George Masa and the birth of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

MOUNTAIN MAJESTY: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most beloved and most visited sites in the National Park System, attracting millions of visitors and tourist dollars to the region each year. Its creation was the result of over a decade of legislative wrangling, relentless promotion and fundraising, and the tireless efforts of WNC residents such as George Masa, a Japanese immigrant who helped introduce the Smokies to the American people through his photography. Photo via North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

Editor’s note: Statistics on non-local park visitation have been updated from the original published article to reflect recently released figures for 2015 from the National Park Service.

In 2015, more than 4 million non-local visitors flocked to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, reaffirming its place as the system’s most visited location. Yet how many of those visitors had ever heard of the diminutive but energetic Japanese immigrant whose remarkable photos and tireless exploration of the Smokies played a key role in the park’s creation? And how many understood the chain of sacrifices and dislocations triggered by the decadeslong campaign to bring this national treasure into being?

From the beginning, the park was seen as an economic engine, and as the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this year, the success of that vision is much in evidence. All told, North Carolina’s 14 Park Service units drew nearly 18 million non-local visitors in 2015. In the process, they collectively contributed $1.67 billion to the state’s economy and helped create roughly 20,000 jobs, the agency reported.

Until the 1920s, however, the idea of a large Southern national park was little more than a dream. And it took 15 years of fundraising, legislative wrangling, legal battles and tireless promotion by advocates in both North Carolina and Tennessee before the 522,427-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially dedicated in 1940.

Near the center of this movement stood Masahara Izuka, a hiker and photographer with a mysterious past and a dubious grasp of the English language. Better known as George Masa, his adopted name, he was responsible for mapping, surveying and documenting the future park’s features, as well as promoting its value both to surrounding communities and the country at large.

Relentlessly egged on by Masa and many others, residents of Asheville and other cities around the region enthusiastically supported the project. Meanwhile, those actually living within the park boundaries were forced off their ancestral lands in the name of a prosperity and progress they may not have shared in. 75 years later, those efforts and sacrifices have left an enduring legacy of scenic beauty and environmental conservation in Western North Carolina.

Out of the blue

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BEHIND THE LENS: Little is known of George Masa’s early life prior to his arrival in the United States in the early 1900s. After coming to Asheville in 1915, the energetic, enigmatic immigrant fell in love with the region’s natural beauty, often hauling heavy camera equipment to remote areas to capture the scenic splendor he beheld. Image via North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

Little is known about Masa’s early life, and the limited evidence is often contradictory. Reportedly born in Osaka, Japan, around 1881, the photographer first appeared in Asheville around 1915.

According to Bonesteel Films’ 2003 documentary “The Mystery of George Masa,” the affable, lively foreigner took a job at The Grove Park Inn as a launderer and valet, quickly becoming a favorite of hotel patrons and befriending the likes of the Vanderbilts, Groves and other leading local citizens.

Recognizing Masa’s prowess with a camera, hotel manager Fred Seely soon had the young man taking portraits of guests. His skill and dedication to the craft — which he would later apply to documenting and promoting both the Smokies and WNC — were apparent early on. Eventually, Masa left the Grove Park Inn to pursue photography full time; in 1920, he bought out his partner in a Biltmore Avenue photography business and renamed it Plateau Studios.

“What’s largely unrecognized about George Masa is that he was a successful and prolific photographer,” says William A. Hart Jr., the author of 3,000 Miles in the Great Smokies and the essay “George Masa, the Best Mountaineer.” “His photographs were printed in business brochures, newspaper and magazine articles, postcards, private camp booklets, tourist enterprises and in privately commissioned work.”

Call of the wild

The idea of a national park in the region had been floated as early as 1885, though little progress was made until the 1920s. With Asheville, Knoxville and other Southern Appalachian towns booming, civic leaders began to see the park idea “as a means to further economic development and prosperity by attracting national publicity, tourists and good roads,” historian Daniel Pierce writes in his book The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park.

