An American Legend – Horace Kephart – His Life and Legacy

Horace Sowers Kephart (September 8, 1862 – April 2, 1931) was an American travel writer and librarian, best known as the author of Our Southern Highlanders about his life in the Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina and the classic outdoors guide Camping and Woodcraft.

Kephart’s vision helped to establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His life as an author, scholar, and outdoorsman is told in captivating detail in this historic documentary with never before seen photographs, documents and original music and art.

Libby Kephart Hargrave, great-grandaughter, presents a fond remembrance in this documentary film that is part biography and geneology, part historical record. Libby does a little bit of everything: she produces and directs, writes, plays and sings some of the music, conducts interviews and narrates. Her hands are all over this loving tribute. She spent years of her life compiling it.




Kephart was born in East Salem, Pennsylvania, and raised in Iowa. He was the director of the St. Louis Mercantile Library in St. Louis, Missouri from 1890 to 1903. In these years Kephart also wrote about camping and hunting trips. Earlier, Kephart had also worked as a librarian at Yale University and spent significant time in Italy as an employee of a wealthy American book collector.

In 1904, Kephart’s family (wife Laura and their six children) moved to Ithaca, New York, but Laura and Horace never divorced or legally separated). Alcoholism played a part in the estrangement and in Kephart’s eventual mental breakdown. To help recover his wits, Horace found his way to western North Carolina, where he lived in the Hazel Creek section of what would later become Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here Kephart was seeking what he called his “back of beyond.”

Hargrave tells the story of Kephart’s family and young adult life with a series of vignettes and historic documents, and her narration. The first half of the film is devoted to exploring Kep’s family, his studies, his professional life… and his demons.

The second half of the film, Hargrave conducts a number of interviews with historians in and around the North Carolina Smokies to expand upon Kephart’s later adult life… his discovery of mountain living, and his advocacy for what was to become the most popular national park in all the land. Hargrave even managed to obtain the cooperation and assistance of Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, producers of the wildly popular national parks documentary series, America’s Best Idea.

Along with the likes of John Muir, Horace Kephart was one of the great original conservationists. Through the use of archived documents and historian anecdotes, Hargrave paints a picture of this man who loved his Smokies and would do anything to protect the mountains.

Unfortunately, Kephart was killed in a tragic car accident just a few short years before the fulfillment of his dream of a national park. His legacy lives on today, however, and you will find his name on a mountain and creek within the park boundary. He is buried in Bryson City, NC, the town he called home for the last 21 years of his life.


Here is a trailer from the Kephart documentary:


How Can You See This Documentary?


Horace Kephart – His Life and Legacy DVD is available from The Horace Kephart Foundation and the Great Smoky Mountains Association for US$14.99, a bargain for the historic perspective of this iconic American presented by Ms. Hargrave’s work.

Each year, Libby Kephart Hargrave presents the Horace Kephart Days Celebration. Look for it in Western North Carolina, usually in spring. More info here.


Original painting "Kep's Boots" above is by Joanne Kephart Bleichner and copyright The Horace Kephart Foundation.

Disclosure: I participated in a crowdfunding campaign to help get this film financed. Libby Kephart Hargrave worked tirelessly for years to make the end result happen. Fundraising, while important, was but a small part of the love and dedication she poured into this documentary about her great-grandfather. My small donation was money very well spent.


This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.


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