Biographical Sketch: Life of Horace Kephart
For those who know them, the Great Smoky Mountains are one of America’s most magnificent landscapes: Home to some of the highest and roughest peaks in the country east of the Mississippi, they’re also blanketed in hugely rich temperate forests and the reservoir for some of the East’s deepest wilderness.
That the Smokies aren’t ridden with roads and reeling from whole-scale clearcuts is partly due to the efforts of one topnotch backwoodsman and outdoors writer, Horace Kephart. Along with other Appalachian-wilderness devotees, Kephart was one of the strongest voices for the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
He also remains an inspiration for anyone energized by time in the wilds and interested in self-reliance and age-old woodcraft wisdom.
EARLY LIFE OF HORACE KEPHART
Horace Kephart’s background didn’t necessarily lend itself to wilderness exploration and conservation: He was a librarian by vocation. Born in East Salem, Pennsylvania in 1862 and reared in Iowa, Kephart studied at Cornell University. He spent two years in Italy overseeing the library of a man he’d met in Cornell, Willard Fiske, then ended up as a librarian at Yale University. Married to Laura Mack in 1887, he’d landed a prestigious job by his mid-20s as the director of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
Long fascinated by the American frontier, Kephart—who headed the library from 1980 to 1903—spent much of his free time hiking and camping in the woods of Missouri and Arkansas, adventures that inspired his writings. In addition to influential works on library science, he began publishing accounts of outdoor living—including in the venerable Forest and Stream.
Nonetheless, he experienced much unhappiness in St. Louis. Anxious and unsettled, he turned to drink and eventually dismantled in an episode of “nervous exhaustion,” as he put it. After Laura left him with their children, Horace Kephart, then in his early 40s, cast about for fresh inspiration and a new direction—a rejuvenating and transformative quest he sought in remote country.
HORACE KEPHART’S LIFE IN THE SMOKIES
The wilderness he chose was the heart of the Southern Appalachians: the Great Smoky Mountains straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Horace Kephart found his restorative refuge along Dicks Creek and, by the autumn of 1904, the backwoods community of Hazel Creek. By 1910, he’d settled in Bryson City, North Carolina, on the fringe of the Smokies; he still rambled widely in the mountains whenever he could—hunting, fishing, and generally immersing himself in the lush, river-laced coves, steep mountainside timber, and bald-capped ridges.
Both the ecosystem and the local culture impressed him deeply. Kephart celebrated the Appalachian way of life in Our Southern Highlanders (1913), based on articles he’d published in Outing Magazine. He’d already shared his bushcraft acumen in The Book of Camping and Woodcraft (1906), also evolved from a number of magazine pieces. Both works endure as absolute classics. The Book of Camping and Woodcraft remains full of valuable advice for hikers, backpackers, hunters, and paddlers—rich in details on survival knives, readymade shelters, and other wilderness fundamentals. The Horace Kephart knife design, for example, continues to inspire knife design even today.
HORACE KEPHART AND HIS CONSERVATION WORK
Feeling personally indebted to the Great Smokies and fully convinced of the value of their wildness, Horace Kephart grew alarmed at the rampant logging and mining spreading through the Southern Appalachians. He began to spread the word about the threat, aided in his effort by another Smoky Mountain transplant who became a close friend: the Japanese immigrant George Masa. Masa, equally enamored of the Smokies’ stunning scenery, was a skilled photographer, and his landscape images became the perfect complement to Horace Kephart’s strident writings.
Their work—alongside the efforts of other conservation proponents such as David Chapman and Ann Davis—helped convince the public of the benefit of forever protecting the great forests and soaring domes of the Smokies. The labors of many regional citizens aligned with a $5-million donation from the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to secure the acreage that would serve as nucleus for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, ultimately designated in 1934.
Sadly, Horace Kephart would not live to see the full fruition of his advocacy: He was killed in a car crash in April 1931 near the town of Ela, North Carolina. His name, however, remains indelibly attached to the rugged highlands he so cherished: a noble, 6,217-foot summit along the Great Smokies crest bears his name. The Hazel Creek drainage where he once lived is now a backpacking destination in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Horace Kephart remains a bushcraft icon and a farsighted champion of the American wilderness. He’s certainly a hero for us here at the Pathfinder School—one of those masters of the old ways from whom we all still have much to learn.