Originally published in the Chillicothe Gazette, February 2, 2020
About 25 years ago, my brother’s high school took a class trip to the Smoky Mountains. They were studying Appalachian history. He bought a souvenir for me, the CD “Ways That Are Dark: A Musical Companion to Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders.” It’s a great album and still available online (search YouTube for Daniel Gore). That was my first exposure to Kephart.
Last month, my family and I spent a week in the Smoky Mountains. Seeing Kephart’s name in and around the park reminded me of that album. Later, at a gift shop I picked up the new book, Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography by George Ellison and Janet McCue.
Kephart’s seminal work, Our Southern Highlanders, detailed his experiences in the Smoky Mountains, mostly on the North Carolina side. At the time of its publication, Kephart was already a well-known writer of magazine articles and books about camping, hiking and hunting. But even before that, Kephart was a librarian.
For 13 years, Kephart was the Director of the St. Louis Mercantile Library, where he built up a still-renowned research collection of first-hand narratives of frontier life through diaries and travel journals. Unfortunately, during this time he also experienced severe bouts of mental illness (likely exasperated by alcoholism) that led to him being criticized and ridiculed in the local press, and charged as unfit and overworked. The public attention only heightened his paranoia and fatigue. He left in disgrace.
Like Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau and others before him, Kephart truly believed in the restorative power of nature. He sought a landscape unspoiled by modern times; the Smoky Mountains filled that role.
Fatefully, the federal government was exploring places to create a new national park in the Eastern United States. Outside of Maine, all the other national parks at the time were in the west. Kephart was the right person with the right background to fully document and champion the Smoky Mountains as deserving of the designation. As John Muir is to the west and Marjory Stoneman Douglas is to the Everglades, so is Kephart to Appalachia.
As you can imagine, establishing a national park that spans two states (Tennessee and North Carolina) is a huge endeavor. Kephart’s writing helped secure the funding to buy the land, but he also personally mapped out a lot of the area, too. One of the biggest undertakings was standardizing place names. For example, there were a handful of streams called Deep Creek and Indian Creek. A mountain peak on the Tennessee side might have one name, while on the North Carolina side it was known as something else. Falling back on his research skills as a librarian, Kephart was able to trace historic, local names and help the park settle on common designators.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially dedicated in September, 1940 by Franklin Roosevelt. Unfortunately, Kephart had died 9 years earlier in a car wreck. His work and devotion is not forgotten, however. If you ever through-hike the Appalachian Trail, you’ll cross the southern slope of Kephart Mountain, not far from Clingmans Dome. You might even run into a librarian on the path.