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Historic People of the Park

Horace Kephart
Horace Kephart was one of the first writers to celebrate the people and natural beauty of the southern mountains in literature. His most famous book, Our Southern Highlanders, first published in 1913, is considered by many to be the classic study of southern Appalachian culture. Kephart was also a renowned outdoorsman, and his tome on outdoor skills, Camping and Woodcraft, has been continuously in print since 1906.

Yet, perhaps most importantly, Kephart is remembered as one of the prime forces behind the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While many contributed in various ways to the founding of the national park, no one was more personally involved.

Having left behind his family and career as a librarian, he ventured into western North Carolina in 1904 seeking a place of refuge in which to begin life anew. That place turned out to be a remote cabin on the North Carolina side of what 20 years later would become the national park.

There had been sporadic expressions of sentiment for a national park in the southern mountains since the early 1800s. When the movement began to gain momentum in the mid-1920s, Kephart threw all of his energies into selflessly pursuing that dream. “I owe my life to these mountains and I want to have them preserved that others may profit from them as I have,” was how he explained his motives.

Utilizing his reputation and considerable skills as a writer, he joined forces with George Masa—a Japanese photographer living in Asheville, NC—to promote the park in local, regional, and national publications. When representatives of the states of Tennessee and North Carolina went to Washington, DC shortly after Kephart’s death to present the final deed for the lands to be included in the park. Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur observed, “I am sure you will join me in appreciation of the persistent and idealistic interest of Mr. Kephart, who riot only knew these mountains and loved the people, but saw in them a great national treasure.”

Many people venture to the Smokies region each year seeking sites associated with Horace Kephart. They usually come first to Bryson City, where he lived in a boarding house from 1910 until his death in 1931. There’s a state highway marker commemorating his achievements.

Two months before Kephart’s death, the U.S. Geologic Board approved the naming of a peak in the Smokies in his name, making him the first living American to be honored in this manner. Access to Mount Kephart, situated three miles north of the Newfound Gap parking area, is via the Appalachian Trail.

From a booklet titled A National Park in the Great Smoky Mountains, written by Horace Kephart and published in 1925:

  For wild beauty and grandeur I have seen nothing in eastern America that equals the Smoky divide and its outlooks. Over a goodly part of the range the primitive forest still stands in all the majesty of many hundreds of years of growth. It is the most varied forest in the world today. There are 136 species of native trees and 174 species of wild shrubs. Under their shade grows a teeming variety of wild plants that can thrive nowhere but in a forest primeval; they perish forever as soon as the big trees are felled, and lovers of plants and wild flowers will know them thereafter only as pictures in books or as dried specimens in a herbarium.

  Here stands today, in the Great Smoky Mountains, the last hundred square miles of uncut primeval forest, just as it stood, save for added growth, when Columbus discovered America. It will all be destroyed within ten or fifteen years if the Government does not take it over and preserve it intact so that future generations may see what a genuine forest wilderness is like.

  The Smoky Mountains are drained by hundreds of miles of streams that are crystal clear and that dash down numberless waterfalls. All of them are fed by unfailing springs of the purest and coldest freestone water. They contain both the native brook trout (speckled) and the introduced rainbow trout.

  There is no part of our country that is better adapted by nature for a great game preserve and restocking station. The ruffed grouse is still abundant…Originally the elk and buffalo were native to the Smoky Mountains…Deer have mostly been hounded out; but they multiply rapidly wherever protected, and they would soon overflow and restock the surrounding country, where they could be hunted during the open season

George Masa
George Masa, a Japanese immigrant known as one of the “founding fathers” of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Appalachian Trail, has been called the “Ansel Adams of the Southern Appalachians” because of the spectacular black and white landscape photos he took of the region. His photography—and his friendship with Horace Kephart—was instrumental in the movement to establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In 1915, George Masa (who changed his name from Masahara Izuki) arrived in Asheville, NC and got a job as a valet at the famous Grove Park Inn. Friendly and enthusiastic about the mountains, he soon got involved in the Carolina Mountain Club (CMC) and taught himself photography. He had an eye for great view shots and was patient enough to wait hours for just the right natural light.

Masa led hikes for the club–long hikes, many through unmapped areas. He built a measuring device with a bicycle wheel and was the first person to measure many trails in the Smokies.

Masa came to the United States to be a student and then traveled to many parts of the country. When he arrived in Asheville, he decided to stay. He advanced in his job with Grove Park and was invited to live with a local family. The children there loved his cheerful spirit and humor.

