As part of this coming weekend’s third annual Horace Kephart Day, a group of 20 or so participants will visit Kephart’s cabin site on Hazel Creek, where he resided from 1904-1907. In that regard, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit a Back Then column written in 2004, when his Our Southern Highlanders (1913) was being read throughout Western North Carolina as part of the “Together We Read” program.
Located two miles from Medlin, a tiny settlement situated where the Sugar Fork enters Hazel Creek about 10 miles from its confluence with the Little Tennessee River (now inundated, in part, by Lake Fontana), this remote cabin on the Little Fork became the vantage point from which Kephart studied the land and its people. It was a two-room structure, half of logs and half of rough planking, perhaps with two levels constructed at different times. He refurbished the dwelling, adding his few belongings once they were hauled up in a wagon.
One of the most revealing sources in regard to Kephart’s three years at the cabin is an interview conducted by F.A. Behymer published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch (12/12/26) under the heading “Horace Kephart, Driven from Library by Broken Health, Reborn in Woods.” Behymer, who apparently knew Kephart from his days as a librarian in St. Louis, visited Kephart in his office just off the town square in Bryson City.
“‘Seldom during those three years as a forest exile,’ Kephart said, ‘did I feel lonesome in the daytime; but when supper would be over and black night closed in on my hermitage, and the owls began calling all the blue devils of the woods, one needed some indoor occupation to keep him in good cheer.’
“It was the old life calling, the life of books that he had left,” Behymer noted. “For such a man there could be a beginning again but the old life could not be entirely disowned …. Out of the thousands of books that he had intimately known [as a librarian] there were only a few he could carry with him into the solitudes. He selected them with care, 20 of them. Here is the list in the order in which they stood on a shelf on his soap-box cupboard:
an English dictionary; Roget’s Thesaurus; his sister’s Bible; Shakespeare; Burns’ Poems; Dante (in Italian); Goethe’s Faust; Poe’s Tales; Stevenson’s Kidnapped, David Balfour and The Merry Men; Fisher’s Universal History; Nessmuk’s [i.e., George Washington Sears] Woodcraft; Frazer’s Minerals; Jordan’s Vertebrate Animals; Wright’s Birdcraft; Matthews’ American Wild Flowers; Keeler’s Our Native Trees; and Lounsberry’s Southern Wild Flowers and Trees. The old man had become a new man, but the new man was a man of books … and when the owls began calling, it was in his books that he found comfort. He took up writing, as it was inevitable that he would, setting down by night his experiences of the day.”
Kephart became preoccupied with the simple and direct challenge of living efficiently in this new environment. Despite his extensive experiences in the outdoors dating back to childhood, he found that he now “had to make shift in a different way, and fashion many appliances from the materials found on the spot. The forest itself was not only my hunting-ground but my workshop and my garden ... I gathered, cooked, and ate (with certain qualms, be it confessed, but never with serious mishap) a great variety of wild plants that country folk in general do not know to be edible. I learned better ways of dressing and keeping game and fish, and worked out odd makeshifts in cooking with rude utensils, or with none at all. I tested the fuel values and other qualities of many kinds of wood and bark, made leather and rawhide from game that fell to my rifle, and became more or less adept in other backwood handicrafts, seeking not novelties but practical results.”
These “practical results” he published in the popular outdoor magazines of the day. By 1906, he had compiled enough material to put together the first edition of The Book of Camping and Woodcraft, a storehouse of practical advice, lore, anecdote, and adventure that in expanded editions re-titled Camping and Woodcraft became the standard work in its field, supremely applicable as is no other book in regard to basic techniques and philosophy.
After leaving Hazel Creek in 1907, Kephart considered returning there when he came back to the Smokies in 1910. Because the Ritter Lumber Company had begun extensive operations up the entire watershed the previous year, he decided to locate in Bryson City instead.
But those three years in the cabin on the Little Fork stimulated Kephart’s imagination and writing. It was the place where he sorted out his life and laid the foundation for what became a substantial literary and environmental legacy. When he observed toward the end of his life that, “I owe my life to these mountains,” he no doubt had the Little Fork of the Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek years in mind.
Luke Hyde is too young to remember Horace Kephart, but his parents and grandparents knew the great American outdoor writer well when the St. Louis transplant was living in the Bryson City area.
“He was a highly talented man who did some good things. Horace Kephart also was a human being who had some warts,” said Hyde, owner of The Historic Calhoun House in Bryson City and cofounder, with Kephart great-granddaughter Libby Kephart Hargrave, of a foundation to honor the writer and benefit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Kephart was pivotal in making the park a reality, working tirelessly through the 1920s to protect the Smoky Mountains he loved so deeply. Kephart wrote letters, articles and a booklet, plus teamed with photographer George Masa to raise awareness about the unique beauty and importance of these mountains.
Kephart penned the regional classic Our Southern Highlanders; he wrote what even his fiercest critics acknowledge might well be one of the best outdoors books ever written, Camping and Woodcraft.
Though few, if any, would deny the value of Kephart’s efforts to preserve the Smokies — or attempt, with much legitimacy, to denigrate the overall value of his writings — his legacy in Western North Carolina has remained somewhat contentious.
That Kephart drank to excess is true and well documented. That he abandoned his wife and children in his retreat to this region is arguable with any seriousness only by some of his descendents, who find this apparent rejection of the family hearth a source of some lingering pain, or perhaps, shame.
That these truths somehow tarnish Kephart’s legacy as a writer and protector of the Great Smoky Mountains is certainly peculiar, though the debate of late has focused on Kephart’s “right” as an outsider to chronicle the lives and times of mountain people.
