Contributed by Evan Mikula
“It is one of the blessings of wilderness life that it shows us how few things we need in order to be perfectly happy.”
These are the words of a true dirtbag by the name of Horace Kephart. Kephart was an Eastener, born in Pennsylvania in 1862 and raised in Iowa. He often went on camping and hunting trips in his younger years. He quickly married before turning 25, became a librarian, and settled down with his six children. In 1904, Kephart lost his job, his wife left him, and she took all six of their children. He was lost in life; so he picked up what he had left and moved to the North Carolina side of the famed Smoky Mountains.
Nestled among the trees and streams of the Smokies, Kephart felt as if he was no longer lost, writing, “The man with the knapsack is never lost. No matter whither he may stray.”
It would be a tremendous understatement to say that Horace Kephart loved the Smoky Mountains. He found appreciation in the nature around him. Before being established as a National Park, the Great Smoky Mountains were subject to horrid clear cutting practices by the lumber industry that left huge tracts of land barren, torn up, and left to ruin. Kephart knew that the central population of the United States lived on the East and many of them were too poor to travel west to see the “great” national parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite.
Something had to be done.
Already an avid author of Our Southern Highlands and Camping and Woodcraft, he choose to write up a storm of articles rallying people to donate money to help establish the park. In one such article Kephart tells his tale about time spent in the Smoky Mountains:
When I first came into the Smokies the whole region was one superb forest primeval. I lived for several years in the heart of it. My sylvan studio spread over mountain after mountain, seemingly without end, and it was always clean and fragrant, always vital, growing new shapes of beauty from day to day. The vast trees met overhead like cathedral roofs. I am not a very religious man; but often, when standing alone before my Maker in this house not made with hands, I bowed my head in reverence and thanked God for his gift of the great forest.
The Park Service had wanted a park in the East for a number of years, but the federal government did not have the necessary funds to buy the land from the logging industry and much of the land was inhabited. It wasn’t until Kephart met a Japanese immigrant by the name of George Masa that the battle for the park had a fighting chance. George was an avid hiker and skilled photographer. He took photos of the Smoky Mountains and Kephart wrote articles to accompany the photos. Their advertisements became so popular that some of George’s photos landed on the desk of the well-known philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. He became so inspired by Kephart’s words and Masa’s photos that he donated $5 million dollars for the cause! The federal government came up with $1.5 million dollars and the private citizens of Tennessee and North Carolina raised the rest of the funds to buy the land for the Park Service.
Kephart knew that the parks were for the people and that they have a powerful effect on those that love them. We don’t all need to go on some great expedition to the Rockies or Alaska or travel half-way across the globe to experience the beauty and wonder of nature. We only need to look around in our own backyards to realize the beauty we are surrounded by, to see the cathedrals woven in trees, and to thank God for his gift of the forest.