Editor's Note: Readers interested in learning more about the life and times of Horace Kephart are fortunate that GSMA published Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography in 2019. Co-authored by George Ellison and Janet McCue, the book won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award that same year.
I recently hiked along Deep Creek in the Smokies with Libby Kephart Hargrave and her sister Joanne Kephart Bleichner, great-granddaughters of famed Smoky Mountain writer Horace Kephart. We were joined by some two dozen other folks.
|Horace Kephart camping in the 'Back of Beyond.' Photo courtesy of Hunter Library Special Collections, Western Carolina University.|
Our hike was part of an annual Horace Kephart Days gathering that Hargrave coordinated, an event commemorating Kephart’s life and writings. Kephart came to the Smokies in 1904 after several personal challenges, including binge alcoholism, loss of his job as a chief librarian in St. Louis, and what he described as a “nervous breakdown.” Due to his condition, he and wife Laura agreed to her taking the children to her family in New York. They never divorced, but remained separated.
From these developments, Kephart ultimately commenced an outdoorsman’s life among the mountaineers of the Smokies, writing nationally recognized books such as Camping and Woodcraft and Our Southern Highlanders, among other works. His books were published in New York City and reached a significant audience, putting him and the Smokies on the literary map. Additionally, when the movement for a national park in the Smokies materialized in the 1920s, Kephart enthusiastically lent his national reputation and talents to the cause. For his efforts, a mountain in the Smokies was named for him, along with a stream, a trail, and a backcountry shelter. High honors, indeed.
Our memorial hike began with Hargrave (who researched, wrote, and produced a documentary film entitled An American Legend—Horace Kephart, His Life and Legacy) hosting a visit at Kephart’s grave in Bryson City, NC. There, she and Kephart historians Mike Peters, William A. Hart Jr. and Alice Hart, Luke Hyde, and others spoke about Kephart’s contributions to the area.
On Deep Creek, we discussed Kephart’s life as we hiked. The creek is an important place in Kephart’s story. He camped along its course for years before the national park was established—fishing, hunting, testing firearms and outdoor equipment, and writing for the sporting magazines of the day. He also used Deep Creek as a primary setting for his only fiction book, Smoky Mountain Magic, the manuscript of which Hargrave and Great Smoky Mountains Association brought to publication in 2009, completing his bibliography.
|Horace Kephart in his cabin, located along Hazel Creek. Photo courtesy of Hunter Library Special Collections, Western Carolina University.|
Along the hike, I posed a question: What if Horace Kephart had never come to the Smokies, but had gone elsewhere in 1904? He’d been a librarian, writer, and acknowledged scholar of the American West in St. Louis, so why didn’t those interests lead him to the backwoods of California, Colorado, or Montana to pursue his second career as a full-time outdoors writer in a new “Back of Beyond?” Why come to the obscure southern Appalachians?
Kephart gives us a clue in an autobiographical piece he wrote in 1922. He penned that not much had been written about the Smokies, so there was ample material for writing projects. He also said that the people of the Smokies reminded him of his Swiss ancestors in frontier Pennsylvania, giving him an affinity for them.
In answer to my question, Hargrave commented that Horace Kephart had a relative in Knoxville, TN, someone he could contact in the event of need, and his father was living in Ohio. The Smokies promised him an outdoor life without being too far removed from everyone he knew. I also pointed out that in Bryson City, Kephart found adequate railroad and postal connections for any travel and publishing needs. In the “Far Appalachia” of the North Carolina Smokies, Kephart found what he needed for his new life.
|Horace Kephart in the pre-national park Smokies. Photo courtesy of Hunter Library Special Collections, Western Carolina University.|
So, what if Kephart had never come to the Smokies? Certainly, we would not have his colorful and interesting writings and books, and the movement for the establishment of a national park in the Smokies would have been absent an eloquent and ardent supporter. Therefore, coming to the Smokies proved significant for himself and the region.
Horace Kephart can fairly be judged by history both for his personal life and his accomplishments in the Smokies. In the end, however, only he could decide how to live his life—as Hargrave has previously pointed out.
Before his death in a violent automobile crash in 1931 outside Bryson City, Horace Kephart reflected that the Smokies had saved his life and he wanted to see them protected so others might profit from them as he had. In the Great Smoky Mountains, he ultimately found his new home.
Arthur “Butch” McDade retired as a park ranger from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He is the author of Old Smoky Mountain Days, The Natural Arches of the Big South Fork, and is a contributing writer to The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.