Despite the venom displayed by many of Kephart’s critics, since 2009 Bryson City has begun to openly — if a bit cautiously — embrace the man who made this Swain County town his spiritual and creative base.
Horace Kephart Days Celebration is scheduled for Friday through Sunday, (April 29-May 1). Hyde, for one, is happy to see the writer get his due, and so is Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker.
“It’s part of our history,” Walker said. “I think it’s enjoyable to have Libby (Kephart Hargrave) here, and for us to reflect on those days.”
The event isn’t huge, the mayor noted, but it is drawing an increasing number of people into Bryson City.
“It’s a piece of the (economic) puzzle, a part of things that go into making a whole,” Walker said of the event.
• Friday, 7 p.m.: Meet and greet at the Calhoun House, 135 Everett Street.
• Saturday: Breakfast at the Calhoun House, reservations required, $10 per person, 828.488.1234
• Saturday, 10 a.m.: Ceremony at Hillside Cemetery
• Saturday, noon: Riverfront Park with the Schiele Museum Interpretation Camping Team; musician Lee Knight; artisan Bill Alexander; speakers Dale Ditmanson, superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; researcher and writer Janet McCue; researcher and writer George Ellison; and more.
• Sunday: Breakfast at the Calhoun House, reservations required, $10 per person. Guest speaker will be Bill Alexander, mountain poet and East Tennessee artisan.
You can be excused for perhaps having overlooked the recent fireworks, but a minor war has erupted over one of this region’s favorite sons (or, not-favorite sons).
Pick your side.
Horace Kephart, the definitive writer of Western North Carolina history who set up a home of sorts in Swain County and gave us an accurate portrait of the mountaineer as he was then.
Or, Horace Kephart, who wasn’t even from this region. Who gave us a not very accurate portrait of the mountaineer of yore, and, if that isn’t enough to make you dislike him, was a good-for-nothing drunk who suffered a mental breakdown and stranded his family to boot.
I have an unusual, albeit somewhat shallow, interest in these matters. I live in WNC today because of Kephart. My family moved to the Bryson City area in the early 1970s because my parents fell in love with the region while Dad was doing research on Kephart. My father, George Ellison, wrote the introduction to Our Southern Highlanders when the University of Tennessee Press reissued it in 1976.
Other republications of Kephart’s books, and new information about the man himself, have been taking place these past few years. This has set the stage for a bunch of arguing about Kephart’s importance, the value of his books, and so on. My Dad hasn’t been part of that, best I can tell. He just keeps working on the material. And there’s been a lot of it to plow through, because the Kephart family is providing boxes and boxes of previously unexamined documents.
Here is the central argument of Kephart’s detractors, though they aren’t necessarily as direct about it as I am in this rephrasing: Kephart wasn’t from here. Thus, he had no right to portray the mountaineer at all. Only those born and bred in these hills, with roots that go back for generations, have a right or the ability to write about the people of these mountains. Everyone else is an outsider and doesn’t “get it.”
Phooey. I’m not from here, yet I maintain I’ve got a perfect right to portray whomever I want to, whenever I want to, how I want to, in whatever form I desire. Fiction, nonfiction, newspaper or magazine articles, columns, whatever interests me in a given moment as a writer. Who is going to stop me, pray tell? And if I do write about this region, what gives someone else the special insight to say my writing lacks value simply because I’m not born and bred of the hills?
I was born in Richmond, Va. If I abided by the underpinnings of this anti-Kephart argument, I would only write about people from Richmond (of which I know nothing, since we left there when I was six months old).
The argument is specious at best, and arrogant at worst. Let’s take it one step further, and the lack of logic becomes clear: Henry James wasn’t from Europe, so he shouldn’t have included Europeans in his novels. Ridiculous.
Joseph Conrad was Polish, so he shouldn’t have mastered English and written all those masterpieces, and about British people, for goodness’ sake.
Sue Hubbell, my current favorite nonfiction writer, hails from Michigan. Shouldn’t have written all those great books about living in the Missouri Ozarks, Sue.
Here’s the other angle of this anti-Kephart fervor. Not being from here, Kephart just didn’t understand — he overemphasized the moonshining and illicit behavior, and underemphasized the refined dignities of the mountain people.
Maybe. Maybe not. That’s the neato thing about being a writer. You get to emphasize whatever interests you. And Kephart was very interested in moonshine. How it was made, and how it tasted. He spent a lot of time sampling the local offerings, and clearly became something of a connoisseur.
Additionally, if we are going to condemn every drunk who was a writer, say farewell to William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway and plenty of others who found their muses in the dregs of wine cups and beer bottles. Kephart apparently often found his floating around near the bottom of a moonshine jar. So what does that prove about the worth of his work? Not a thing.
He was probably a lousy father and husband, but again, what in the world does that have to do with the quality of his writing, or his portrayal of Southern Appalachia? Not much.
A good place to take in the this-side and that-side of the great Kephart debate is www.tuckreader.com, a valuable recent addition to the local news scene. Check out the battle of words (both are being ever-so-courteous) taking place between Jim Casada and Gary Carden, both fine regional writers born and raised in WNC. Jim is from Bryson City, Gary from Sylva.
Better yet, read Kephart’s books and make an independent determination of your own.
