dues. Those who wish to enrich their national park experience are encouraged to become GSMA members.