Looking back 100 years into the steam of history
by Rob Neufeld
Photo caption: Horace Kephart poses with pistol beside a mounted snake. Photo from Kephart’s photo album, held by Special Collections, Hunter Library, Western Carolina University.
A hundred years ago, Horace Kephart, the legendary outdoorsman and Great Smokies park advocate, had just published “Our Southern Highlanders,” and was working on his how-to classic, “Camping and Woodcraft.”
The Westfeldt family of Fletcher—of diplomatic and rice-planting stock—had invited Kephart to Rugby Grange, their estate in Fletcher, and Kephart had agreed to take four Westfeldts and guests on a trip to his old haunts, Hazel Creek and Sugar Fork in Swain County.
“Mr. Kephart said that it was only the second time that he had ever taken any ladies on a hiking and camping trip,” one of the ladies, Dodette “Dot” Ottonio Westfeldt, wrote in a memoir.
Kephart was most likely in a wistful, if not melancholic, mood. His wilderness world was changing, what with trains, logging, and mining. The Ritter Lumber Company had begun logging Hazel Creek in 1910.
A rattlesnake coiled and poised to strike along the hikers’ path, and Dot shot it. A male companion skinned it and made a belt for Dot.
Kephart took the group to the site of the old Westfeldt Copper Mine, which had been closed for years because of a law suit over its ownership.
Profits and the picturesque
It was the Progressive Era, which meant populist social reforms and unbridled industrial activity.
On March 6, 1914, the Alcoa corporation smelted its first metal in east Tennessee. To support its expansion, it was buying up land in the mountains to build hydroelectric plants, and had targeted the headwaters of the Tuckaseegee River.
In Black Mountain, another company had built a narrow gauge railroad to Mount Mitchell in order to harvest trees.
Governor Locke Craig was at the ribbon-cutting, and later said, “When I looked all around where I had been bear hunting as a boy…I felt like a man that stood amidst the ruins of his home.”
In 1915, he established Mount Mitchell State Park; and the railroad served as a tourist attraction. (The railroad bed was later made into an automobile road.)
Those early 20th century pragmatists were romantic.
D.R. Beeson, a Pennsylvanian who moved to east Tennessee to help an industrialist consolidate his railroads and coal companies, became an avid hiker and wrote “In the Spirit of Adventure: A 1914 Smoky Mountains Hiking Journal.”
Admittedly falling short in conveying the majesty of the mountains he climbed, he philosophized, “I don’t feel qualified to go into the matter of what constitutes true greatness either in human nature or the sort we went out to see. I suppose we are in any case attracted most by the unusual, the rugged and unyielding, and the picturesque.
Passage of estates
March 6 was not only Alcoa’s start-up date; it was the day that George Washington Vanderbilt, grandson of the railroad giant, Cornelius, and romantic builder of the Biltmore Estate, died.
When you look back a century from today, you see a world in flux.
Vanderbilt’s death would lead to his wife Edith’s sale of land to the federal government for the Pisgah National Forest; and to the Biltmore Company for a subdivision.
The city of Asheville was growing in leaps and bounds. Rutherford Platt Hayes, son of President Rutherford B. Hayes, had made Asheville his home, and was selling tracts in West Asheville to start its boom. He engaged African American civic leader E.W. Pearson in the operation of the WNC Agricultural Fair and in the sale of lots for the African American neighborhood around Burton Street.
People moved to West Asheville to have city jobs while maintaining some degree of a country life.
Nonetheless, the country way of life was constricting. One-room schoolhouses were being closed in favor of larger, more central facilities.
A teacher’s tale
“McDowell County had got rid of all of its log schools by 1914, and they were so proud, oh, my word,” retired teacher Daintry Allison told Dr. Louis D. Silveri of UNC Asheville in a 1975 interview.
There was a legion of young women for whom education was a passionate mission, and they brought liberated views to the job.
This was the era of women’s suffrage.
Allison whipped girls cutting out of class to meet wagon drivers in the woods; and faced off against angry fathers, without having to carry a gun, as the superintendent had advised.
The superintendent, grateful for her effectiveness, told her, “I wish I could double your salary, but I can't do it…but you just name any favor you want, and it’s yours.”
Allison said, “Write to every teacher in this county and tell her to wear the clothes that are acceptable in her community, and that she doesn’t have to wear her dresses down to her ankle bone unless she wants to. I said, ‘I could teach just as well in my brother's overalls as I can in regular clothes. I feel much more natural.’”
Old yields to new
Col. Frank Coxe, WNC railroad funder and builder of the 1886 Battery Park Hotel, had died in 1903, and, by 1914, his son, Tench Charles Coxe, finally attained the ability to remake the southern border of the hotel lawn into modern day Wall Street.
Nathan Straus, founder of Macy’s Department Store in New York, made a return visit to Asheville in 1914 to give $500 toward beautifying the Vance Monument in memory of “the man who was one of the first Americans to raise his voice in Congress in behalf of the Jewish race.”
“Meg o’ the Mountains” premiered in Asheville’s Princess Theatre in September. Mabel Trunnelle starred in the melodrama about country-city relations.
Meg, a mountain girl who has lost her memory, comes to the city to find her illegitimate child’s father. The Edison company production was shot at the Manor, the Swannanoa River, and other local spots.
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*** Rob ... Good for you! .... the Dodette Westfeldt Grinnell memoirs are the most vivid accounts of Kephart we have ... Bill Moss made excellent use of them in his The Westfeldts of Rugby Grange ... I especially like her descrition of Kephart and his friend J.B. Anderson when she first met them at the Bryson Place on Deep Creek: "I shall never forget the first time I met Horace Kephart. He came strolling up to our campfire one evening (two days after we set up our camp at the Bryson Place), he and a friend of his from Massachusetts, J.B. Anderson. Both men had a red flower, I think an Indian Pink, in their shirt button holes and Mr.Anderson had his ukulele under his arm. We had just finished our tasty good supper of speckled trout, bacon, Edam cheese, and biscuits and jam for desert and plenty of good coffee, so they helped us to clean and wash the dishes – put more wood on the fire. Then we all sat around that pretty campfire and had a delightful evening, talking. What Mr. Kephart always called a good “Gab Fest.” We had some music too. Mr. Anderson played his ukulele well and could sing. From that night on Mr. Kephart and Mr. Anderson were our fast friends. They were at our camp every evening. Would eat supper with us and then sitting around the campfire until about eleven o’clock." J.B. (Andy) Anderson is something of a mystery figure ... he spent the summer of 1907 wth Kephart at the Hall Cabin on the state line in the high Smokies and visited several times in Bryson City .... he was apparently from Mass ... that's all I know despite a lot of time spinning my wheels .... if anyone has additional information it would be appreciated in regard to the Kephart biogrpahy Janet McCue (librarian at Cornell) and I are writing for publicaton next year by the Great Smoky Mountains Association
*** Praise be to the powers of The Read ... I just heard from J.B. "Andy"
Oh, this is great! I submitted a history piece to the AC-T that was going to be a followup to the Beaverdam Road and the 1914 columns I wrote, but ran too long on Beaverdam, and didn't get to tell about your search. So this is very gratifying. Thanks!