This past weekend marked the second annual Horace Kephart celebration in Bryson City. There was a terrific presentation of newly surfaced George Masa photographs moderated by Masa biographer Bill Hart. Daniel Gore brought his band from Washington State to play the Kephart tunes in the album “Ways That Are Dark.” Folk musician Lee Knight played and sang. Park superintendent Dale Ditmanson spoke at the graveside service in uniform but quickly reappeared downtown in a T-shirt and shorts. There was talk of moving Masa’s remains from Asheville to a place beside Kephart in Bryson City. I’ll oppose that notion. “Leave George Be” will be my anti-removal slogan. He’s been at rest in Asheville, where he lived and worked, for 75 years.
That’s about it ... except for the Kamp Kephart five-man contingent from the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, N.C., which pitched their period demonstration camp near the railway depot.
Kamp Kephart is an educational workshop dedicated to late-19th and early-20th century campcraft and woodcraft and is named in honor of Horace Kephart, outdoorsman and author of Camping and Woodcraft, one of the cornerstones of American outdoor literature. Kamp Kephart leader Steve Watts asserts that the book is “no mere out-of-date period piece, but rather a viable guide with great relevancy for the 21st century.”
I spent a lot of time with the Kamp Kephart crowd at their “camp site” and later on in my office. A visit to this web site will give you an idea of what they’re up to in regard to presentations of period dress, equipment, etc: http://zombiehunters.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=34&t=43874
But they also think a lot about what they’re up to philosophically and spiritually. My last question of them was: “Which item of Kephart’s camping equipment would you like to find and have?”
“His tea cup,” one of them said. I knew exactly what he was talking about. You’ll find the “Kep’s teacup” on pages 111-112 of the first volume of Camping and Woodcraft:
“In his charming book, The Forest, Stewart Edward White has spoken of that amusing foible, common to us all, which compels even an experienced woodsman to lug along some pet trifle that he does not need, but which he would be miserable without. The more absurd this trinket is, the more he loves it. One of my camp-mates for five seasons carried in his “packer” a big chunk of rosin. When asked what it was for, he confessed:
“Oh, I’m going to get a fellow to make me a turkey-call, some day, and this is to make it ‘turk.’ “ Jew’s-harps, campstools, shaving-mugs, alarm-clocks, derringers that nobody could hit anything with, and other such trifles have been known to accompany very practical men who were otherwise in light marching order. If you have some such thing that you know you can’t sleep well without, stow it religiously in your kit. It is your “medicine,” your amulet against the spooks and bogies of the woods. It will dispel the koosy-oonek. (If you don’t know what that means, ask an Eskimo. He may tell you that it means sorcery, witchcraft — and so, no doubt, it does to the children of nature; but to us children of guile it is the spell of that imp who hides our pipes, steals our last match, and brings rain on the just when they want to go fishing.)
No two men have the same “medicine.” Mine is a porcelain teacup, minus the handle. It cost me much trouble to find one that would fit snugly inside the metal cup in which I brew my tea. Many’s the time it has all but slipped from my fingers and dropped upon a rock; many’s the gibe I have suffered for its dear sake. But I do love it. Hot indeed must be the sun, tangled the trail and weary the miles, before I forsake thee, O my frail, cool lipped, but ardent teacup!”
It would be nice to have that handless teacup in a museum ... but I also like the idea that’s it’s still out there ... maybe up in the old cabin at High Rocks . . . or tucked away behind a boulder in Bone Valley ... or somewhere back in Nicks Nest ... waiting for the right person, in the right frame of mind, to come along, pick it up, and say to himself or herself, “Kep’s teacup.”
Our consideration of “books and all things related” continues with a look at an instance when a well-known author (and former librarian) chose to disguise his reading so as to create a literary persona.
Horace Kephart was often guarded, sometimes evasive, when giving reasons for choosing the Smokies region as a place of renewal. There was no doubt an element of chance in the decision. It’s probable, however, despite his denials of having done so, that he read travel accounts and studied government documents, many of which were available by the turn of the century.
For someone with Kephart’s areas of interest an easily located source would have been (and perhaps was) Wilbur G. Zeigler and Ben S. Grosscup’s The Heart of the Alleghanies or Western North Carolina: Comprising Its Topography, History, Resources, People, Narratives, Incidents, and Pictures of Travel, Adventures in Hunting and Fishing, and Legends of Its Wilderness (Raleigh, NC: Alfred Williams, and Cleveland, OH: W.W. Williams, 1883). Kevin E. O’Donnell and Helen Hollingsworth, authors of Seekers of Scenery: Travel Writing from Southern Appalachia (1840-1900), reproduce five magazine articles describing Western North Carolina, post-1875, including Frank O. Carpenter’s “The Great Smoky Mountains and Thunderhead Peak,” which appeared in the June 1890 issue of Appalachia magazine.
The “pub.doc” Kephart managed to unearth in “that dustiest room of a great library” — but absentmindedly fails to provide authors or title for — was Horace B. Ayers and William W. Ashe’s The Southern Appalachian Forests (Washington. DC: Department of Interior and U.S. Geological Survey, 1902), the monumental study that contains descriptions, maps and photos of the Smokies region as well as President Theodore Roosevelt’s detailed Letter of Transmittal, in which he observed: “These great mountains are old in the history of the continent which has grown up about them,” and having escaped “the ice on the north” display “that marvelous variety and richness of plant growth which have enabled our ablest business men and scientists to ask for its preservation by the Government for the advancement of science and pleasure of the people of our own and of future generations.”
Kephart had been for over a decade one of the most meticulous librarians in America. For the remainder of his life, he independently maintained the mindset and methodologies of the prototypical librarian. This trait is exemplified by the set of 27 journals — researched, categorized, alphabetized, indexed, and cross-referenced, more than once — he created so as to depict, often in great detail, almost every aspect of Appalachian culture, and more.
