The setting for Horace Kephart’s posthumous novel Smoky Mountain Magic (2009) is the Cherokee Indian Reservation, Bryson City and Deep Creek — places familiar to most readers of this column. The main character, John Carrabus, spends much of his time camped in a hideaway named Nick’s Nest (a real place adjacent to the well-know Bryson Pace) where there’s a rock overhang he calls “The Alcove” and an immense cavern in which he becomes trapped.
To the Editor:
I have read with interest the original article by George Ellison questioning the account that Granville Calhoun has provided about the trip of Horace Kephart to Hazel Creek in 1904 and the response made to that article by Granville’s great niece Gwen Franks Breese and Mr. Ellison’s response to her letter. Quite frankly I am appalled by Mr. Ellison’s largely unsupported position that the story related by Mr. Calhoun was false.
To the Editor:
Readers may well be approaching exhaustion with this ongoing exchange regarding circumstances surrounding Horace Kephart’s arrival at Hazel Creek, but since his death the Kephart saga has been misrepresented to a degree rivaling the pervasive stereotyping and inaccuracies found in Our Southern Highlanders (OSH). We feel it important to delineate some factual verities.
The story of the initial meeting between Horace Kephart and Granville Calhoun has as many twists and turns as a short story by O. Henry.
The meeting between Granville Calhoun and Horace Kephart (the quintessential highlander and outlander, respectively) is a noteworthy event in this region’s cultural history. Janet McCue and I are especially interested in events associated with that encounter for the Kephart biography we are writing. The ongoing exchanges in the pages of this newspaper have been more than informative.
George Ellison’s response to Gwen Breese’s letter regarding his article on Horace Kephart and his condition when he arrived at Hazel Creek states, correctly, that as someone who is working on a biography of Horace Kephart, he is “obligated to examine, as best I can, each episode in Kephart’s life in the light of available evidence.” We wholeheartedly agree with that obligation. However, the information and supposed evidence which Ellison offers in an effort to describe Calhoun’s story of the meeting with and “drying out” of Kephart as nothing more than the equivalent of a “tall tale spun by Mark Twain” is at best open to serious question and at worst highly suspect. Here are some of the reasons why this rewriting of history is so fraught with problems.
In a letter to the editor of the Smoky Mountain News published several weeks ago, Gwen Franks Breese took exception to a Back Then column of mine originally published in SMN in November 2013.
That column went into considerable detail as to Horace Kephart’s “condition” (in November 1904) at the time Granville Calhoun (her great-uncle) escorted the writer from Bushnell to an abandoned cabin on the Little Fork of the Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek.
Horace Kephart left the cabin site on the Little Fork in the fall of 1907, spending considerable time in other areas of the Southern Appalachians, comparing life there with what he had observed here in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Upon his return to the Smokies in 1910, the W.M. Ritter Lumber Company had commenced operations on Hazel Creek. Not wanting to live among that sort of activity, he moved into the Cooper House, an unpretentious boarding just off the town square in Bryson City. He also rented a small office space over the old Bennett’s Drug Store just around the corner.
For a man who has just won the North Carolina Literature Award, writer Gary Carden is quite somber.
At his home in Sylva last week, he rocked in a chair on the front porch, his trusty dog Jack lying nearby. He was recently informed of the award, but it seems bittersweet. His latest creation — and a catalyst for the achievement — is the play “Outlander,” a historical drama about famed writer Horace Kephart who chronicled the lives of hardscrabble Appalachian settlers in the early 1900s.
Most of us at one time or another hanker for a place where we can get away from it all for awhile … recharge our batteries as it were. But some yearn for a place where they can hide away …begin all over again. Like Huck tells Jim at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he’s ready to “light out for the territory” … it’s time to seek a “Never Never Land” like the one Horace Kephart memorably described in the second chapter of Our Southern Highlander:
“When I went south into the mountains I was seeking a Back of Beyond. This for more reasons than one. With an inborn taste for the wild and romantic, I yearned for a strange land and a people that had the charm of originality. Again, I had a passion for early American history; and, in Far Appalachia, it seemed that I might realize the past in the present, seeing with my own eyes what life must have been to my pioneer ancestors of a century or two ago. Besides, I wanted to enjoy a free life in the open air, the thrill of exploring new ground, the joys of the chase, and the man’s game of matching my woodcraft against the forces of nature, with no help from servants or hired guides.
So, casting about for a biding place that would fill such needs, I picked out the upper settlement of Hazel Creek, far up under the lee of those Smoky Mountains that I had learned so little about. On the edge of this settlement, scant two miles from the post-office of Medlin, there was a copper mine, long disused on account of litigation, and I got permission to occupy one of its abandoned cabins.”
The phrase “Back of Beyond” is undeniably evocative. Through the years, since first encountering it, I’ve wondered about its origins and equivalents. Kephart partially divulged his sources:
“Of certain remote parts of Erin, Jane Barlow says: ‘In Bogland, if you inquire the address of such or such person, you will hear not very infrequently that he or she lives ‘off away at the Back of Beyond’ ... A traveler to the Back of Beyond may consider himself rather exceptionally fortunate, should he find that he is able to arrive at his destination by any mode of conveyance other than ‘the two standin’ feet of him.’ Often enough the last stage of his journey proceeds down some boggy boreen, or up some craggy hill-track, inaccessible to any wheel or hoof that ever was shod.’”
Barlow, I discovered was the daughter of Rev. James William Barlow, vice provost of Trinity College, Dublin. Born in Clontarf, County Dublin, she spent most of her life living in a thatched cottage in Raheny, in the townland of Ballyhoy. She died in Bray, County Wicklow. Barlow was a poet, novelist, and writer of short stories who also wrote one play. Her work had its admirers in Britain and Irish America, rather than in nationalist Ireland.
Irish Idylls, which went into eight editions, is her most famous collection. But it’s likely that Kephart lifted the “Back of Beyond” phrase from her At the Back of Beyond, which was published in 1902.
While tracking down Miss Barlow and her use of “Back of Beyond,” I encountered some words and phrases often used as equivalents. “Back o’ Bourke” is Australian, in reference to the remote town of Bourke in north-western New South Wales. “Timbuktu” is a town in the West African nation of situated 10 miles north of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. And, my favorite, “Beyond the Black Stump” is also Australian.
Online sources indicate that the most prosaic explanation for the origin of ‘black stump’ derives from the general use of fire-blackened tree-stumps as markers when giving directions to travellers unfamiliar with the terrain. An early use of the phrase from the a Sydney journal of 31 March 1900 seems to lend support to this explanation: ‘A rigmarole of details concerning the turns and hollows, the big tree, the dog-leg fence, and the black stump.” A quote from John Wynnum’s I’m a Jack, all Right conveys this meaning: “It’s way Back o’ Bourke. Beyond the Black Stump. Not shown on the petrol station maps, even.”