Thus, Masa arrived in Asheville at a time of great prosperity and change. Touted for its clean air, agreeable climate and proximity to breathtaking peaks and waterfalls, the city had become a notable tourist destination, attracting high-society types like the Firestones and Fords, and cultural luminaries such as F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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CITY ON THE RISE: George Masa’s arrival in Asheville coincided with a period of rapid growth and excitement for the city. Park boosters saw the idea of a national park nearby as a way to capitalize on the region’s scenic beauty and tourist drawing power. Photo via North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

“Asheville’s numbers increased by 79 percent between 1920 and 1928 to over 50,000,” notes Pierce, a history professor at UNC Asheville. Determined civic boosters such as Dr. Chase Ambler and Plato Ebbs, continues Pierce, piled on the rhetoric, hyping the potential park as “a modern combination of Aladdin’s wonderful lamp, the touch of Midas, the magic urn, and the weaving of straw into gold by Rumpelstiltskin.” Meanwhile, the budding metropolis down the road “built new high-rise city and county buildings, a new state-of-the-art high school, and began construction of the Beaucatcher Tunnel.”

But the railroad, which was bringing those tourists to the city, also opened up the backcountry to lumber companies looking to cash in on the region’s vast resources. Using narrow-gauge rail lines and innovations like the steam-powered skidder, timber outfits swept through the mountains, denuding hillsides and penetrating the remotest watersheds in search of virgin timber.

The lure of a steady paycheck, however, was stripping remote coves of their inhabitants as well. “If you look at the 1910 census, there were 1,210 people in Cataloochee,” notes Asheville native Wayne Caldwell. By the late 1920s, he points out, roughly 600 residents remained.

“They had large families. When property gets passed on to seven or more young’uns, all the sudden the 50-acre patch you could make a living on becomes 3-acre patches,” says Caldwell, who wrote the novels Cataloochee and Requiem by Fire. Meanwhile, “You could go over the mountain to the Champion paper mill and work six days a week, make $10 a week, have a good job and buy a motorcycle.”

A growing movement

George Masa also recognized the economic opportunities afforded by the surrounding mountains, and against that frenetic backdrop, he worked closely with the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, illustrating promotional brochures for both the park and the region in general. He also sold postcards of his work to tourists wishing to bring home a piece of the mountains, and invited visitors to his studio to view his growing collection of Smokies photos.

Competition for the proposed park’s location was fierce, however, and while many Tar Heel boosters had originally favored Linville Gorge and Pisgah National Forest as possible sites, they soon concluded that in order to secure North Carolina’s piece of the pie, allying with their like-minded neighbors in east Tennessee to lobby for a multistate park was their best bet.

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RECLAIMING THE MOUNTAINS: Great Smoky Mountains National Park boosters like George Masa and Horace Kephart found themselves in a race against time to save the remaining virgin timber tracts within the proposed park boundaries from destructive clear-cutting operations, which denuded the hillsides and caused extensive damage to soils and streams. Photo via North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

Both Masa and his friend Horace Kephart, a renowned local naturalist who wrote Our Southern Highlanders, lent their artistic skills to promoting the Smokies as a potential park site. Kephart, in particular, stressed the project’s urgency, given the lumber companies’ extensive predations.

“What made Asheville and the other flourishing towns of WNC?” he wrote in a 1925 letter to state Rep. Zebulon Weaver. “Was it not the climate and the scenery that attracted wealthy outsiders, first as tourists, then as residents [and] investors? Consider what our mountain land is worth when the timber is all cut off.”

Finally, in 1925, Congress passed the Swanson-McKellar Act, authorizing the Department of the Interior to determine the potential park’s boundaries. By this time, the Asheville Citizen’s early reticence had morphed into aggressive advocacy for the project. Numerous editorials urged WNC residents to “make definite plans for carrying their ambitions into reality,” and Publisher Charles Webb pledged to buy 100 acres of parkland himself.

Federal officials like Arno Cammerer, the Park Service’s deputy director, soon rallied behind the Smokies site, and by 1926, efforts had begun in earnest to purchase at least 185,000 acres — the minimum needed to meet federal park standards.

The money hunt

But if the desire for a park was strong, making it happen was complicated. There were “many moving parts,” says Hart, adding that such an effort probably “could not be duplicated today.”