He wasn’t the sort who would venture into his own backyard without first taking a look at the relevant literature. By denying that he had access to written materials, the Smokies thereby became for his readers even more of a “terra incognita” — a land of “hidden possibilities” — in which, as his title for the first chapter of Our Southern Highlanders indicates, there is “Something Hidden; Go and Find It.” Via this calculated strategy, Kephart emerges as the somewhat heroic, albeit mild-mannered and curiously attentive, outsider who explores and describes the landscapes and lifestyles of a “mysterious realm.”
My weekly deadline is looming. I’m not sure how this is going to turn out. But I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m fairly sure it’s going to be a rambling essay about Horace Kephart, author of Our Southern Highlanders, Camping and Woodcraft, and Smoky Mountain Magic. The first two titles were published by the Outing Publishing Company, upon which he exerted considerable influence for a number of years, as we shall see.
Partly, if all goes well, this is going to be about Kephart’s lifelong rather carefully-cultivated self-image as “an earnest and sometimes lonely, yet self-sufficient figure, like ‘dear old Robinson Crusoe;” and partly, about a thankless sort of literary endeavor at which he was better than competent — editing.
I sometimes think of Horace Kephart as “Robinson Kephart.” Hearing that, he would no doubt laugh and nod in agreement. After all, in the “North Carolina Library Bulletin” for June 1922, he published an autobiographical essay (reprinted as a pamphlet in 1922 by the “Bryson City Times”) titled “Horace Kephart by Himself,” in which he recalled his youthful years in rural Iowa in this maner:
“It was before the day of fences ... The elk and buffalo had left, but their bleached antlers and skulls were strewn everywhere over the prairie ... I had no playmates . . my mother taught me to read . . she gave me my first book, dear old ‘Robinson Crusoe’ ... I used to take ‘Robinson’ out to the old boat among the trees ... I made wooden guns, pistols, hatchet, and a thing I called a cutlass ... A fur cap was easily contrived, shaped like the one Crusoe wears in the pictures in my book ... The old boat was my wrecked ship, to which I made frequent trips, swimming out in my imagination, returning on an imaginary raft laden with imaginary seaman’s chests, bottles of rack and cordials, kits of tools, barrels of powder and bags of shot ... [My copy of DeFoe’s book has] ‘been saved through the vicissitudes of a somewhat venturesome life and lies before me now, coverless and stained with age ...’”
(What is apparently Kephart’s “coverless and stained” copy of the novel that reads like reality apparently re-emerged in the Kephart family archives last year.)
Kephart sometimes recalled his early years on Hazel Creek (1904-1907) in the pre-park Smokies in a manner that evoked affinities with the real Robinson Crusoe. Explaining why he wrote at night, he told a newspaper reporter from St. Louis: “Seldom during those three years as a forest exile did I feel lonesome in the daytime; but when supper would be over and black night closed in on my hermitage, and the owls began calling all the blue devils of the woods, one needed some indoor occupation to keep ... in good cheer.”
A neglected aspect of Kephart’s literary career consists of the series of 11 books he edited for Outing Publishing Company in their Outdoor Adventure Library, starting about 1914. Nine are complete or abridged volumes with historical-biographical-critical introductions.
The titles are indicative of the content: J.D. Borthwick, The Gold Fields: A First-Hand Picture of Life in California Mining Camps in the Early Fifties; Earl of Dunraven [Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin Dunraven], Hunting in Yellowstone: on the Trail of Wapiti with Texas Jack in the Land of Geysers; Roualeyn Gordon-Cumming, The Lion Hunter: In the Days when all South Africa was Virgin Hunting Field; Augustus C. Hobart-Hampton, Hobart Pasha: Blockade-Running Slave-Hunting, and War and Sport in Turkey; Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, Adrift in the Artic Ice Pack: From the History of the First U.S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin; Major John Wesley Powell, First Through the Grand Canyon: Being the Record of the Pioneer Exploration of the Colorado River in 1869-1870; and three volumes by George F.A. Ruxton, In the Old West; Adventures in Mexico; and Wild Life in the Rocky Mountains.
Several of his editions of these classics have remained in print because of the quality of Kephart’s introductions, in which he obviously invested considerable research and effort. Here is a paragraph from the introduction to Borthwick’s The Gold Fields:
“The popular notion of a miner is that of a rude and reckless fellow who works one day with a tin pan and gets drunk the next. There were, indeed, many of this ilk in the gold-diggings; but in the main, the miners of ‘49 were a picked and superior class of men. It was not as if a bonanza had been struck within easy reach of the riffraff of the nations. California, by the shortest route, was two thousand miles from any well-populated part of America, five thousand from a European port. The journey thither was expensive, and most of the men who undertook it were such as had accumulated, by their own industry, a good ‘stake’ at home. They were adventurers, to be sure; but what is an adventurer? One who hazards a chance, especially a chance of danger. That is the spirit which starts almost any enterprise that demands courage, determination and self-reliance ... Most of them were charged with spontaneous and persistent energy. Immediately, as by an electric shock, the California of dreaming friars and lazy vaqueros was tossed aside and an amazing industry whirred into action.”
Two of the volumes consist of narratives Kephart excerpted from numerous sources and pieced together with prefatory notes: Captives Among the Indians: First-Hand Naratives of Indian Wars, Customs, Tortures, and Habits of Life During Colonial Times; and Castaways and Crusoes: Tales of Survivors of Shipwreck in New Zealand, Patagonia, Tobago, Cuba, Magdalen Islands, South Seas, and the Crozets.
