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George Masa to be inducted into Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame

Posted by | 03.26.2018
George Masa

Located in Pennsylvania's Pine Grove Furnace State Park, near the midpoint of the Appalachian Trail, is a small stone structure known as the AT Museum. In 2011, the museum created its AT Hall of Fame to honor those who have made exceptional and positive contributions to the Appalachian Trail or the AT community. The late George Masa, whose photographs were pivotal to the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and can be seen in GSMA's Pictures for a Park, is among the eighth class of Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame honorees to be inducted Friday, May 4.

Through his photographic artistry, Masa captured the beauty, mystery and moods of the Appalachian Mountains, especially seeking cloud effects that created an ethereal quality, even through black-and-white images. Horace Kephart and George Masa were close personal friends who were movers and shakers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Appalachian Trail movements.

“Masa, through his early hiking experiences, had an intimate knowledge of the Great Smokies,” said long-time GSMA board member William A. 'Bill' Hart, who became a scholar of Masa’s work as a result of section-hiking the AT over the course of 18 years from 1984 to 2002. “He had measured trail mileage and also produced his own maps. Additionally, he was a member of the North Carolina nomenclature committee, charged with naming features and landmarks in the Smokies.

"At the same time that Masa was involved in his work in the Smokies, the Appalachian Trail movement was well underway, under the leadership of Myron Avery. Masa's background made him a natural to support the AT and he became vitally involved,” Hart said.

In 1931, aided by Horace Kephart, Masa formed the Carolina Appalachian Trail Club to work to locate and mark the route of the Appalachian Trail. (The CATC eventually merged with the Carolina Mountain Club.) During the club's first year, members scouted, measured and marked 29.2 miles of the AT from Devil's Fork Gap on the Tennessee border to Hot Springs, NC; 31.6 miles from Hot Springs to Waterville, NC; and 43.5 miles from Nantahala Station to Rich Knob on the Georgia border.

“Masa's photographs of Mt. Oglethorpe were influential in having the southern terminus of the AT located there,” Hart said. “Further, because of Masa's knowledge of the mountains, research and mapping skills, he was Myron Avery's go-to person when questions needed to be answered or details researched. In short, Masa's efforts on behalf of the AT were instrumental in the trail's location through parts of the North Carolina mountains.”

Hart’s mid-1990s article "George Masa: The Best Mountaineer” in Bob Brunk’s May We All Remember Well: A Journal of the History and Cultures of Western North Carolina, Volume 1, inspired filmmaker Paul Bonesteel to produce "The Mystery of George Masa,” which is now out of print but available on Vimeo.

“I called Bill and introduced myself, and we chatted about Masa,” Bonesteel recalled. “He said he felt like he barely scratched the surface on researching Masa, and that he felt there were many more photos and documents out there to find, so off I went. I started sometime in 1999 and finished the film in 2002 with it being broadcast in 2003. Research and production overlapped during the entire project with me finding photos and re-writing the script up to the very last moments of finishing it.”

Bonesteel said he was mesmerized and completely lost in Masa’s story. His ultimate goal became not just to tell that story, but also to express to viewers what he thought were the emotional and spiritual forces behind Masa’s love of these mountains and trails.

“Masa had such enthusiasm for what he was doing, despite so many obstacles and heart break, it made a strong impression on me,” Bonesteel said. “His work frequently reminds me that our work to preserve, protect and enjoy these mountains is so very important.”

Hart agreed. “George Masa was selfless in his dedication and efforts on behalf of the formation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It should be noted that Masa never sought acclaim or adulation; he was a humble man, whose contributions have not been recognized or fully understood until recent years. He is truly worthy of this honor.”

AT thru-hiker John Beaudet

Other 2018 Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame class honorees are William Kemsley, Jr. of Taos, New Mexico; Robert Peoples of Hampton, Tennessee; and the late Elizabeth Levers of New York, New York. Each year nominations are solicited from the general public, and the Hall of Fame selection committee chooses the honorees who will be recognized at the museum's Hall of Fame banquet. Each honoree receives a hand-carved hiking stick crafted by AT thru-hiker John "Bodacious" Beaudet (who is married to GSMA Interpretive Products and Services Director Frances Figart.)

Libby Kephart Hargrave, great-granddaughter of Horace Kephart, will accept Masa’s walking stick at the banquet in Boiling Springs. The following day, Saturday, May 5, at 1 p.m., she and Bill Hart will join Kephart scholar Janet McCue to offer a program about Masa at the Appalachian Trail Museum. 

“Kephart received the award in 2016, and I think it only appropriate that these two men who worked tirelessly to establish the Appalachian Trail through North Carolina and Tennessee will now be together in the Appalachian Trail Museum Hall of Fame,” Hargrave said. “I will donate the hiking stick to the Mountain Heritage Museum at Western Carolina University where Kep's AT Hall of Fame hiking stick is part of the collection.”

Several years ago, Hargrave donated to GSMA a collection of images, roughly 80 of which were Masa originals. Some of the images had been published in books, newspapers articles and magazines. Most, however, had not been seen since the early 1930s.

“The special bond shared between Horace Kephart and George Masa was, first and foremost, their passion to save the mountains that saved them,” said Hargrave. “These two men formed an unlikely friendship that forever left its mark on the history of the Smokies. They understood the healing power of the mountains, the peace of the mountains, the sacredness of the mountains and they worked tirelessly, as a team, to make sure this would be available for all of us, for all time.” 

Read more about the inductees.

Tagged: GSMA News