The Park Service said the states had to raise the estimated $10 million needed for land acquisition. To overcome resistance at the state level, park boosters proposed raising $1 million from local governments and residents in the two states. After that, each state legislature agreed to issue $2 million worth of bonds, but they hedged their bets by saying that this wouldn’t happen unless the remaining $5 million had somehow been raised as well.

Once the money was in hand and the land had been purchased, the federal government would accept the donated property and establish the park.

Asheville was initially tasked with raising $250,000, and the rest of WNC had to come up with $150,000, with another $100,000 to come from elsewhere in the state.

Park advocates launched an extensive publicity campaign, using media outlets like the newspaper and the works of Masa and Kephart to rally residents to the cause. “The campaign led them from the piggy banks of schoolchildren and church collection plates to the bulging wallets of millionaires,” writes Pierce.

Masa’s photographs played a crucial role, bringing “the beauty of the Smokies home to the people of the region,” many of whom, the author notes, had never actually seen the mountains they were now expected to help purchase.

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SELLING THE SCENERY: Masa’s photographs of WNC and the Smoky Mountains helped to popularize the park movement throughout the region and were instrumental bringing the park’s scenic grandeur to Americans who had never seen the mountains firsthand. Image via North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

City officials and Chamber of Commerce representatives toured the Southeast, singing the project’s economic and environmental praises to anyone who’d listen. But while places like Asheville and Bryson City responded enthusiastically, other local communities, heeding the concerns of timber companies and their allies, were less apt to jump on the bandwagon.

“Not everyone wanted it,” says Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian regional director of The Wilderness Society. “Many people opposed the park, particularly the timber industry and those residents affected by its creation.”

A helping hand

Still, by early April 1926, the North Carolina side had managed to meet its $500,000 fundraising target, though it didn’t come easy. Bryson City alone contributed more than $25,000, and Asheville boosters raised over $160,000, including more than $100 from schoolchildren and the African-American community. In a last-minute meeting, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce cobbled together the final $35,000, apparently by putting the squeeze on its board members.

The following month, the North Carolina and Tennessee legislatures each agreed to issue $2 million in bonds, provided that proponents raised the rest of the money needed, and on the strength of that, Congress passed legislation confirming the park’s location.

The battle wasn’t over, though. Timber companies “showed little inclination to sell the scattered holdings of old growth forest still in their possession,” writes Pierce, and they often continued clear-cutting operations while negotiating the sale of those same lands for inflated prices.

In 1928, park advocates were still $5 million short of their overall goal, despite the extensive fundraising efforts. Cammerer, working outside his official position (and secretly funded by both states’ park commissions), appealed to John D. Rockefeller Jr., using Masa’s photos of the region to make their case.

Rockefeller exceeded expectations, agreeing to provide the remaining $5 million. That extraordinary level of support hugely boosted publicity efforts — and forced recalcitrant state officials to fulfill their own financial commitments.

But political maneuvering and lengthy legal proceedings quickly eroded the money raised, and the 1929 stock market crash caused many people to renege on their pledges. Over the next decade, the federal government had to repeatedly kick in additional money.

Mapping the assets

Masa, meanwhile, had his own financial woes. In a 1931 letter to a friend, Masa wrote: “I had attack terrible septic soar throat went hospital and laid up nearly six weeks — when I able to work Bank busted I saw quite excitements down town. I haven’t any business past year not only me, all over the States as you know.”

Nonetheless, he persisted with his park-related work. That year, Cammerer appointed Masa, Kephart and Verne Rhodes, executive secretary of the North Carolina Park Commission, to provide a complete map of the Carolina side of the park. The three-man committee set to work charting the area’s peaks, valleys and streams, updating and reconciling older, often contradictory maps.

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BLAZING NEW PATHS: Working alongside Kephart, Verne Rhodes and their Tennessee counterparts, Masa helped to document, chart, measure and map the remote areas within the park’s boundaries, leading Park deputy director Arno Cammerer to call him “the best mountaineer on the North Carolina side.” Image via North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

“Masa was the first person to systematically measure many of the trails and to chart the terrain of the Great Smokies,” Hart writes in his essay on the photographer. “He knew the names of mountains and streams, trails, elevations, topography, distances.”

