Book Review: Our Southern Highlanders

I’ve been reading Our Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart. I have less than three chapters to go until I finish the nearly 500 pages book. I’m excited to get everything I need to do out of the way, so that I can finish this book that tells a narrative story of life in southern Appalachian before the Smoky Mountains became a national park.  Horace Kephart was a librarian for better part of his life. He rose to become the director of a library in St. Louis. One day, he found his career lacking satisfaction and he left his wife and children. (not a legal divorce, just a separation.) He wanted to travel and write about something that other people have not wrote. During his research, he discovered that there is very little known about the folks who live in southern Appalachian. He made his way to western North Carolina and eventually into a camp in the Hazel Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains.

He had one purpose: to write about life among the mountain people who lived on the highlands of the Smoky Mountains. He came to the Smokys in 1904 and he lived alone in a cabin in the Hazel Creek area for three years. (The cabin no longer stands today, but the tract of land is still visible and the park officials have a designated campsite not far from where it stood.)  He writes that the mountain people were poor, but respectful and generous people. Due to their lifestyle, they were always skeptical of “outlanders” visiting their highlands, but they never treated them with hostility unless they were defending themselves.

They lived a harsh life, and many times walking bare footed in the snow. They had to walk 20 miles carrying a 110 pounds sack of grain on their bare shoulders. (Keep in mind, this is very rough country.) Many of them were too poor to afford a wagon, or hire someone with horses to do this kind of chores for them. They lived so far from the nearest market, and lived in places that were cutoff from the outside world that they had no way to sell excess corn, or make decent income. They used the excess corn to make moonshine. They were descendant of Scottish-Irish heritage, so they learned whisky making from their ancestors. They weren’t trying to disrespect the government’s laws regarding moonshine. Their argument was: if I grow my own food and eat it myself, it’s not taxed, so how come I have to pay taxes on liquor that I make for my personal consumption when I’m too poor and too far from the outside world to buy legal whisky?

The mountain people showed extreme generously. The author writes that one time, he was exploring an area far from his cabin and he ran into another cabin and he didn’t know the man or his family that lived there. They invited him to stay, and the man of the house walked in the pitch dark without a lantern to get some grain and meals. The family could BARELY feed themselves and yet they told Horace to help him selves to whatever he please. The next morning, the author tried to pay the family for their meal and they did not accept the money. They nearly considered it an insult to accept such fare. Unbelievable hospitality from poor folks who lived in isolation to not accept money when they could barely feed themselves. He debunked a lot of city folks’ perception at the time on the highlanders.  He simply wrote the truth about the people, he didn’t judge their lifestyle, he wasn’t trying to insult them, he just simply wanted to write about how they lived with 100% accuracy. There are books on the Indians, the Colony, and many other cultures and civilizations throughout times. Horace just became one of the first to write about the folks in rural southern Appalachian highlands.

These are just a few examples of what the book is about. I find it very fascinating how these people lived before the Smoky became a national park. Horace would become one of the founding fathers of the national park and, sadly, he did not live long enough to see it become official. If American history interests you, I highly recommend this book. You will find the stories entertaining and flat out unbelievable, and have new respect for those that “kindly” left their land for it to be preserved and become a national park. If it hasn’t became a national park, they would have lost their land to the lumber industry. (In my opinion.) From now on, when I hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, especially in an area that the book has mentioned, my mind will see the mountain people and their ways those 100 years ago.

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