Ken Burns Classroom

Horace Kephart and George Masa

Ken Burns Film: The National Parks

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 6-12

The writer Horace Kephart
The writer Horace Kephart had retreated from civilization in the Great Smokies, but became concerned that magnificent forests were being destroyed by loggers. He and photographer George Masa became best friends. Source: NC Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, NC.

1862–1931 (Kephart), 1881–1933 (Masa)

Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Iowa, Horace Kephart enrolled in graduate school at Cornell by the age of 17. He became an expert on early western explorations, was named head of the prestigious St. Louis Mercantile Library, and was married before he was 25.

But his marriage proved unhappy. Kephart turned to heavy drinking, and when he lost his job and his wife left him, taking their six children with her, he suffered a breakdown. He decided to start over in a place where he could lose himself in the wilderness and find a new purpose for his life.

Within the (Great Smoky Mountains National Park), a 6,217-foot peak now bears the official name of Mount Kephart. On its broad shoulder is another, somewhat shorter peak, now called Masa Knob.

He chose the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, which seemed, he wrote, like "an Eden still unpeopled and unspoiled." There he tramped the woods and lived alone in a small cabin where he wrote Camping and Woodcraft, which became known as the “camper’s Bible,” and Our Southern Highlanders, about the distinctive people of southern Appalachia.

Worried that the Smokies were being ravaged by clear cutting, he took up the cause for saving the mountains as a national park, writing many influential articles. Kephart was aided in his efforts by photographer George Masa. Born Masahara Iizuka in Osaka, Japan, Masa had come to the United States in 1901 to study mining. He eventually settled in Asheville, North Carolina, where he took a job as a bellhop at the swank Grove Park Inn. But he soon learned the art of photography, opened his own studio, and made a name for himself with his scenic photographs.

Kephart and Masa became close friends and spent much time working on maps for the proposed park, as well as for the Appalachian Trail. Masa’s images and Kephart’s text were used in promotional materials supporting the effort to create a national park. After seeing Masa’s photographs, John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated $5 million to help purchase the lands to become part of a new park.

In 1931, before Great Smoky Mountains National Park was finalized, Kephart was killed in a car accident. George Masa was devastated by the death of his friend. In 1933, after organizing a hike to commemorate the second anniversary of Kephart’s death, Masa became sick. Having lost his money in the stock market crash of 1929, he could not afford his own doctor. He died in the county hospital, without enough money to be buried next to Kephart as had been his wish.

One year after Masa’s death in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used $1.5 million in government funds to establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Within the park, a 6,217-foot peak now bears the official name of Mount Kephart. On its broad shoulder is another, somewhat shorter peak, now called Masa Knob.

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