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Outdoor legend Horace Kephart's many Cornell roots

Horace Kephart's guide "Camping and Woodcraft," a still-relevant guide to the outdoors and never out of print since 1906, has a new edition with an 80-page biographical introduction co-written by Janet McCue, associate university librarian for teaching, research and outreach. It tells the story of the enigmatic Kephart's professional successes, his spectacular collapse and his rebirth in the wilderness.

"My introduction to Kephart came in the mid-'70s, when I backpacked the Smokies and came upon Mount Kephart," said McCue, who co-authored the introduction with North Carolina naturalist and writer George Ellison. "Kephart was such a good writer. Not many camping books begin with a quote from the 'Canterbury Tales' and advance a vision of the restorative power of nature."

"Camping and Woodcraft," one of the best-selling outdoors titles ever, covers edible plants, bee hunting, cave exploring, basket making, tanning skins, outdoors survival, emergency shelters, cabin making, bark utensils, route finding, avoiding woodland pests and camp bedding.

After undergraduate study in the Midwest, Kephart -- who came from pioneer stock -- arrived at Cornell to study history and political science in 1881. While he was a graduate student, he worked in the Cornell University Library with Willard Fiske, Cornell's first librarian. Kephart became engaged to Ithacan Laura Mack, daughter of a Cornell administrator and granddaughter of Horace Mack, founder of The Ithaca Journal.

His library job likely to be cut, Kephart followed Fiske to Florence to catalog Fiske's Petrarch collection, bequeathed to Cornell Library in 1905. Kephart later became the director of the St. Louis Mercantile Library. Stressed by professional and family responsibilities -- Kephart was by then the father of six -- he withdrew to longer stays in the wilderness and suffered a nervous breakdown.

His wife and children returned to Ithaca after Kephart's breakdown. Laura Kephart was thrown into poverty, but she never denounced her husband. Family letters show strong bonds connecting the Kephart family, said McCue.

An ode to Horace Kephart:

In this section of his 1979 poem "Horace Kephart," North Carolina-born poet and novelist Robert Morgan, Cornell's Kappa Alpha Professor of English, evokes Kephart's early life:

Each sentence he scratches with economy
Is payment on a vast unpayable obligation:
To his parents for the years of college, for the years
Of special courses at Cornell, for his tenure
Cataloging Petrarch in Florence, for the girl,
His Laura, married in Ithaca and taken
West, for the librarian's post in St. Louis,
For the study of Finnish, for the unwritten
History of western exploration that
Excused long camping holidays and nights
Away from home and expensive rare editions,
For the weeks of drinking and sulk.

After one attempt at reconciliation, Kephart permanently decamped for a life free of artifice in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, where he successfully argued for establishing a national park and wrote several books -- but precious little about himself.

After his death in a car accident in 1931, Kephart's "Camping and Woodcraft" royalties went to Laura and the children, all of whom attended Cornell.

"In the 1970s, his descendants gave the royalties to Cornell Plantations in honor of their father," McCue said. Proceeds from the new edition benefit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Today Kephart has risen to the status of folk hero. Re-enacters camp in the old style described in the book, and pilgrims retrace Kephart's steps. "You can read the book for pleasure, it's so well written," McCue said.

McCue and Ellison are working on a full-length Kephart biography.

Media Contact

Blaine Friedlander