The title Castways and Crusoes caught my eye. Sure enough, as his first entry, Kephart placed a tale titled “A South Sea Crusoe” that Charles Dickens originally published in the 1860s in “All the Year Round,” one of the magazines he edited. In his note, Kephart informs the reader that this is “the narrative of an English missionary who was cast away on an uninhabited islet off the north coast of New Zealand, with no equipment but his pocket-knife, a pair of blankets, a few pieces of broken glass, a ruined boat and its tattered sails. The man was without food, tools, tackle, weapon, or even the means of making a fire. He was no expert in seamanship or in woodcraft. Yet he managed to subsist in this desolate place for nearly six months, without so much as a captured animal to divert his mind from the awful lonesomeness.” The clergyman added that he had “no books to while away the long tedious hours, no means whereon to fix even an account of my sufferings and fate; though perchance they might one day be read in my bones whitening on the beach.” Just the sort of reading matter Dickens and Kephart would enjoy.
I almost forgot to note that the Outing Publishing Company offered in their 1916-1917 catalog a four-volume “Robinson Crusoe Library,” comprised of Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft (volumes I and II), his Camp Cookery, and — just in case something went awry — Charles Moody’s Backwoods Surgery and Medicine. Potential buyers were advised that, “It has been used and approved by mining engineers, travelers and sportsmen from Alaska to Hayti. Four volumes in a box. Pocket size 41/2x7 inches. Bound in flexible leather. $6.00 net. Postage 30c.”
I have nothing to add to Gary Carden’s perceptive review of Horace Kephart’s posthumous novel Smoky Mountain Magic (Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2009) that appeared in last week’s “Smoky Mountain News.” I do, however, have a query regarding Bob Barnett, the real life model for one of the major characters — Tom Burbank. Burbank is the mountaineer who saves the hero, John Cabarrus, from sure death in a cavern supposedly “located” in the Nicks Nest watershed on Deep Creek above Bryson City. I place “located” in quotation marks because I doubt that such a cavern actually exists along that creek. Kephart more than likely had in mind one of the caverns situated in the Nantahala Gorge, which he “moved” a few miles eastward to suit his purposes.
Although I have written about Kephart since the mid-1970s, the importance of Barnett in his life and work hadn’t fully dawned on me until last month while writing the introduction for Smoky Mountain Magic. I have become quite interested in finding out what I can about Robert L. Barnett and would appreciate hearing from anyone with additional information. Here’s a summary from the introduction of what I know as of now:
In 1904, Kephart secured permission from a copper mining company that had gone into litigation to use one of its abandoned cabins on “the Little Fork of the Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek” in the present day Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Barnett was Kephart’s closest friend during the Hazel Creek years (1904-1907) and on into the early 1920s. Although Barnett was the younger man by 18 years, Kephart admired him tremendously. In a “Roving with Kephart” column published in “All Outdoors” magazine in 1921, he described a recent visit:
“He was the big, fat Bob who figures in ‘Camping and Woodcraft’ and ‘Our Southern Highlanders.’ He came years ago, to the old mine site where I’d been living alone with the bobcats and hoot-owls, and became caretaker for the company that had possession. It was an abandoned place — that is, no one ever lived there — and I welcomed a neighbor. Soon I shifted quarters to his house. We lived together, in various necks of the woods, for several years. Bob is now at Aquone, N.C., on the upper Nantahala, where he keeps open house for all comers.”
In Camping and Woodcraft (1906), Kephart credited Barnett as being “one of the best woodsmen in this country, a man so genuinely a scholar in his chosen lore that he could well afford to say, as once he did to me: ‘I’ve studied these woods and mountains all my life, Kep, like you do your books, and I don’t know them all yet, no sirree.’”
Many of the dialect witticisms entered in Kephart’s journals (now housed at Western Carolina University) were originally uttered by Barnett: “Bob whittled Old Pete Laney’s store-bought axe-handle for him and remarked: ‘Thar! I’ll see that Pete’ll have a decent axe-handle fer his women-folks to chop wood with, anyhow.’”
In the “Back of Beyond” chapter of Our Southern Highlanders, when the two friends were stymied by the marauding tactics of a “slab-sided tusky old boar” (which Kephart has christened “Belial,” after one of Dante’s devils), Bob remarked in frustration: “That Be-liar would cross hell on a rotten rail to get in my ‘tater patch!”
The years after Kephart left the Great Smokies in 1907 until he returned in 1910 have been more or less a mystery. A letter recently archived at Western Carolina University from Kephart to Louis Hampton, a friend who still lived on Hazel Creek, provides additional information as to his whereabouts and activities. It is dated Oct. 5, 1909, and addressed from Lindale, Georgia (near Rome), where he was living with the Barnett family. Kephart advised Hampton that he had been “to Dayton to look after my father who was very sick [and] died a year ago. Then I went to New York and Pennsylvania, and back to Dayton, and finally came down here two weeks ago. I will stay with the Barnetts until spring, and then take a long trip through the mountains from Georgia to Virginia and Kentucky, taking photographs for my books.” In closing, he observed that, “Bob has a good job and a nice home. I have plenty of writing to do, and am saving money to buy a place in the Smokies. The Barnetts have a girl baby. She is a pretty little thing, but has one bad habit, for she pisses in my lap every day. Bob is fatter than ever, and his wife is quite stout. My own health is good.”
