Markers for George Masa and Laura Kephart will finally join Horace Kephart's grave in Bryson City
Author and outdoorsman Horace Kephart played a crucial role in the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This weekend, his family will take a step in fulfilling the last wishes of his late wife and his longtime collaborator.
As part of the Kephardt Days celebration, they will place two long-awaited markers alongside Kephart’s grave in Bryson City: one for his wife Laura White Mack Kephart and one for his longtime conservation partner photographer George Masa.
Kephart, author of “Our Southern Highlanders” and “The Book of Camping and Woodcraft,” had nontraditional relationships with both Laura and George.
“They both wanted to be buried or have ashes placed next to him it was their request upon their death,” Libby Kephart Hargrave, director of the Horace Kephart Foundation, said. She will lead the installation of the markers this weekend. She is the great granddaughter of “Kep” as she calls him.
“It’s been a long time coming and I know there will be a few tears that day but as a family member I have worked on this for both of these people for years,” Hargrave said. “But it’s contacting the right people and everybody having the right intention of doing this for the sole reason of honoring George Masa and Laura and bringing them back together with Kep.”
Kephart left Laura with their six children to move to the mountains in 1904. They never legally separated, Hargrave said, and they still loved each other.
“She loved him. She understood him. And she understood that he had to go to back of beyond. They did have a short reconciliation, but the demons of the night just kept attacking him. The alcohol, whatever else he was doing," Hargrave said referring to what Kephart called his home in Swain County.
She says both he and his wife requested that all their letters be burned after they died.
“It’s a love story that is difficult to understand. But it’s not really ours to have to understand. What was said is between the two of them,” Hargrave said. The foundation is not Hargrave’s fulltime job. She is a musician in Florida.
Hargrave says she believes that without support from Laura, Kephart could not have lived on or accomplished what he did.
“He needed to know that she loved him. That the kids loved him. And as far as we know she never said an ill word about him to the children. That’s remarkable," Hargrave said.
Laura supported the six children on her own with help from Kephart, according to Hargrave. They continued to write letters and Laura tested recipes, tent fabrics and more for Kephart for his books.
“Because of her and her support and love for this man we have the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We owe her a lot," Hargrave said referring to her great-grandmother.
Hargrave says that no one knows where Laura Kephart’s ashes ended up after her death, but this marker will be fulfilling her last wishes.
Photographing the Great Smoky Mountains
The complexity of the marital relationship matches the complexity of the bond Kephart shared with George Masa, who spent nearly a decade exploring the mountains with Kephart. Masa, a Japanese immigrant who became a photographer in Asheville in the 1900s, photographed the vistas and mountains of the forests in the region as part of the efforts to conserve what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
‘We have those two men who weren’t from the area. But they see what is happening with the logging companies destroying the mountains and it struck a cord with each one of them in different ways but they knew that the mountains had to be saved and they had the ability to do it,” Hargrave said. “And they worked tirelessly without compensation to save these mountains.”
Until recently, not much was known about Masa, who mapped much of the North Carolina portion of the Appalachian trail. A documentary titled “The Mystery of George Masa” by Paul Bonsteel in 2003 told much of Masa’s story. Others have also written about his life including George Ellison and Janet McCue’s work about Masa in their biography of Kephart.
Bonesteel and McCue are working on a biography of Masa to be released later this year.
A photographic biography of Masa by local author Brent Martin won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award in 2022.
Masa died about three years after Kephart, and this year marks the 90th anniversary of Masa’s death.
“When George Masa died, he was broke. He had no money. The Carolina Mountain Club raised enough money to have him buried in Asheville where he remains – and he will remain there. I did not want to move a body. That’s kind of like rattling bones – literally,” Hargrave said. “But we wanted to honor him as best we could with a marker next to Kephart.”
The markers cost $4,500 which was all donated to the foundation.
“I called it Project Reunite because we are reuniting them as best we can,” Hargrave said.
The bronze and granite monument were made by Martin Monuments of Asheville.
The markers will be celebrated during Kephart Days, a 15-year old tradition that will be held this year from May 19 to 21 in Bryson City. There will be additional programing at the nearby Fryemont Inn.
The unveiling of the markets will take place at 10:30am at Bryson City Cemetery.
Other programs include a discussion with Ethan Becker about the Kephart knife. His grandmother is the original author of “The Joy of Cooking” who worked on the project with his mother, Marion Rombauer Becker. Ethan Becker took over the family business in more recent years.