Horace Kephart was born in 1862 in Pennsylvania, but spent much of his youth in Iowa. He went on to achieve success in two careers. Trained as a librarian, Kephart achieved national recognition during his years as director of the Mercantile Library in St. Louis, Missouri, from 1890 to 1903. While living in what was already one of the largest cities in the nation, Kephart began indulging in outdoor life through camping and hunting trips. As his passion for the outdoors increased, Kephart began to write articles about the subject topics. Kephart developed 10 years of experience writing about these excursions centered on Arkansas and Missouri. These works are similar in substance and tone to those he would later publish about western North Carolina’s mountains and people. Eventually he succumbed to what he later called "nervous exhaustion" and concluded that urban life was a major contributor to his problems. He left his career as a librarian in St. Louis and, after a brief respite and period of personal reflection at the home of his father in Ohio, soon decided to move to western North Carolina.
Move to North Carolina and a New Career
In 1904, at the age of 42, Kephart arrived in western North Carolina to begin his life anew. He chose a simple lifestyle and “nature-as-healer” approach. At the same time, he immersed himself in his new natural environment and took an immediate interest in the history and culture of the people. Drawing on his library background, much of his understanding of the region came through readings on the topic to which he added his personal observations. During his lifetime, Kephart emerged as a recognized authority on the cultural and natural history of the region. He wrote hundreds of articles during his lifetime, but became especially renowned for his classic works Our Southern Highlanders and Camping and Woodcraft. These two books are still in print and remain popular. Camping and Woodcraft remains a standard for practical advice on outdoor activities, even after almost one hundred years. The narrative style of Our Southern Highlanders crafts the natural environment and social theories of his time into the lives of the people, cultural developments and adaptation to a region.
Contribution to the Creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Despite a stereotype of Appalachia that often continues today, neither the history nor the culture of western North Carolina has been stagnant. Kephart arrived at a critical period of change for the region. Railroads had pierced the mountains of western North Carolina in the 1880s and in their wake came large-scale industrial development, especially in the logging industry and mining.
Kephart, who was personally modest and rarely sought the limelight, nevertheless used his abilities and reputation on behalf of the movement to create a Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a unique and recognized personification concerning the cultural and natural studies on the Great Smokies region, he was influential in convincing individuals on both the local and national levels of the need for such a park. Kephart’s arguments on behalf of a park were thoughtful and pragmatic as well as appealing to the love and appreciation of nature. Acknowledging that the Great Smoky Mountains contributed to his mental and physical recovery after 1904 and describing the economic potential of a national park, he campaigned vigorously to preserve the last major stands of forests in the East.
While Kephart's life was cut short by an automobile accident in 1931, it had become apparent in his lifetime that a national park would be a reality. Two months before his death the U.S. Geological Board recognized Kephart’s contribution by naming a peak within the park Mount Kephart, an honor previously bestowed only after an individual’s death. In the ensuing years, Kephart’s major works have remained in print and articles appear on a routine basis about his contributions to camping, regional history, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In addition, significant interest in Kephart the person continues, and several biographical studies have been produced.