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National Great Outdoors Month at the St. Louis Mercantile Library: Recognizing the Life and Legacy of Horace Kephart
To many a city man there comes a time when the great town wearies him. He hates its sights and smells and clangor. Every duty is a task and every caller is a bore. There come visions of green fields and far-rolling hills, of tall forests and cool, swift flowing streams.
 
Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, 1906
Joseph R. Meeker (1827-1887), View of the Meramec River Near Glencoe, oil on canvas, 1871. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library Art Museum.
In 2019 Congress officially designated the month of June as National Great Outdoors Month. It is a time for all of us to step back and consider America’s natural wonders, their beauty, splendor, and significance, both past and present. The 175-year-old collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library embody Americana at its best, with nature and wilderness at its core. The collections are overflowing with wondrous travel narratives, inspiring landscapes, and expedition journals filled with meticulous descriptions of flora, fauna, and topography. The library is the product of decades of dedication and devotion by talented and passionate librarians who painstakingly built the collection one book at a time. Horace Kephart was one such librarian who also held a deep appreciation and affinity for our nation’s wild places. In honor of the Great Outdoors Month, let us explore the life and legacy of one of our earliest and most influential librarians.

Horace Kephart was not your average librarian, if there is such a thing. He was a scholar and author, but also an avid outdoorsman and wilderness advocate. Kephart grew up in rural Iowa. His father, a frontier preacher and educator, held a life-long love for wilderness, having grown up in the wild mountains of Pennsylvania. Young Horace Kephart, therefore, spent his childhood in the rugged back-country of Iowa. In a 1926 interview for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kephart recalled being given a copy of Robinson Crusoe at the age of 7 as a formative moment. “I used to take Robinson out to the old boat amid the trees and there I read it through and through, I don’t know how many times. I made wooden guns, pistols, a hatchet, and a thing I called a cutlass. A fur cap was easily contrived, shaped like the one Crusoe wears in the picture in my book. Then I built a cave out of prairie sod and stocked it with all sorts of booty.”
Kephart’s book likely looked similar to this illustrated edition of The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe from 1864. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
When Kephart was in his teens, his father moved the family back to the east coast, chasing a job opportunity. Kephart attended Lebanon Valley College, then went on to study biology at Boston University. While in Boston, he developed a deep appreciation for the city’s outstanding libraries, though he found himself frustrated by their lack of organization. This frustration is reportedly what caused him to forsake a career in biology and instead become a librarian. After graduating, Kephart pursued a graduate degree at Cornell University in history and political science, while serving as assistant librarian under William Fiske. For his first major project, Kephart was put in charge of the cataloging department with instructions from Fiske to “do something about this mess.” Kephart created an impressive dictionary catalogue that became the foundation of the institution’s library. Kephart followed Fiske to Florence for a time, the pair working on Petrarch’s Icelandic literature, then eventually returned to Cornell, where he met and married Laura Mack in 1887. To support his growing family, Kephart took a position at the Yale University Library, where he spent two years bringing order to their collections and falling in love with American frontier history. In 1890 Kephart heard the St. Louis Mercantile Library was hiring a librarian and he leapt at the opportunity to work at the oldest library west of the Mississippi River, with one of largest and most significant collections of early frontier history.
Horace Kephart's original resume, 1890.
From the Archives of the St. Louis Mercantile Library and Association.
For an admirer of the outdoors, Kephart’s move makes absolute sense. The region surrounding St. Louis boasts a diverse landscape and ecosystem, from spring fed streams and caves, to towering river bluffs and teeming wetlands. It’s a natural paradise today, and was even more so in Kephart’s time. What’s more, the library’s collections themselves would have been endlessly captivating to Kephart, from rare travel and adventure narratives to stunning views of the great American landscape by artists of national renown. Kephart was hired to the position, becoming the library’s 6th head librarian, following beloved librarian John Dyer’s 27-year tenure. Despite a great deal of controversy (many of the library’s members didn’t appreciate an east-coast-outsider beating out local candidates), Kephart set to his work with a passion. During his tenure the library’s collection doubled in size, the reference room was created to facilitate research and access to the collections, electricity replaced candlesticks in stack areas, and the entire collection of 75,000 books was re-catalogued and re-classified. Kephart drew from his experience at Cornell and Yale to create a numerical system that classified books by topic and placed them on shelves in numbered sequence, with the numbers recorded on cards in a card-index file. For this work, Kephart is considered by many as one of the founders of the card-catalogue system that eventually became the heart of every American library. Under Kephart, the library had accumulated one of the finest scholarly collections in the United States. He filled the shelves with diaries, newspapers, letters, manuscripts, court records, and anything and everything Western Americana. In his time, St. Louis still served as the gateway to the West, and Kephart often remarked it was therefore the logical home for these materials. Reportedly, all of the serious writers of the early West consulted Kephart and the Mercantile’s collections.