While in Lindale, Kephart was no doubt consulting with “Mistress Bob” — as he usually referred to Barnett’s wife — who was renowned for her backcountry culinary skills. His little volume “Camp Cookery,” published in 1910, was dedicated: “To Mistress Bob, who taught me some clever expedients of backwoods cookery that are lost arts wherever the old forest has been leveled.” She reappeared in the expanded edition of Camping and Woodcraft, wherein Kephart described with obvious delight “a mess of greens of her own picking ... an olla podrida ... cooked together in the same pot, with a slice of pork” that resulted in a ‘wild salat,’ as she called it.” And in Smoky Mountain Magic she emerged yet again as the model for Tom Burbank’s wife, Sylvia (“Sylvy”) Burbank.
Kephart returned to the Great Smokies early in 1910. He chose not to settle on Hazel Creek. The W.M. Ritter Company had begun operations there and was in the process of running a railway spur, the Smoky Mountain Railroad, up the watershed. It would not be the same. Instead, he stayed for a while, yet again, with the Barnett family, who had moved from Georgia to “the last house up Deep Creek.” This house was situated at the Bryson Place about 10 miles north of Bryson City—precisely where the Burbank family resides in Smoky Mountain Magic.
By the early 1920s, Kephart was settled in Bryson City and the Barnetts had moved to Aquone, a remote community in Macon County about 30 miles west of Bryson City. Barnett passed away in 1934, when he was 54 years old, and was buried near Mars Hill, North Carolina. It’s unlikely that Kephart admired or valued any of his friends more than he did Bob Barnett — not even George Masa, the Japanese photographer with whom he also formed a special bond.
Among the varied “revelations” brought to light during the celebrations attending the 75th Anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this year was the verification of the existence of an unpublished novel by Hoarace Kephart. Until this discovery, Kephart’s reputation rested on two singular achievements: he is the author of Our Southern Highlanders, a definitive work on the culture and traditions of Southern Appalachia; and he proved to be the primary impetus for the creation of the park by speaking, writing and soliciting financial support from government agencies and foundations. Now, some 80 years later, Kephart’s descendants have announced the existence of Smoky Mountain Magic, a “lost novel of mystery, intrigue and romance.”
According to the preface to the novel, written by Kephart’s granddaughter, Libby Kephart Hargrave, the manuscript has survived intact due to the efforts of Kephart’s heirs. On May 1, 2009, The Great Smoky Mountains Association acquired the manuscript with the understanding that they would publish it. Smoky Mountain Magic was officially released in mid-September.
So, what is Smoky Mountain Magic? What was Kephart’s motivation in writing it? Does it have merit? One critic (Daniel Pierce of the UNC Asheville History Department) has compared it to digging up a “time capsule from the 1920s,” and that seems an apt comparison. Also, it quickly becomes evident that Kephart had a shrewd eye for the popular novels and films of his time; he was well acquainted with writers such as Emma Bell Miles (Spirit of the Mountains) and James Fox (Trail of the Lonesome Pine.) These authors provided him with an excellent template for a tale of “mystery, intrigue, and romance.”
Kephart’s protagonist, John Cabarrus, a.k.a. “Little Jack Dale,” is a man of mystery. When he appears in Kittuwa (Bryson City), he attracts the interest of the entire community, including Tom Burbank, the local sheriff; William Matlock, a corrupt land speculator; Youlus Lumbo, a member of a degenerate mountain family; and Marian Wentworth, a beautiful, intelligent (and highly independent) young woman who is visiting relatives for the summer. We soon learn that Cabarrus has returned to Kittuwa and Deep Creek to right old wrongs, find a missing deed and conduct a geological survey that may lead to a hidden mineral deposit worth a fortune. After a few meetings and a good bit of witty repartee, John and Marian find that they are attracted to each other. The promise of a passionate consummation hangs in the air like the scent of honeysuckle.
Now, let’s add a venerable old chief of the Cherokees named Dagataga and an old friend of John Cabarrus, who is well-versed in the ancient legends of his people. A nighttime visit by John and Mirian to Dagataga’s home during a thunderstorm provides a proper setting for suspense, magic and the supernatural. As the old chief relates the frightful myth of a vengeful serpent called the Uktena, startling his audience by producing the Ulunsuti, the magic jewel that was plucked from the Uktena’s skull, Kephart’s tale moves into a new theme: the true meaning of myth and the struggle between science (or reason) and the world’s ancient superstitions and myths.
To Kephart’s credit, he manages to weave these colorful strands together into a unique pattern. In time, Cabarrus’ search for mineral deposits leads him to a wilderness labyrinth, Nick’s Nest, an “otherworldly place” that is shunned by both the white settlers and the Cherokees. Cabarrus’ descent into this dark hollow will bring him face to face with the contraries represented by myth and science.
Smoky Mountain Magic reflects a time when heroes like John Cabarrus dominated novels and film. Cabarrus is handsome, courageous, physically fit and the master of a dozen diverse fields, including mythology, geology, botany, poetry and psychology. (He will quote Disraeli, Robert Burns or The Iliad at the drop of a hat.) Whereas Mirian is frequently puzzled and uncertain about the world’s unknown aspects, she can simply turn to John who will gently “inform” her. In fact, her primary purpose seems to be to provide John with the opportunity to demonstrate his encyclopedic knowledge. It doesn’t matter if the subject is the subtleties of the Cherokee language, the diversity of plant life, astronomy, the composition of radium or the theory of “thought transference,” John always speaks with total authority. In 1929, it is possible that audiences and readers adored men of this caliber; in 2009, they would consider Cabarrus a pompous and pretentious ass.