Masa’s prolific output during this period is also marked by hundreds of photographs, painstaking notes and journal entries detailing his and Kephart’s explorations. He often used an odometer he’d made from a bike wheel, which he toted on hikes and expeditions. Upon seeing Masa emerge from the woods with this contraption, one Smokies visitor mistook him for “an Indian riding a bicycle,” according to Masa’s friend Tom Alexander, who founded the Cataloochee Ranch.

Working closely with their Tennessee counterparts Jim Thompson and Paul Fink, the committee completed its task in 1932. Masa’s thorough work generated considerable praise. Thompson and Fink said they “wished we had someone like you” on their side, and in a 1933 letter, Cammerer told Masa, “In my opinion, you are the best mountaineer on the North Carolina side.”

Refugees in their own land

During this period, Masa briefly stayed with Hiram Caldwell and his family in the Cataloochee Valley. Hiram was the brother of Wayne Caldwell’s great-grandfather. But for the Caldwells and their neighbors, the creation of the park became a bittersweet swan song for their entire way of life.

Places like Cataloochee and Cades Cove in Tennessee had long fostered small, agriculturally based communities that were home to both whites and Cherokees. While park boosters in Asheville and Knoxville dismissed these people as quaint “contemporary ancestors” scattered over a wide, isolated region, Pierce points out that in 1920, over 4,000 people lived within the park’s confines.

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LOST COMMUNITIES: While park boosters in Asheville and other urban areas saw the idea of a Great Smokies National Park as a way to supplement the regional economy and infrastructure, small communities within the park’s boundaries, such as the residents of the Cataloochee Valley, were forced to cede their homes and traditional way of life for compensation many felt was not enough. Image courtesy of Smoky Mountains National Park Archives.

And if the residents of neighboring urban centers saw the park as a potential economic boon, for many Cataloochee residents, it meant the loss of the only home they’d ever known. “It wasn’t just that they displaced X number of families,” Wayne Caldwell explains. “It was that these were real human people, and they didn’t want to go.”

The tension between urban boosters and rural mountaineers had a lengthy history. In the early 1900s, he says, “The people in Cataloochee sent a delegation to the Haywood County Commission to ask for a new schoolhouse, but the commissioners said they didn’t pay enough taxes to warrant a school building.”

After brainstorming over a bottle of whiskey, the Cataloochee men decided on a drastic measure. “One of them said, ‘If we were to burn that school down, they’d have to build us a new one,’” continues Caldwell. “So they went down that night and took out all the desks and blackboard, then they burned the damn school down!”

Meanwhile, the belief that wealthy landowners and hunting clubs on the Tennessee side of the park were getting more money and better lease terms bred distrust. “I think there was a lot of jealousy,” says Caldwell. “They were paid, but I think there’s a pretty universal feeling that the government didn’t give them enough.”

After buying their land, the government told residents of those communities that they could remain in their homes, leasing them on a year-to-year basis. But while some took advantage of this offer, strict regulations concerning farming, hunting, timber cutting, family burial plots and moonshine production soon made the arrangement less appealing.

By the early 1940s, most remaining residents had either died or moved away. Many went to places like Clay County, where farmland was cheaper, or settled in surrounding towns such as Waynesville, from where they could easily visit their former homes.

One of Caldwell’s relatives, he reveals, “would go and camp in the campground every summer. He had to hear that creek: He couldn’t sleep good unless he could hear that creek.”

Today, though, little remains to mark these folks’ sacrifices. A museum exhibit in the Cataloochee Valley’s Palmer House was vandalized several years ago, causing the park to dismantle it. And to this day, their descendants are ambivalent about the project.

“I think the park’s a great idea, but there was a human cost to it,” says Caldwell. “You’ve been in a place where your grandfather moved in 1830, and all the sudden somebody says ‘gone.’ If all you’ve done is farm and gotten attached to this land, rooted in it, it’s going to hurt.”

