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Monday, 30 August 2010 14:12

A unique old time reporter

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Many characters surface in stories related to Horace Kephart, regional author and one of the founders of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. F.A. Behymer, a journalist from St. Louis who would have been aware of the basic story behind Horace Kephart’s dismissal as a head librarian, separation from wife and family, and subsequent breakdown in March 1904 — is one of the more colorful. Behymer’s article, based on an interview with Kephart in Bryson City in 1926, appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was reprinted on Dec. 12 of the same year in the Asheville Citizen-Times as “Horace Kephart, Driven from Library by Broken Health, Reborn in Woods.”

An editorial note prefacing the reprinted text reads: “The following interesting article about one of the most interesting characters in Western North Carolina, Horace Kephart of Bryson City, was written for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by F.A. Behymer, one of the star men of that newspaper.” Behymer was easily as much of a “character” as Kephart ever dreamed of being.

It must have surprised him that a journalist from St. Louis would journey to Bryson City to write a lengthy article 20 years after he had departed the city in trying circumstances. But Behymer wasn’t your run-of-the-mill journalist. Driving to remote places to look around, get the lay of the land, conduct an interview, take a few photographs and drive back home to write it up was the way he had operated for more than a quarter of a century. Behymer is a minor character in the overall story, but his descriptions and conclusions are often shrewdly phrased and insightful.

Francis Albert Behymer (1870-1956) was born in Ohio, quit school at the age of 12, joined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a proofreader, started his writing career as a “suburban correspondent,” and by 1900 was writing “a chain of bright stories of rural life ... that lasted half a century.” His friends called him “Bee.” He was short, weighed 125 pounds, had a big nose and gray hair that was unruly, wore a small mustache and always carried a battered briefcase. In his Chevrolet sedan, he traveled thousands of backcountry miles each year covering his beat, which consisted of the rural portions of three states: Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas, with emphasis on the Ozarks. His rambling columns have been described as “homey tales of people, horses, auctions and little girls who liked rabbits” — but he also enjoyed covering the occasional “cornfield murder.” The Post-Dispatch made him a Sunday editor, but he promptly “resigned” and went back to traveling and writing.

Kephart was precisely the sort of personality, with the sort of lifestyle and background, that would have attracted a journalist like Behymer, and Kephart himself gravitated toward “original characters” — as personalities like Quill Rose, Mark Cathey, Bob Barnett and “Bee” Behymer were known. Kephart would have appreciated the fact that the journalist had done his homework — having read Kephart’s books and the autobiographical essay — and that he pieced the overall story together in a lively but unobtrusive fashion. When asked by Behymer why he had chosen the Smokies as his destination, Kephart’s response was more specific than usual:

Resting awhile at his father’s home at Dayton [he] took a map and a compass and with Dayton as the center drew circles, seeking the nearest wilderness, in any direction, where he might cast himself away. The region of the Big Smoky Mountains in Western North Carolina seemed to meet the requirements. A topographic map showed him, by means of the contour lines and the blank spaces, where nature was wildest and where there were no settlements. These were the highest mountains east of the Rockies. It was a primitive hinterland without a history. It would be a good place to begin again, he thought.

Kephart’s materials were always categorized, alphabetized and indexed, often more than once. Relevant items that might be of use were cross-referenced in the outlines and drafts of specific articles and books he was working on at the time. Although no longer a librarian, he retained a librarian’s instinct for classification — or as Behymer described the situation: “The librarian’s ruling passion was still strong amid the bears and owls.”

Behymer was uncanny when it came to unraveling Kephart’s convoluted motives. He did so via a complexity of language and images never encountered in modern day journalism. For instance, he reached this carefully phrased (and in my opinion accurate) conclusion regarding Kephart’s “crash” after interviewing him in his office overlooking the Tuckaseigee River in 1926.

Horace Kephart won high position in the busy world as a librarian. He was a front-rank man. For 13 years he was at the head of the St. Louis Mercantile Library. Success was his. ... Then in 1904 — “crash.” The man broke down. To another man it would have been tragedy. To Horace Kephart it was blessed release. ... Ambition had beckoned, and duty had driven. His heart’s deepest longing had been denied. Always he had waited for a more convenient season. Greater ambition called for greater devotion. But for this chance, which another would have called mischance, he would have gone to the end denying himself his dearest wish, winning much but losing more.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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