Is Kephart’s novel entertaining? Yes, it is. Even at this late date, Smoky Mountain Magic has significant entertainment value. Some of the scenes move with an infectious vitality and excitement. Kephart is at his best in dealing with atmosphere. The visit to Chief Dagataga is masterfully done and the graphic descriptions of numerous solitary wilderness scenes are memorable.
Although many of the minor characters remained woefully undeveloped, the author has a gift for creating “local color” through masterful miniature portraits of minor “characters.” Especially noteworthy is “Sang Johnny,” who survives by digging herbs; Old Hex, Sang Johnny’s mother, who is known as a witch and practitioner of dark magic; Myra Swimming Deer, John’s childhood nurse; and the Cherokee tracker named Runner, who could follow his prey through the forests with a kind of supernatural certainty.
Smoky Mountain Magic would make an excellent movie since the journey into the unknown (“Nick’s Nest”) is still a viable theme. The characters are uncomplicated (like the cast of a Hardy Boys Adventure), violence is minimal and actual murder is restricted to the murder of creatures: a rattlesnake and a “fice” (Kephart’s spelling) dog. Despite the fact that the villains are dedicated to killing our hero, they are all thwarted without significant bloodshed. (Even black-hearted Matlock get off with a mere brain concussion); and sexual content, despite a lot of heavy breathing and a passionate kiss or two, is definitely G-rated.
Kephart’s motivation is writing Smoky Mountain Magic is obvious. He hoped to tap the rich market for tales of adventure — both in fiction and in cinema. What better topic than a journey into a forbidden realm, complete with witches, robber barons, noble savages and a winsome lady, all wrapped in a cloak of mystery and myth. Doubtless, Kephart’s notorious inability to handle his finances prompted him to write the novel. He probably dreamed of paying his debts and acquiring solvency. It should have worked, but as John Cabarrus notes, quoting Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men/ gang aft agley.” If Kephart’s spirit still haunts Kittuwa, he should be immensely pleased to know that even after 80 years, he has made another significant contribution to the Great Smokies National Park.
(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. Visit his blog at hollernotes.blogspot.com.)
When America tunes in to Ken Burns’ long-awaited documentary on the national parks next week, the hard-fought battle to save the Great Smoky Mountains from unrelenting timber barrons will play a major role in the epic series.
The story of the Smokies will unfold around two characters little-known outside the immediate region — yet whose passion for saving the Smokies stands in for the ideological struggle that played out across the country. That struggle ultimately led to a national park system Burns calls “America’s Best Idea.”
The two characters, Horace Kephart and George Masa, are certainly not the only ones who deserve credit for the park’s creation. But they are indeed the most compelling, said George Ellison, a naturalist and historian in Bryson City who consulted on the Smokies segment of the documentary. Ellison isn’t surprised by the filmmakers’ choice.
“It gave them a story line that was different. It gave them a hook they couldn’t resist,” Ellison said. “You could say they focus too much on Kephart and Masa, but it is effective. They did a good, honest job with it.”
Ellison was mailed an advance copy of the Smokies segment of the documentary earlier this summer.
Kephart, a reclusive writer, and Masa, a Japanese immigrant, met through their shared love of long sojourns through the high peaks of the Smokies. The two were kindred spirits who found solace, strength and inspiration in the mountains of their adopted home. They grieved together over the demise of the mountains at the hands of giant timber companies and became ringleaders in the campaign to protect the last stands of virgin forest in the Smoky Mountains.
“The Kephart-Masa story captivated them,” Ellison said.
They were exactly the type of characters the filmmakers were looking for, according to Susan Shumaker, a research who does legwork for documentaries by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan. Shumaker was dispatched to the Smokies by Duncan, the writer and co-producer behind the series.
When embarking on the project, Duncan knew the key to a successful documentary was to find compelling characters that shaped the national parks’ creation.
“It is really a human story,” Shumaker said. “Like anything in our history, it comes down to motivated people who are moving things forward. As humans, that interests us. We are drawn in to the stories.”
Masa and Kephart fit the bill perfectly.
“They cared so much about these places they put their lives on the line to protect them,” Shumaker said.
When Shumaker began her research assignment four years ago, Duncan vaguely knew about Kephart — essentially that he was an eccentric writer who immersed himself in the backwoods culture and wildness of the Smokies. They had no idea how rich the story line would ultimately be.
“Kephart emerged as this poetic voice in defense of the mountains and woods,” Shumaker said.
Masa, however, was completely unknown to the filmmakers. Masa, often referred to as the Ansel Adams of the Smokies, helped convince the nation of the need to protect the mountains through his stunning photographs. He was largely forgotten by history until a few years ago when an Asheville filmmaker Paul Bonesteel, made a feature length documentary about him. It aired statewide on public television, re-energizing an interest in Masa’s amazing body of photographic work. Masa has since been the subject of numerous exhibits and has been featured extensively in regional newspapers and magazines, especially during this year’s 75th anniversary of the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“The thing that I really liked about Masa particularly is you have this guy who is not even from this country but cares enough about it he wants to save it for many generations,” Shumaker said. “That underlines that the parks were created by all people and for all people, regardless of your ethnic or religious background or gender.”
Bonesteel provided the filmmakers extensive research on Masa and helped develop the storyline, and even served as a consultant by viewing an early rough cut of the segment.
“Ken and Dayton are both very serious about getting the history told correctly, so we bring in many historians and other people to view segments and give feedback, often three or four or five times during the process,” Shumaker said.
