Ellison family’s work highlights Appalachian history and culture

Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography is an extensively researched book about the life of a man who instrumental in creating a national park in the Smoky Mountains.

Deena C. Bouknight

Contributing Writer

Elizabeth Ellison’s paintings feature American Indian motifs as well as varied wildflowers, animals, human inhabitants, and landscapes of the Western North Carolina Mountains.

Writer-naturalist George Ellison has written extensively about Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Horace Kephart, introduced the book he co-authored with New York-based writer/researcher Janet McCue – “Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography” – to an August 4 crowd at Alarka Expeditions in Franklin. Ellison read the introduction and fielded questions from Macon County residents and seasonal visitors. 

Quintin Ellison photographs everyday life in Southern Appalachia.

Kephart, born in 1862 in Pennsylvania, became an icon of the Southern Appalachian region because of his observations, writings, and photography revealed in the still-available books, “Camping and Woodcraft” and “Our Southern Highlanders.” Although he was a career librarian in St. Louis, Mo., Kephart moved to Western North Carolina in 1904 at the age of 42 during a time when much logging was taking place. In fact, Kephart was a minor character in author and Western Carolina University (WCU) Professor Ron Rash’s book “Serena.” Kephart became instrumental in creating a national park in the Smoky Mountains and establishing the Appalachian Trail portion through North Carolina and Tennessee. WCU houses a collection of Kephart’s journals and other items.  

Ellison, who has lived near Bryson City since 1973, shared this information as well as the fact that the book was published by Great Smoky Mountain Association, which is a nonprofit cooperating association with the primary purpose of supporting “… the scientific, historical and interpretive activities of Great Smoky Mountains National Park by providing educational products and services to park visitors.” Over the years, the association has published books relating to the Smoky Mountains. Currently, more than 100 publications are in print and more than one million pieces are distributed annually, according to the Association. 

“I did slide presentations for years on Kephart,” said Ellison. “I just wanted to tell the Kephart story. And then the Great Smoky Mountain Association signed us on to write this biography that includes so much research.” 

He added that what made Kephart different from William Bartram and other explorer/naturalists to the Western North Carolina Mountains was that he stayed and made the area his home. 

Surrounded by his wife’s paintings and his daughter’s photography author George Ellison spoke at Alarka Expeditions on August 4 about his new book focusing on the life of Horace Kephart.

Also unveiled on Sunday was an exhibit of paintings by Elizabeth Ellison, George’s wife, and photography by Quintin Ellison, the couple’s daughter. Elizabeth is the owner and operator of Elizabeth Ellison Gallery, which is a studio/gallery located in the former Clampitt Hardware Building on the town square in Bryson City. She has exhibited and taught for many years. And, because she is of Occaneechi Indian descent, many of her paintings feature American Indian motifs, but they also focus on varied wildflowers, animals, human inhabitants, and landscapes of the Western North Carolina Mountains. Journalist, photographer, and current general manager of The Sylva Herald, Quintin has primarily photographed everyday life in Southern Appalachia. 

George Ellison shared that he has always enjoyed outdoor, travel, and adventure books. He first discovered Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” in the 1960s while a graduate student at the University of South Carolina. After he read Kephart’s two major books, he became increasingly interested in Kephart’s history;  when he learned years ago that The University of Tennessee Press was reissuing “Our Southern Highlanders,” he asked if he could write the introduction. 

Brent and Angela Faye Martin, owners of Alarka Expeditions, explained that the Ellison family is working on a book of prose, poetry, paintings, and photography, slated for publication in 2020, which is centered on the experiential theme of sense of place. v