Dust to dust

Masa, too, paid a high price for his involvement with the park campaign. As he devoted more and more time to his mostly unpaid surveying work (and, subsequently, mapping the North Carolina portion of the Appalachian Trail), his financial situation worsened.

In 1932, Masa was devastated by the news of Kephart’s death in a car accident outside of Bryson City. In a letter to a park official seeking permission to establish an interpretive station and souvenir stand, Masa wrote that he was “shocked to pieces,” adding, “He is gone forever, still I am go ahead as we planned.”

Soon after, however, the characteristically hearty photographer began a steep physical decline. In April 1933, he fell ill with the flu, perhaps exacerbated by tuberculosis. He couldn’t afford treatment, and friends in the Carolina Mountain Club had him placed in the county sanitarium until he could recover.

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GONE WITH THE WIND: George Masa died penniless in the Buncombe County sanitarium years before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was dedicated. Despite his wishes to be buried next to his friend Horace Kephart near Bryson City, Masa lies beneath a simple stone in Riverside Cemetery. His grave remained unmarked until 1947, when friends finally paid for a stone to be placed. Photo by Max Hunt

Nonetheless, Masa’s condition deteriorated precipitously, and on June 21, 1933, he died of “influenza and other circumstances,” according to an obituary in the Asheville Citizen. Friends scraped together enough money to have him buried in Riverside Cemetery, though his grave would remain unmarked until 1947.

For a man who liked to claim that he “came from nothing,” Masa’s post-mortem descent back into obscurity seems eerily fitting. Many of his photos, including 75 slides earmarked for the National Archives, were misplaced or lost. Much of his remaining work was poached by other photographers, who claimed it as their own. His pioneering 1933 Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, co-authored with George McCoy, was reprinted in 1935 with barely a mention of the fact that Masa took most of the photos and did most of the research.

Official recognition of the photographer’s outstanding contributions to the park he’d helped create finally came in 1961, when a peak on the shoulder of Mount Kephart was officially named Masa Knob.

More recently, public interest in Masa’s life and work has grown. Bonesteel Films’ documentary along with Ken Burn‘s focus on Masa and Kephart in his documentary series “National Parks: America’s Best Idea” have led to several new discoveries of the photographer’s work and origins, but raise even more questions about the mysterious foreigner’s life (see “Light and shadow,” Aug. 26, 2009, Xpress).

An enduring legacy

Despite Masa’s relative anonymity, the spirit of his work and desire to promote the region to the outside world while preserving the mountains’ resources and natural character live on.

Today, Asheville is booming once again. New hotels, a massive economic development project in the River Arts District and a scramble to provide more housing options mirror what unfolded during Masa’s lifetime (see “Of Time and the City,” Nov. 20, 2015, Xpress).

MOUNTAIN MAJESTY: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most beloved and most visited sites in the National Park System, attracting millions of visitors and tourist dollars to the region each year. Its creation was the result of over a decade of legislative wrangling, relentless promotion and fundraising, and the tireless efforts of WNC residents such as George Masa, a Japanese immigrant who helped introduce the Smokies to the American people through his photography. Photo via North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville
A LASTING TRIBUTE: Today, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has fulfilled the dreams of park boosters of the 1920s, drawing millions of visitors and tourist dollars into the region each year. The park also stands as a lasting testament to the efforts and sacrifices of Masa and others who wished to preserve the parkland’s beauty for perpetuity. Image via North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

In 2014, nearly 10 million visitors to Buncombe County spent $1.7 billion, according to a Tourism Development Authority report. And since 2009, tourism has generated an estimated 400 new jobs a year in the county.

Meanwhile, national park sites like the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway have fulfilled the expectations of those 1920s boosters, drawing millions of tourists and tourist dollars into the surrounding communities (see “Cash Cows,” May 14, 2015, Xpress).

“The revitalization of Asheville, the enhanced vision for the French Broad River, the new Collider project, the establishment of greenways and farm-to-table initiatives serve as examples of widespread citizen involvement,” says Hart. “Masa’s legacy was significantly influencing the public’s perception of Asheville and the region through his photographs. His selfless dedication to the causes in which he believed is, to my mind, largely unmatched.”

