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.