Smoky Mountain Man

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    Horace Kephart was a man of small stature but a conservationist, of natural resources and pioneer heritage, to the core.
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    Kephart was at home in a wilderness pioneer cabin or in a tent camp. He was a master outdoorsman and outdoor cook. His book Camp Cookery is still in print.
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    The untimely death of Kephart in an auto accident brought his famed outdoor career to a close. He is buried in Hillside Cemetery in Bryson City, North Carolina.
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    Two of Kephart’s books, Our Southern Highlanders and Camping and Woodcraft are still available from the University of Tennessee Press utpress.org and his book Camp Cookery is available from Applewood Books, awb.com. The novel he wrote, Smoky Mountain Magic, was not published until 2009. It is available from The Great Smoky Mountains Association, smokiesinformation.org.A knife of Kephart’s design is available as a custom knife from Kelsey Creek Knife Works, kelseycreekknifeworks.com.

He was one of the best known outdoorsmen of his time, a nationally known writer and a scholar of the Appalachian Mountains, yet he was a very complex man with a unique story.

Horace Kephart, a man of contradictions, was a well educated individual who preferred the company of illiterate backwoods farmers to that of educated city folks, a hunter who led the fight for the establishment of a national park where hunting was not allowed, a man who loved his family but chose to live separately, in the mountains, from his wife and their six children.

Adventure Calls

Kephart was born in 1862 in Pennsylvania but was raised in rural Iowa. His mother taught him to read at an early age and at seven she gave him a copy of the book, Robinson Crusoe. The book made an impression on him that lasted a lifetime. With no other children around with whom to play, young Kephart became Robinson Crusoe each day as he played with an old boat he dragged up from a nearby river. This fantasy world gave him a burning desire for adventure and to explore the natural world around him.

Education came easily for Kephart as his father was a professor, and he had an uncle who was the president of a university. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, studied librarianship at Boston University, Cornell University, Rutgers, Yale and in Italy. By the time he was 25 he was married and the director of St. Louis Mercantile Library in St. Louis where he became a recognized authority on “Western Americana.”

He was unhappy in both job and marriage. He began drinking heavily and spending his free time, alone, in the Ozark Mountains and Arkansas swamps. He began writing about his outings in popular outdoor magazines of the time.
In 1903 he lost his job at the library so his wife, Laura, and six children returned to her home town in New York, allowing Kephart time to be “alone to rest.” In 1904, he suffered a nervous collapse and was hospitalized but recovered within a few weeks.

Back Of Beyond

Kephart had come to despise almost all aspects of city life. He saw in it “only decadence, and in the wilderness, only virtue.” He decided to find the wildest, least populated area within a reasonable distance and move there to live in the wild. For his “back of beyond” he chose the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

In August 1904, 42-year-old Kephart, a man of “be-low average height, medium build and with a bristling black mustache that seemed to contrast violently with his finely modeled features” stepped from a train in Dillsboro, North Carolina and hiked up Dicks Creek to established a “scouting base camp” that he named Camp Toco. It was nothing more than a baker tent, camping gear and a campfire.

Living alone, he began taking notes and photographs on the natural history of the area as well as the customs and attitudes of the people who lived in the remote mountain area. He soon fell in love with the misty blue Great Smoky Mountains and its isolated, resourceful people.

In October, to get into a more isolated location, he moved his camp to an abandoned cabin on a creek in the Hazel Creek watershed near a remote community of 42 families called Medlin. Some of these families lived several miles from their nearest neighbor and 15 homes had no wagon road. It was isolation in a deep mountain wilderness, land only for the self-reliant. Every man was his own farmer, blacksmith, gunsmith, carpenter, and cobbler. This seemed to Kephart an ideal place for his outdoor pursuits and a study of these interesting pioneers.