An 1890 advertisement written by Kephart in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provides insight into how he viewed the library’s collections when he first arrived, marrying his love of the outdoors and adventure with his love of literature. It reads, "Old Books of Adventure: An Hour in the Aisles and Shelves of the Mercantile Library. In olden times it was worthwhile to travel and tell about it. The world was full of mysteries and wonders. Untrodden wilds invited exploration…”


Clarence Miller joined the library staff as an apprentice under Kephart in 1897, and continued working at the library until 1958. Miller described Kephart in a 1959 Bulletin for the Missouri Historical Society. "Intellectually he was the most brilliant man I have known, and, almost as a matter of course, the least assuming... Kephart was neither introverted nor austere... He was always accessible to the staff or the public. Any legitimate question got either a direct answer or concise information as to where the answer could be found. The range of his information seemed incredible to us who drew on it daily.”

While reading stories of the old frontiersmen, Kephart was drawn to those wild places brought to life by the ink scrawled across the pages. He wanted to live the life he spent his days and nights reading about, a life in the backcountry. His son, Leonard, recalled in his memoirs how his father first began venturing into the wilds. "His first step was to make camping trips into the nearby countryside... Soon the little camping trips became big camping trips and thereafter, for several years, he spent every vacation deep in the Ozark Mountains or in the wild White River country of northern Arkansas.” Kephart’s son goes on to recall an incident where he accompanied his father on one of his early adventures and nearly drowned in the Meramec River. "It was decided that camping, wilderness style was too risky for women and children and none of us ever accompanied him again."
Photograph of Horace Kephart. From the Archives of the St. Louis Mercantile Library and Association, Courtesy of Western Carolina University.
Kephart began to shun his duties and responsibilities at the library, drawn instead to his passion and zeal for the great outdoors. He would retreat into the Ozark Mountains for days at a time. Instead of scholarly works for the library, he published articles for popular outdoor magazines on woodcraft and hunting. In the aforementioned publication for the Missouri Historical Society, Clarence Miller wrote, "His chief recreation was a weekend of hiking in the Ozarks, where he would camp alone overnight. These trips picked him up in vigor and spirits, and Monday morning after one of these excursions found his energy almost contagious."

In 1904 Kephart resigned from the library. It’s unclear what led him to this point, as sources offer contradictory accounts. Some claim he suffered from severe alcohol abuse, while others, including Miller and Kephart’s son, claim to have never seen the slightest evidence of this. Some accounts claim he experienced anxiety and had a nervous breakdown. It is easy to see how Kephart might have felt depressed and alone, surrounded by people who didn’t understand or got in the way of his connection with nature, including his family and colleagues. He likely felt held back by societal expectations and unable to fully devote himself to his true passion or find his place in the world. Whatever the reason, physicians reportedly told Kephart he needed to abandon city and professional life and find a place where he could live quietly and alone with no distractions or excitement. In his memoir, Kephart’s son writes "I came home from school one day in December, expecting to find my mother happily engrossed in preparations for Christmas. Instead I found her on her knees packing a trunk. Tears were running down her face. 'We are moving back to Ithaca,’ she said, between sobs. ‘For good. Father won't be at the Library any more. He has had a nervous breakdown. I don't know what he is going to do. We are going to be poor for a while. Dreadfully poor.’"

