New Biography Explores Horace Kephart's Complex Legacy

Jun 12, 2019

  Horace Kephart is remembered as one of the seminal authors of Southern Appalachia. He was also a key player in the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The first-ever biography of his life was just published. Here’s more on the book, “Back of Beyond” - and his complex life -  from Swain County.


A flute plays as a small group gathers at Horace Kephart’s graveside overlooking Bryson City to honor his memory. Published in 1913, his book “Our Southern Highlanders” chronicles his years traveling in the Smokies and is still named as one of the most important books about the region.

Some of Kephart's grandchildren and great grandchildren remember his legacy in the Bryson City Cemetery next to his grave.
Credit Lilly Knoepp


Barbara Kephart Crane is 95. She’s one of the author’s last living grandchildren. She says the best gift her grandfather gave her - and the world - was his descriptions of the Smokies:


“Well a love of the mountains, I think and to cherish our natural resources. Because they are definitely being exploited and I hope they stay as they are,” says Crane, who now lives in Pinehurst NC. Kephart also wrote "Camping and Woodcraft" as well as other books.


Libby Kephart Hargrave is the director of the Horace Kephart Foundation. She put together this weekend to celebrate the first ever biography about her great grandfather. We sat down on the porch of The Fryemont Inn to get out of the rain.


“I’ve been coming here since I was 10 years old with my grandfather who was Horace and Laura's fifth child. He brought me and my sisters here to understand his contribution to the world, what he did - his strengths and his weaknesses. So I’ve been coming here for 53 years,” explains Hargrave. This isn’t her full-time gig. Hargraves is a musician in Florida.


It’s important to Hargrave that Kephart’s legacy be remembered. Along with his mark on the Smokies, the biography explores the darker side of his life too. He struggled with alcoholism and left his wife and six children to move to the mountains in 1904.


“He was one of the country’s greatest librarians but he had a nervous breakdown. We all have a tipping point and we don’t know what it is. He hit a tipping point and the mountains saved his life. And he paid tribute to that by preserving these mountains forever,” says Hargrave.


The contradictions of Kephart’s life are what authors Janet McCue and George Ellison were trying to capture in their biography.


“I think that’s what George and I were trying to do with “Back of Beyond” was to add back in those pieces of his life that he had left out,” says McCue. Ellison continues:  “Yeah and to add some more context - not that he was someone who just came out from under a bridge to write about Bryson City.”


Ellison is an author, columnist and local historian. He wrote the introduction to Kephart’s “Our Southern Highlanders” when it was republished in 1976. McCue is a retired librarian from Ithaca, New York. She remembers reading that introduction when she was in grad school. Both are Kephart scholars.


They connected at a conference in 2009. It took them about five years to write the over 400 page book.


“I think he’s a fascinating man and you are always trying to who he is. What motivated him and figure out why he did the things that he did and how to reconcile the contradictions in his life,” says McCue.


McCue and Ellison hope they capture his sense of adventure and the struggle that brought him here. Kephart’s fantasy to move to the mountains to escape his troubles isn’t unique.


“In some way or another they all are looking for a place of refuge - and idealize it like Kephart. They want that cabin to be on the ridgeline with a view or by a babbling brook,” explains Ellison about the many Kephart fans he has met over the years.


“Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography” is now in local bookstores.


The Great Smoky Mountains Association published the biography. The organization is a sponsor of Blue Ridge Public Radio.