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.
Horace Kephart Days Celebration
• 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.