Today marks Horace Kephart’s 147th birthday–September 8, 1862, in East Salem, Pennsylvania. One hundred forty-seven is a blah number, not marking a decade, or a half-century, or any of the artificial bookends we assign to chronology. However, when you’re that old, it counts, because even if you’re famous, you could surely fade in the memory of people who might otherwise give a damn.
But now we happily have an effort by his family to rehabilitate and commemorate The Old Woodsman. Who knows where this will lead, but it’ll be interesting. Earlier this summer, on May 1, the Kephart family hosted the first-ever Kephart Day in Kephart’s home town of Bryson City, North Carolina. The mayor proclaimed May 1 “Horace Kephart Day,” lending the proper legitimacy.
Organized by Kep’s great-granddaughter Laura Kephart Hargrave and other family folks along with the local chamber of commerce, Kephart Day gathered an overflowing roomful of relatives and Kephart pilgrims for talks by Kephart writer and Smokies historian George Ellison along with a host of other presenters, including Brianne Coons Carter, who gave a paper on her great-great-grandfather as a conservationist. George Ellison (www.georgeellison.com/) is one of the two definitive Kephart biographers, and his introduction to the 1976 University of Tennessee Press edition of Our Southern Highlanders is the source of much of our knowledge about Kephart. The book is still in print.
To quote from the Swain County Chamber of Commerce announcement: (www.horacekephart.com/Kephart%20Day%20Document.pdf)
“The day will begin with a service at the author’s grave in Bryson City Cemetery. In the afternoon, Kephart devotees will gather at The Historic Calhoun House Hotel for a program hosted by owner Luke Hyde and organized by the Swain County Chamber of Commerce. Libby Kephart Hargrave will read selections from her great-grandfather’s works. There will also be a presentation by Park officials, and historic papers and artifacts will be displayed by Kephart scholar George Ellison and representatives of Western Carolina University.”
I attended the celebration, and thanks to George Ellison’s invitation had a small part in the proceedings, along with my colleague Janet McCue of Cornell University. The two of us are particularly keen about Kephart’s life as a librarian.
I’ve been to Bryson City before, but walking across the Tuckasegee River bridge and gazing at the back rooms above Bennett’s Drug Store, overlooking the river, where Kep had his office from about 1910 until his death in 1931, is evocative every time.
2009 also marks the 75th anniversary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so the chamber of commerce had a stake in helping organize Kephart Day. Bryson City has been a bit slow in celebrating one of its more famous citizens, perhaps because while Kephart was well-loved among segments of the community and a member of the city council, he was also known as a binge drinker and thought to be a neglectful husband and father. “Horace Kephart was a celebrated citizen of Bryson City,” the chamber representative noted at the gravesite, as quoted in the Smoky Mountain Times on May 7 (www.thesmokymountaintimes.com/articles/2009/05/07/news/news02.txt). “Although in the past, he might not have seen the recognition he deserved, we plan on rectifying that in the future.”
Kephart’s work is recognized as instrumental in convincing Congress, the Park Service, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, local governments, landowners, and residents of the value of a national park in the Smokies.
Dale Ditmanson, park superintendent, said Kephart helped save the forests of Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee.
“Change impacted Kephart’s world,” Ditmanson said, as reported in the Smoky Mountain Times on May 7. “He lived to see the lumber companies invade the Smokies and start to ruin the forests he so treasured.
“Beginning in the mid-20s, Mr. Kephart took a leadership role in a growing movement to preserve the Great Smokies as a national park. He turned his gift of eloquence in written word to detailing a compelling rationale for preserving the Great Smokies.”
Not an easy job, and Kephart died before the park was finally approved. But he has a mountain named after him, the park is now the most-visited in the national park system, and the forests were rescued before they could be totally decimated. The park superintendent also implied at his gravesite talk that the Park Service now recognizes the cultural damage done to the local population, as well as to the forests, by the clearcutting practices of the early 20th Century.
Several Kephart students were missing, including John Christopher Bowers and Martin W. Maxwell, each of whom wrote Master’s theses on Kephart, and conspicuously absent from the proceedings was Jim Casada (www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com/) . Casada and Ellison are our two pre-eminent Kephart scholars. Casada wrote the introduction to the 1988 University of Tennessee Press edition of Camping and Woodcraft, which remains in print. Casada believes, and from the evidence he relates he can’t be blamed for feeling as he does, that he has been badly treated by members of the family. They, and others, feel Casada has vastly over-emphasized Kephart’s failings as father and husband, and overly dwelt on his alcoholism. Casada grew up in Bryson City and has inteviewed and written perhaps more than anyone else about Kephart. He feels that he, as an historian, is providing an accurate portrait of the man his father knew, even if it means presenting details the family would prefer to overlook. Where is the balance? Perhaps it will be clearer in the future, but history is no guide in these matters.
During the Kephart Day event I talked on the phone with Jim Casada, who was coincidentally in Bryson City caring for his father at the time of the gathering. I tried to convince him his scholarship would provide a leavening presence. Libby Kephart Hargrave assured me that he would be welcome. I could not convince Casada of that. He maintains he was initially interested in participating, but the chamber of commerce wouldn’t return his calls. There may be many reasons for this, but it is conceivable that he was considered unwelcome by someone. Perhaps if the event is repeated, he and others could be convinced it would be important to have him there. I very much hope that will be the case. I think that at this remove from Kephart’s time, the family is reconciled to Kephart’s failings–who has none?- and can deal with celebrating the man as he was. Perhaps this is a time in which human frailties are considered more leniently, but I’m no sociologist.
Perhaps next year in Bryson City, Casada and Ellison, Libby and the Kephart clan, and the other relatives and Kephart pilgrims can all gather for beers at Jimmy Mac’s. If it worked for Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Sgt James Crowley, and President Obama (did it?), it might be a breakthrough here. A spirited, civil discussion would be of high interest, and a different point of view on some of these issues can help to avoid lionization.
It was a grand gathering. Presentations by interesting people who know a lot about Kephart, hiking in the Smokies, playing bagpipes in the cemetery, drinking vino in the evenings and chatting with Kephart descendents and fellow fans on the front porch of the Calhoun House Hotel. . . . Jim, hope to see you there next year!
A Kephart Day webpage was developed at http://www.horacekephart.com, but a follow-up report with details of Kephart Day has not yet appeared at that site.