It’s quite possible that thanks to Bonesteel and Ellison — who were among the first to be contacted by Shumaker in her research for the documentary — the filmmakers were steered to the Kephart-Masa storyline.
One upside of the focus is that both men are from North Carolina, giving the Smokies’ segment in the epic series a decidedly North Carolina bent. Although three-fifths of the national park lies in North Carolina, park operations and headquarters are based in Tennessee, which has been successful in claiming the image of the Smokies as its own.
Proper due in the well-watched Ken Burns’ series could help rectify the false national perception that that the park lies almost wholly in Tennessee.
“The depiction of the park is normally a Tennessee story. This time it is more North Carolina,” Ellison said.
In addition to Bonesteel and Ellison, Shumaker also spent a day interviewing Duane Oliver, a former resident of the North Shore area in Swain County who has written numerous historical accounts of life there. When Shumaker traveled here, she brought a portable scanner and camped out in the basement archives at Smokies’ headquarters and pored over historical collections at Western Carolina University. George Frizzell, the head of special collections at WCU’s Hunter Library, provided key assistance in the research.
Duncan often does his own research, but this project was so big he needed help, Shumaker said.
When the series airs next week, Ellison will be proud to say he had played a small part of shaping the story line for the Smokies, even if that first phone call was all the way back in 2005.
“What surprised me was I asked when it was going to come out and he said 2009,” Ellison said.
That kind of lead time is needed to pull off the caliber of film people now expect from Burns. In fact, Shumaker can name the next several topics Burns is tackling, including Prohibition, the Roosevelts and the Dust Bowl.
Horace Kephart is best known for Our Southern Highlanders (first published in 1913, with an expanded edition in 1922) and his role in helping to found the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But he also published a book that is now recognized as one of the cornerstones of American outdoor literature, Camping and Woodcraft.
After moving to the Great Smokies, 20 years before the national park was founded, Kephart lived in a cabin on the Little Fork of the Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek from 1904 until 1907. From 1910 until his death in 1931, he resided in Bryson City.
During those years on Hazel Creek, he became preoccupied with living as efficiently as possible in a somewhat remote setting. Despite outdoor experiences dating back to childhood, he discovered that he now “had to make shift in a different way . . . seeking not novelties but practical results.” These “results” he published in outdoor magazines.
By 1906, he had compiled enough material to put together the first edition of The Book of Camping and Woodcraft; A Guidebook for Those Who Travel in the Wilderness, published by the Outing Publishing Company in New York. An expanded edition published in two separate volumes appeared in 1916 and 1917, respectively; and in 1921 it came out in a hefty “two volumes in one” format as Camping and Woodcraft: A Handbook for Vacation Campers and for Travelers in the Wilderness.
In the process of expansion and revision, the book became a compendium of anecdotes, recipes, adventures, and practical advice on tent camping, path finding, route sketching, bark utensils, knot tying, backcountry exploration, bee hunting, and more. It remains remarkably useful and is great fun to rummage around in on a rainy day.
I was recently doing just that when I happened upon a section that focused my attention. It is headed “Nature’s Guide-Posts.” Therein, Kephart notes that, “There are two questions that woodsmen will argue, I suppose, until doomsday. Having given my views on one of them I may as well tackle the other, and then have done with controversy. Are there any natural signs of direction that will give a man his bearings when the sky is obscured? . . . I shall endeavor to show that there is more in this matter than is generally credited.”
After a lengthy digression regarding the pros and cons of the old notion that moss always on the north side of trees, Kephart turns his attention to “Tips of Conifers,” noting that, “A rule that holds good in the main, wherever I have had a chance to study it, that the feathery tip, the topmost little branch, of a towering pine or hemlock, points toward the rising sun, that is to say, a little south of east. There are exceptions, of course, but I have generally found this to be the case in three-fourths of the trees examined.” I suspect that the direction of the bend is random and that it is caused by perching birds more often than “the rising sun.”
About “Bark and Annual Rings,” he notes that, “The bark of old trees is generally thicker on the north and northeast sides than on the other sides. A more reliable indicator of direction, though one that a traveler seldom has opportunity to test, is the thickness of annual rings of wood growth, which is more pronounced on the north than on the south side of a tree.
The part that interests me concerns “Compass-Plants.” In that section he first notes that, “Some plants show a decided polarity in their habit of growth,” citing “compass-plant or rosin-weed” as his prime example.
“I have often used the compass-plant as a guide,” he recalls, “and never was led astray by it; in fact, the old settlers on the prairies, if they chanced to get lost on a dark night, would get their bearings by feeling the leaves of the compass-plant.
Now we get to Kephart’s (and my) mystery plant. I would very much like to hear from anyone who can identify the “north-and-south plant” he describes:
“But what think you of plant roots that persistently grow north and south? The woodsmen of the Great Smoky Mountains declare that there is a ‘north-and-south plant,’ as they call it, with two long roots that grow respectively north and south. Doctor
Davis of Ware’s [Wear’s] Valley, on the Tennessee side described it to me as follows: ‘It resembles wild verbena, grows thigh-high, is a rare plant, and generally is found in hollows on the south side of mountains in rocky neighborhoods, near trickling streams. Its leaf is serrated, 1.5 by 1 inch, or larger, with purple heart, yellow edges, and the rest a bright red. Its roots usually do grow north and south. The plant is one of the most valuable medicinally that I know of, particularly for syphilitic affections. I do not know it by any other name than the native one of North-and-South. I gather it when I can find it, and use it in my practice.’
“Many others have given me similar reports,” Kephart concludes. “I do not know the plant; have never hunted systematically for it.”