Masa hiked with Horace Kephart and other influential park supporters, measuring distances and recording information in a journal (in Japanese, of course) about scenery, mountains, and possible trails. He named or helped name many mountains and other features, including Charlies Bunion. A peak (Masa Knob) near Mount Kephart, was named for him.

Masa also helped with the efforts to establish the fledgling Appalachian Trail, charting a route through North Carolina that solved the problem of how to connect the Georgia part of the Appalachian Trail to the Smokies. Like Kephart, he died before he could see his beloved park established, and he died in poverty, with no estate to preserve his photographs. Sadly, most of them have been lost. After Masa died, other people used his photographs without giving him credit. His dedicated work for the park and the Appalachian Trail went largely unnoticed, even though his influence was enormous.

Masa’s heritage includes, besides classic photographs and contributions to the development of the national park and the Appalachian Trail, an enduring bit of good advice to us all:  “More walk, less talk.”

Will Walker
Will Walker settled what came to be known as Walker Valley with his wife, Nancy Caylor, in 1859. By then most of the river valleys in what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park, once roamed by the Cherokee, were settled. But not the banks of the Middle Prong of the Little River in Blount County, Tennessee.

As one story tells it, Will gazed into the Smokies from Tuckaleechee Cove, one mountain in particular catching his eye. It resembled corn stalks at harvest time, or fodder, and he decided that one day he would live at its foot. Fodderstack Mountain rises above what is just about the only flat patch of earth for miles around. Here Will would hoe his fields, keep bees, mill corn, trap and hunt—and raise his enormous family—until his death 60 years later.

In 1864, while still married to Nancy, who bore him seven children, Will took a second wife. Regular Bible readers, Will and Nancy found this arrangement consistent with that of characters such as David with his nine hundred concubines. Mary Ann Moore bore Will seven children as well, all of whom lived to adulthood and were cared for by Nancy after her own surviving children had grown.

Years later Will took yet another wife, Moll Stinnett, sister of his daughter’s husband. (Mary Ann, too, was the sister of a son-in-law.) Nancy and her children alone bore Will’s name, though each wife had her own cabin and field of corn. An able provider for his 27 children, Will was renowned for his marksmanship, killing over one hundred bears in his lifetime according to legend. His swarthy complexion and imposing stature earned him the name “Black” Will Walker.

By the turn of the century the Industrial Revolution reached remote Walker Valley. Will resisted the forces of change, selling Colonel W. B. Townsend, owner and operator of the Little River Lumber Company, a tract of land only very late in life when he was poor in health. Holding a deed for only 5,120 acres, Will’s place on earth—the hollows, ridges, and peaks he haunted, husbanded, and cared for—likely numbered far more than that. He was especially fond of a stand of virgin forest around Thunderhead Prong, but sold it to Townsend with the promise that it never be logged. (Presumably, the sale was for the right of way for Townsend to reach land he owned higher up. Historical accounts are unclear.)

Will died in 1919 at age 80. “Churched” years before by local ecclesiastical authorities for his lifestyle, Colonel Townsend provided a train to carry him from the Townsend “Y” to his burial site at the Bethel Baptist Church, forgiven at last. Townsend himself died in 1936. A promise meant little to the forces of industry, and in no time Thunderhead Prong was clear-cut.

In 1925 Colonel Townsend had set aside land for the Girl Scouts, named in honor of his wife who died two years before. Camp Margaret Townsend operated until 1959. For several years the land sat unoccupied except by campers and poachers until a Job Corps Conservation Center was established in 1964. Given the erroneous name “Tremont,” which was actually the name of the old logging town three miles further up the valley, the name Walker Valley fell out of popular usage. On most maps the Walker name does not appear at all.

Will’s many descendants, however, know how to find it. On the first Sunday in June each year they meet at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont for Decoration Day and homecoming where they lay flowers at the cemetery and reunite.

Arthur Stupka
Stupka’s Journals Kept Track of Spring by Rose Houk

There’s a glorious awakening of the land in these old mountains in spring. In winter, plants can’t migrate as birds do. Instead, they go into a sort of sleep, or dormancy. Though hidden during the short, cold days, the bulbs, roots, and tubers of the perennials carry on the necessary life processes underground.

As the days lengthen and the soil warms in spring, an alarm clock goes off in the plants. They open their eyes, stretch, and break through the layer of moist leaves that covers the ground.

