Horace Sowers Kephart, outdoorsman and author, was born on September 8, 1862, in East Salem, Pennsylvania to Isaiah L. and Mary Elizabeth Kephart. The family moved five years later to Jefferson, Iowa, and again in 1871 to Western, Iowa. However, in 1876, failed crops and other financial difficulties forced the family to return to Pennsylvania.
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After briefly attending Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, Kephart entered Boston University where he studied under Alphaeus Hyatt, a distinguished zoologist and naturalist. His time in Boston also allowed him “the blessed privilege of studying whatever I pleased in the Boston Public Library.” In 1880, Kephart enrolled in Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. While studying history and political science, Kephart took a position as an assistant to the school’s librarian, Willard Fiske.
Kephart’s friendship with Fiske, an independently wealthy bibliophile, would take him around the world. In 1883 Fiske financed a trip to Italy, where he and Kephart assembled a collection of works by Dante and Petrach. Kephart also spent his time in Italy attending lectures by eminent anthropologist Paolo Mantegazza and taking hikes in the Apennines and Alps.
Kephart returned to the United States in 1886 after accepting a position as assistant librarian at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Shortly afterwards, he married Laura Mack of Ithaca, New York. Four years later, he moved his wife and family to St. Louis, Missouri, after taking the position as director of the St. Louis Mercantile Library. At the Mercantile Library, Kephart became an expert on Western Americana, developing one of the largest collections in the world concerning the history of the western United States.
By the turn of the century, Kephart’s desires and goals in life had changed dramatically. He became enchanted with the idea of the wilderness, alienating his family, and taking extended trips alone to the Ozarks. He developed a love of guns, the outdoors, and alcohol. In 1903, his drinking forced him to resign the directorship, and the following year he suffered a nervous breakdown. Kephart left his wife and six children to live with his parents in Dayton, Ohio.
While in Dayton, Kephart contemplated a literary career that would blend his writing skills with his love of the outdoors. He began searching for what he called a “Back of Beyond,” where he could find “ a place to begin again.” In the summer of 1904, Kephart decided the North Carolina mountains would become his “Back of Beyond.” He arrived by train, setting up a small camp along Dick’s Creek in Jackson County. During the winter, Kephart obtained permission to use an abandoned two-bedroom shack along Hazel Creek in Swain County. For the next two years he wrote articles on outdoor life for several popular publications, and in 1906 compiled enough material to publish Camping and Woodcraft, which detailed outdoor skills and techniques.
From 1907 to 1910, Kephart traveled the Appalachian Mountains on foot, camping alone in the backcountry. He returned to Swain County and took up residence in a boardinghouse in Bryson City where he wrote Camp Cookery and Sporting Firearms. In 1913, Kephart produced his most famous work, Our Southern Highlanders, a work that is by turns anthropological, sociological, historical, and autobiographical. Recipient of the Patterson Cup by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association, Our Southern Highlanders remains a classic study of the Appalachian region.
Kephart continued to write after Our Southern Highlanders. However, he never produced another work that was as well received. He wrote Camping in 1916, followed by A Camper’s Manual in 1923, and edited an eleven-volume series called the Outdoor Adventure Library. Kephart also dabbled in fiction when he began a novel entitled “Smoky Mountain Magic” that never made it out of manuscript form.
Kephart played a minor role in the development of the Appalachian Trail and was instrumental in the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1930s. The United States Geographic Board considered Kephart so important to the project that they designated a peak eight miles northeast of Clingman’s Dome as Mount Kephart. He was the first living American so honored. In a tragic twist of fate, Kephart died in an automobile accident near Bryson City on April 2, 1931, three years before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park became official.
George Ellison, Introduction to Our Southern Highlanders (1976 edition) by Horace Kephart
Clarence Miller, “Horace Kephart: A Personal Glimpse,” Missouri Historical Society Bulletin, XVI (July 1959)
Ian Marshall, Story Line: Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail (1998)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, III, 352-353—sketch by George Ellison