Kephart abandoned his career and family (he had six children), then retired to the southern Appalachians at the age of 42. In his 1913 memoirs Southern Highlanders, Kephart wrote, "When I went south into the mountains I was seeking a Back of Beyond. This for more reasons than one. With an inborn taste for the wild and romantic, I yearned for a strange land and a people that had the charm of originality. Again, I had a passion for early American history; and, in Far Appalachia, it seemed that I might realize the past in the present, seeing with my own eyes what life must have been to my pioneer ancestors of a century or two ago. Besides, I wanted to enjoy a free life in the open air, the thrill of exploring new ground, the joys of the chase, and the man’s game of matching my woodcraft against the forces of nature, with no help from servants or hired guides."


Kephart initially settled into the small mountain community of Hazel Creek, North Carolina, with its 42 households (around 200 people) scattered over an area eight miles long by two wide. While in Hazel Creek, Kephart wrote Camping and Woodcraft: A Guidebook for Those Who Travel in the Wilderness. It’s a timeless outdoor classic and standard manual for campers that ranks sixth among the ten best-selling sporting books of all time. Every chapter is filled with tips that remain useful to this day, even after a century of improvements in equipment and technology.
Camping and Woodcraft: A Handbook for Vacation Campers and for Travelers in the Wilderness by Horace Kephart, 1916. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
Kephart became increasingly interested in the people of the region and how they interacted with nature. In his memoir he wrote, “They were unlike any people I had ever met elsewhere. They were like figures taken from the old frontier histories and legends that I had been so fond of, only they were living flesh and blood instead of mere characters in books.” After 3 years in Hazel Creek, he moved to the slightly more populated community of Bryson City. In 1913 Kephart wrote Our Southern Highlanders from a workshop with a window overlooking the Tuckasegee River. His book, a memoir about his life and experiences in the Smoky Mountains, has been described as "the standard by which all other books on the southern mountain region are judged." Kephart began to re-enter society, serving as chairman of the town’s board of alderman and president of the North Carolina State Literary and Historical Association. His inaugural address for the society explored the history of the Cherokee people.
Our Southern Highlanders: A Narrative of Adventure in the Southern Appalachians and a Study of Life among the Mountaineers by Horace Kephart, 1913.
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
The Cherokees of the Smoky Mountains: A Little Band That Has Stood Against the White Tide for Three Hundred Years, Rewritten from the papers of Horace Kephart, 1936. 
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
During this time, lumber companies were a serious threat to the wilderness that meant so much to Kephart. He became the leading member of a small group of naturalists who fought to preserve the land that would later become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Kephart gave speeches and wrote publications urging the creation of the park, and championed what later became the Appalachian Trail. Kephart never lived to see his dreams become a reality. On April 2, 1931, a mere three years before congress established the park, Kephart and a fellow writer were killed in an automobile accident while touring the mountains he loved. He was buried at Bryson City in a spot overlooking the mountains. After the national park was established, one of the highest peaks was named in his honor.

In an interview for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on October 31, 1926, Kephart was asked if he was satisfied with his life, after all he had sacrificed and experienced. He answered, “Satisfied? Why not? My knapsack hangs on the wall. It weighs twenty-seven and a half pounds. It contains everything that I need. In two hours I can be walking in the wilderness, with my gun on my shoulder, INDEPENDENT. I like that. I am happy.”


In honor of National Great Outdoors Month, the Mercantile recognizes the life and legacy of one of our earliest librarians. An extraordinary figure who, among his many great accomplishments, contributed to the growth and dynamic resiliency of America’s oldest library west of the Mississippi River; the preservation of countless great works of Western Americana, still part of the library’s collections today; and the creation of America’s most popular and beloved National Park. With gratitude, we remember Horace Kephart.

Learn more about Kephart and other significant figures in the history of our library, city, and nation in our new exhibition A Nation, A City, & Its First Library: Americana as a Way of Life at the St. Louis Mercantile Library for 175 Years. Schedule your free docent-led tour here or visit on your own during regular library hours.


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