Each species follows its own timetable, knowing when to make that break and avoid being killed by a sudden freeze. March heralds hepatica, toothwort, spicebush, anemone, bloodroot, squirrel corn, and Dutchman’s breeches. In April enter the trillium, phacelia, Solomon’s seal, bluebell, bleeding heart, redbud, dogwood, and serviceberry. By May add iris, orchids, geraniums, hobblebush, and mountain laurel. From Sugarlands Valley to the heights of Mount Le Conte, spring lasts a month or more as you go up the mountains.

One man in particular, Arthur Stupka, did more than nearly anyone to chronicle the parade of spring flowers in the Smokies. Stupka came to work as the chief park naturalist in 1935 and immediately started keeping his famous journal of the Smokies. “From my early teens I kept a nature journal,” said Stupka, “when birds arrived, when flowers bloomed, things of that sort. I kept that right up through my Park Service career.”

Stupka had the good fortune of being one of the first scientists to work in the Smokies. Arriving only a year after the national park was established, he had a vast wilderness to explore and many discoveries to make.

“I observed, I had binoculars,” said Stupka. “I had an altimeter, because in the mountain area it’s important to know how high up you are.”

In his nature journals, Stupka unfailingly and joyously noted the first blooms of each year. Though his entries were often terse and to the point, they were never the dry data of science. Musings and metaphors repeal his humanity and deep attachment to his mountain home.

As the flowers entered, one after another, Stupka noted them. The pace of nature so quickened during his first spring in the Smokies that it was all he could do in March and April of 1936 just to list the procession. On April 18, he simply jotted “Trilliums at height of bloom.”

On May 15, from Spence Field, Stupka described spring advancing up the mountains. “The wand of spring which first touched the lower regions…has slowly been waved over mt. Slopes until now the magic…has reached the summits of the Smokies.”

Sometimes spring comes to the Smokies in winter. During the mild January of 1937, he found the alder trees along the streams already sprouting catkins “waving thousands of spring promises…in the breeze.”

On March 7 of that year, on a hill slope above his home, that promise was made good by the discovery of a single creamy white flower. In his journal he exclaimed, “I came upon a lone flower of the trailing arbutus—how happy I was to find it—a milestone in the year is reached!”

When the vernal equinox dawned warm and rainy, Arthur Stupka was pleased. His March 20 journal entry reads “Spring has come as we would like for it to come—with warmth and rain and flowers and new birds.”

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Great Smoky Mountains National Park have a lot in common. Both were born in the early 1930s. Both were created to help conserve America’s natural resources, and both helped stimulate a depressed economy.

During the life of the CCC (1933-1942), Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosted more c
The CCCorps work camps than any other national park. At full steam, over 4,000 CCC enrollees in 22 camps labored year-round in the Great Smokies.

CCC projects were numerous and varied. In a little over a year, Company 411 planted more than 16,000 native trees and shrubs along a newly-constructed road in the Smokies. Over 500 miles of trail were built in the park by the CCC. They built fish hatcheries, ranger stations, campgrounds, picnic areas, trail shelters, and fire lookout towers. They built the bridges and scenic pullouts that grace roadways in the Smoky Mountains today.

CCC enrollees were unmarried males between the ages of 18 and 25. Those who were assigned to the Smokies came from both city and country/from across the South and back East. Their pay was $30 per month, $25 of which was automatically sent home to help support parents, siblings, and other family members. Although technically volunteers, they were expected to work for the corps for at least six months.

Working in the rugged Smoky Mountains was rarely easy. Enrollees recall waking in temporary camps to snow drifts and howling winds.

Trails had to be chipped and blasted from solid rock, and there were poisonous snakes, stinging hornets, and occasional black bears to contend with.

Still, most CCC alumni recall their park days rather fondly. Food was plentiful and often good. The better camps offered 500-volume libraries as well as instruction on trades and maybe even reading, writing, and photography. The Cades Cove camp even boasted a swimming pool, tennis courts, and pool table.

Extracurricular activities included boxing, baseball, basketball, and volleyball. Camps played against each other and rivalries were often heated.

Holidays like the 4th of July were celebrated with buffet feasts complete with after dinner cigars. At one camp the festivities featured a greased pig chase, a greased pole climb, boxing, baseball, and an outdoor movie.

America’s involvement in W.W. II almost instantly ended the nation’s unemployment crisis and the CCC was abruptly disbanded. Yet, nearly 70 years after the first CCC enrollee reported to work, their labors continue to provide most of the infrastructure for the Smokies. Examples of CCC workmanship you may see on your visit to the park include: rock walls along roads, bridges, Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Park Headquarters near Gatlinburg, restrooms at some picnic areas and campgrounds, Mt. Cammerer fire tower, the Roosevelt Monument at Newfound Gap, and most trails in the park.