Horace Kephart is best-known for his role in raising public support for what became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and as the author of two non-fiction books that have become classics. Tucked away for 80 years was a literary surprise: the completed manuscript for a Kephart novel. It's just been published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association and the timing is appropriate: this year is the park's 75th anniversary.
It's also appropriate because Horace Kephart figures into the story of Great Smoky Mountains National Park that Ken Burns tells in The National Parks: America's Best Idea. In tonight's episode, Going Home, we learn that Kephart was something of an enigma. Sharp-minded, he entered college at age 13, was a graduate student four years later, and settled down with a wife in St. Louis before he was 25, as Ken Burns tells us. But his life seemed to collapse when he lost his job and turned to drinking; his wife took their six children and left him.
In heading to the Smokies in 1904, the then-42-year-old was looking to start life over. In the Smoky Mountains, he found "an Eden, unspoiled and unpeopled."
"I was seeking a back of beyond. I yearned for a strange land and a people that had the charm of originality," tonight's narrator reads from Kephart's journal.
When he reached the Smokies, Kephart moved into an abandoned cabin on a tributary of Hazel Creek in North Carolina. It was a remote area even by local standards of the time, but it fit his love for hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, and living off the land.
To ward off the loneliness that came with nightfall, Kephart turned to writing. A series of his articles for Field and Stream provided the material for Camping and Woodcraft, a book often regarded as the definitive work on enjoying the out of doors. His friendship with his independent and self-reliant neighbors later led to what's been called the classic work on the people of the Smokies, Our Southern Highlanders.
During the 1920s, Kephart and his friend and fellow hiker George Masa began a vigorous campaign to have the Great Smoky Mountains protected as a national park. Kephart wrote letters, articles, and a booklet championing the cause, and Masa contributed his breath-taking landscape photographs. Together they raised awareness of the significance and beauty of the Smokies and sounded the alarm over the devastation being caused by unsound, industrial logging operations.
Both Kephart and Masa figure prominently in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park segment (Episode 4, which airs tonight) of the 12-hour documentary series by Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Neighboring mountains in the area were named for both Kephart and Masa in recognition of their successful efforts on behalf of the park, and a stream, trail, and camping shelter in the national park also bear Kephart’s name.
Kephart died in a car accident in 1931, and for decades only a few members of his family knew that he had completed the manuscript for a novel.
According to Cathy Cook, chief of resource education and science at the Smokies, “We had no idea that a Kephart novel even existed. The unpublished manuscript for Smoky Mountain Magic was handed down within the Kephart family until it was finally brought to the attention of park superintendent, Dale Ditmanson, by Libby Kephart Hargrave, the author’s great-granddaughter, at one of this year’s 75th Anniversary celebrations. The typewritten manuscript was complete, having gone through numerous drafts and revisions over the course of the eight years that Horace Kephart labored over it.”
The park’s cooperating partner, Great Smoky Mountains Association, has just published and released the Smoky Mountain Magic. The novel's story takes place during the summer of 1925, mostly along the Deep Creek watershed in the Great Smoky Mountains, but also in a thinly-disguised Bryson City (called Kittuwa) and the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Characters include a mysterious stranger (who resembles the author in his youth), a greedy land baron, a cadre of mountain folk ranging in constitution from stalwart to conniving, a beautiful botanist, a Cherokee chief, and a witch.
The novel fits the adventure story genre of the day with a bit of romance interwoven. The 248-page book is now available in both paperback ($12.95) and hard cover ($19.95). All proceeds are being donated to the Horace Kephart Foundation (in support of the annual Horace Kephart Days Celebration in Bryson City), Great Smoky Mountains Association, and Friends of the Smokies.
The novel is available at park visitor centers, area bookstores, and by contacting GSMA at www.SmokiesInformation.org or 1-888-898-9102 x226.