But if Masa’s sacrifices were voluntary, the Cataloochee residents’ experience is a cautionary tale. “There’s always a human cost to anything the government does,” Caldwell observes. “We have to be aware of that, particularly when you’re displacing people from their heritage. It’s something you don’t want to mess with too cavalierly.”

Nearly 100 years ago, a mysterious immigrant named George Masa devoted his life to documenting and preserving the scenic beauty we enjoy today. Indeed, present-day Asheville owes much of its enduring appeal to Masa, other early park boosters, the people of Cataloochee, and all those committed folks who gave of themselves to help realize a dream.

“These efforts really are about protecting places for all Americans and for future generations,” notes Martin of The Wilderness Society. The leaders of the national parks movement, he maintains, “all saw a much bigger picture, both present and future, that was about clean air, clean water, intact ecosystems and wild places. That picture was not only for all human beings, but for all living things.”

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About Max Hunt
Max Hunt grew up in South (New) Jersey and graduated from Warren Wilson College in 2011. History nerd; art geek; connoisseur of swimming holes, hot peppers, and plaid clothing. Follow me @J_MaxHunt

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5 thoughts on “George Masa and the birth of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

  1. Paul Bonesteel

    Thank you Max Hunt and Mountain Xpress for a fine retelling of Masa’s story. His personality, (as I discovered in his many letters) his passion, his art and his organizational achievements are a wonderful and important legacy for people to consider and continue to enjoy.

  2. Max Hunt

    Hi Paul! Thanks for reading and commenting. Your film on Masa was a HUGE help in researching for this article, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed looking through the blog on the film and the updates of information you’ve discovered since then. There’s so much to the man, even with the gaps of missing information on his personal life; truly a fascinating individual!

    For those interested in learning more about Masa’s life and work, check out http://georgemasa.blogspot.com/ or see Bonesteel Films’ “The Mystery of George Masa”!

  3. Mark Horner

    Thank you, Max, for a wonderful article on Masa, Cataloochee, and Asheville. I remember seeing the 2003 Bonesteel film and being fascinated that an unknown Japanese immigrant like George Masa ended up at the center of such a critical age in Western North Carolina, from the zenith of the Vanderbilts (photographing Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding to John Cecil at All Souls’ in June 1924) and the posh and polish of the Grove Park to climbing backcountry peaks to meet Hiram Caldwell and other residents of Cataloochee in the rush to establish the park. What a man, what a story. So glad that you’ve pieced it all together so faithfully and accurately.

    It may interest you to know that the current owner and operator of the Calhoun House Inn in downtown Bryson City is himself an amateur scholar on Kephart, and keeps an impressive library of his works. I’m sure he would be delighted to sit a spell with you in the parlor of the Calhoun House.

    Again, thank you so much for this article. I’ve read Wayne Caldwell’s first novel, and now must get to his second. My best wishes to you from Austin, Texas!

    • Max Hunt

      Hi Mark! Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the article! There really is so much to Masa’s life and work that I wasn’t able to touch on, let along Kephart’s contributions — Paul Bonesteel’s film does a great job of digging into the details of Masa’s time in Asheville, capturing the beauty of his images and sheer volume of his surveying and cartography work for the park and other ventures. It’s a shame that so much of his private life is a mystery in one sense, but in another, I think it adds to the mystique Masa seemed to enjoy cultivating around himself.

      Thanks for passing along the info, re: the owner of the Calhoun House. I will have to look him up and see if I could arrange a visit in the future! It’s always nice to have an excuse to drive out to Bryson City, and I’m very curious to learn more about Kephart the man!

      Thanks again for your remarks, Mark! It’s great ot hear others share my fascination with that period in Asheville’s history. I definitely recommend Mr. Caldwell’s second novel. Take care and best wishes from WNC!

      • Mark Horner

        My pleasure, Max!

        The owner of the Historic Calhoun House is Mr. Luke Hyde. I stayed at the Calhoun last summer and had a wonderful visit, particularly enjoying my chat with Mr. Hyde. He has a wide and loving knowledge of the region.

        For reference, http://www.calhouncountryinn.com/

        Best,
        M.H.

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