On April 2, 1931 Horace Kephart was killed in an automobile accident near Ela, NC along with fellow author Fiswoode Tarelton. Kephart (1862-1931) was a travel writer and librarian who published hundreds of articles during his lifetime, but became especially renowned for his classic works ‘Our Southern Highlanders’ and ‘Camping and Woodcraft.’
In one of Poe’s minor tales, written in 1845, there is a vague allusion to wild mountains in western Virginia “tenanted by fierce and uncouth races of men.” This, so far as I know, was the first reference in literature to our Southern mountaineers, and it stood as their only characterization until Miss Murfree (“Charles Egbert Craddock”) began her stories of the Cumberland hills.
Opening of ‘Our Southern Highlanders,’ by Horace Kephart
In ‘Our Southern Highlanders,’ published in 1913 and expanded in 1922, Kephart argued that the rest of America knew almost nothing of a people set apart “from all other folks by dialect, by customs, by character, by self-conscious isolation,” who because of the terrain of the land still lived in the eighteenth century. His book strove to change that. Kephart saw firsthand the impact of modernized communication and transportation on Appalachia during his lifetime, and by book’s end predicted that the region was on the verge of an economic revolution which would change everything.
Trained as a librarian, Kephart achieved national recognition during his years as director of the Mercantile Library in St. Louis, Missouri, from 1890 to 1903. While living in what was already one of the largest cities in the nation, Kephart began indulging in outdoor life through camping and hunting trips. As his passion for the outdoors increased, Kephart began to write articles about the subject topics. Kephart developed 10 years of experience writing about these excursions centered on Arkansas and Missouri.
These works are similar in substance and tone to those he would later publish about western North Carolina’s mountains and people. Eventually he succumbed to what he later called ‘nervous exhaustion’ and concluded that urban life was a major contributor to his problems. He left his career as a librarian in St. Louis and, after a brief respite and period of personal reflection at the home of his father in Ohio, soon decided to move to western North Carolina.
In 1904, at the age of 42, Kephart arrived in western North Carolina to begin his life anew. He chose a simple lifestyle and nature-as-healer approach. At the same time, he immersed himself in his new natural environment and took an immediate interest in the history and culture of the people.
Kephart, who was personally modest and rarely sought the limelight, nevertheless used his abilities and reputation on behalf of the movement to create a Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a unique and recognized personification concerning the cultural and natural studies on the Great Smokies region, he was influential in convincing individuals on both the local and national levels of the need for such a park.
Kephart’s arguments on behalf of a park were thoughtful and pragmatic as well as appealing to the love and appreciation of nature. Acknowledging that the Great Smoky Mountains contributed to his mental and physical recovery after 1904 and describing the economic potential of a national park, he campaigned vigorously to preserve the last major stands of forests in the East.
It had become apparent in his lifetime that a national park would be a reality. In February 1931 the U.S. Geological Board recognized Kephart’s contribution by naming a peak within the park Mount Kephart, an honor previously only bestowed posthumously. Shortly before his death, Kephart had represented Swain County in Washington, D.C., when state park officials from North Carolina and Tennessee transferred the titles of the lands purchased by them to be used for the park over to the United States government.
Kephart’s major works have remained in print and articles appear on a routine basis about his contributions to camping, regional history, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.