Guest post by Kevin Bowen
First off, I must thank Todd Walker for the opportunity to write this piece for his blog. He really wanted to attend Kephart Days this year but an even more important event took place the same weekend that required his attendance, the birth of a beautiful, healthy grandson. Congratulations good buddy!!!
I first met Todd online about a year or so ago and then had to chance to meet up with him and Bill Reese at one of the Workshop in the Woods classes, hosted by primitive expert/teacher/author, and all around great guy, Scott Jones. If you regularly follow Todd’s blog, you have been introduced to Scott already. Since then, I have garnered a great respect for Todd’s attitude, an affinity for his ideas and work ethic, and more than anything, a love for his friendship. It’s truly an honor to help him out with this project. This article will have neither Todd’s articulate nature, prose, or flow. But, please bear with me and I will try not to bore you and attempt to deliver at least a sliver of the respect this event deserves.
If you missed the 2015 annual Horace Kephart Days event held May 15th-16th at the Schiele Museum in Gastonia, North Carolina, you missed an amazing and well run event complete with imparted knowledge, new friendships, relaxation, discovery, and fresh respect. The purpose of the event was to bring awareness to Horace Kephart “The Dean of American Camping”, his life and legacy, contributions to camping, woodcraft, preservation, and enduring spirit. In addition to this purpose was to observe and interact with Steven Watts, David Wescott, and the Acorn Patrol Classic Camping Demonstration Team.
Even the most novice outdoorsman should be familiar with the name Horace Kephart. Many have heard of the Kephart knife which was named after the style of knife that he preferred when enduring long spells in the outdoors. Even more so, his book Camping and Woodcraft, is one of the most definitive manuals for outdoors enthusiasts. There is an abundance of information on Kephart, even though there may be even more mystery surrounding him. I would suggest researching this great individual to seek the benefits that you would surely reap from it. Fortunately, conversations were already being had for next year’s event. Personally, I can’t wait to see what it will bring.
Having only Saturday to attend, I had to fit as much into 8 hours as possible, even though a full immersion into the subjects would have required much more time. Upon arriving, I immediately knew I was at the correct place even though I had yet to see a classic camper face. My senses went into overload with the whiff of the fresh air accompanied by that wonderful wood smoke and campfire aroma that we all love. It didn’t hurt that waves of the morning’s breakfast cooked over the fires were still lingering. Well, except enhancing my appetite.
Walking up to the campground, there was a beautiful scene of different shades of canvas set up meticulously all about the backcountry farm grounds. The tents were in perfect agreement with the old farm buildings and would make one feel as if they went back through a portal in time. Amongst the canvas were whelen lean-tos, baker tents, wall tents, diamond shelters, wedge tents, and others. The period representative items amongst the campers ranged from a few to an abundance, all stoking visitors inquisitive nature. The best part of the camp, however, was the warm and welcoming personalities there. Finally, after speaking only online, I was able to meet Steven Watts, David Wescott, and Horace & Laura Kephart’s great granddaughter, Libby Kephart Hargrave in person. Also, in attendance were Georgia Bushcrafter’s Bobby O’Quinn and Master Woodsman’s Christian Nobel, along with Bobby’s son and Christian’s daughter. It is amazing to see the kids joining in on the fun.
After quick introductions and hellos, we headed over to the main museum building and auditorium. Just as welcoming inside the museum as on outside were other Kephart enthusiasts and lecturers. Some had even come from states away, even California. Speakers on Kephart and his contributions to woodcraft, conservation, and the Smokey Mountain National Park were Jason Brady, Bob Plott, George Frizzell, George Ellison, and Libby Kephart Hargrave. After the lectures, descendants of Horace Kephart were on hand for autographs, discussion, and pictures. Participants of the event were also welcomed to participate in a documentary being filmed on Kephart, when walking around the campground, by providing one word that comes to mind when pondering Horace Kephart. Libby’s personal word was “complex” while my thoughts conjured up the word “reflective”.
When leaving the auditorium, we were also invited to stop by Mr. Bill Alexander’s bark basket display. Mr. Alexander was extremely inviting and you can easily see that he has a passion and artistic nature for his baskets. Fortunately, I was able to gain a little insight and tips for some that I plan to make as well. He is also an author, poet, hiker, and researcher as well as a great guy to have a long conversation with.
Back outside, the fellowship and enjoyment continued. Along with Mr. Watts and Mr. Wescott were the amazing Acorn Patrol members, who displayed an amazing 1920s demonstration camp. All of the members were not just displaying camping in the old style but exhibiting an old style neighborly attitude where all were welcomed into their homes away from home like old friends. Included in their displays were some extremely expensive items and priceless heirlooms. However, all were invited to touch, experience, and ask questions. Even offered were food, treats, drinks, and a constant willingness to sit down for a friendly chat. I also noticed in their displays that all of them had high quality tools, which was a tenant of Kephart. These are just a few testaments to their willingness to share their passion. These were also skilled artisans and exquisite researchers. Needless to say, they are enthusiasts of history, which is abundantly evident in their displays as they strive, and succeed, to be accurate. If any of you read American Frontiersman or The Backwoodsman periodicals, you would have surely enjoyed the research and writings of some of the Acorn Patrol members.
Speaking of past articles in the aforementioned periodicals, two items really caught my eye. One was the axe sheath featured in American Frontiersman #175, in an article by Watts & Wescott. It is a sheath/sling combo that allows a camper to have his axe securely on him at all time while retaining the use of both arms and hands. The other was a period representative cooler, also featured in a piece by Watts & Wescott in The Backwoodsman Vol. 36, No. 3. Amazingly, this cooler that one could put together for $35 dollars or so, will rival $300-$500 dollar coolers or similar size and keep ice in them for 3 days! All one needs is an enclosed wooden box,a #10 can (5lb vegetable or bean can), filled with frozen water, placed inside a larger pot with about 2-3 inches on each side for your “freezer” compartment, pack wheat straw all around this pot for your “refrigeration” section, and a canvas bag filled with about 2 inches thick of wheat straw to lay on top of the inside before closing the lid. Upon touch, Steve’s meat packages were still frozen and the eggs as cold as if they had just been removed from a refrigerator, even though the lid had been off for about 30 minutes upon my inspection. Unfortunately, I missed seeing Acorn Patrol member, Thomas Ray’s ML Kephart knife and other blades that were loose representations of Kephart’s personal knife discussed in his article in American Frontiersman #175.
In the afternoon, we attended the “Sermon on the Mount” presented by brother of divinity, David Wescott and brother of re-creation, Steven Watts. The lecture combined a pleasant mixture of information and comedy. The main topic was of classic camping and how it relates to Horace Kephart and also to our story of a nation and our legacy. First off, Mr. Watts and Mr. Wescott gave the back story of classic camping. In particular, how it became extremely popular from 1880-1930 due to a combination of the frontier being closed, a yearning to get out in the wild, and new technology including the automobile. Mr. Watts hit on it perfectly with the idea that “it was age of Daniel Boone meets the age of Henry Ford”. They also explained how the classic camping movement is on an upswing from the year 2000, no doubt in major part from the research, publications, and efforts of these two fine gentlemen and the Acorn Patrol as well. It’s no mistake that “Camping in the Old Style” was first published in 2000. In addition, they touched on how classic camping relates to modern and car camping today.
Mr. Wescott brought a new term to our attention as well, neoteny. Neoteny is defined as the retention of juvenile characteristics in the adults of a species. Well, needless to say, we get accustomed to and trained as adults to forget ways to think outside of the box, especially with survival and enjoyment as well. Case in point, how many of you created a tree house or fort that was sustainable at a young age just from construction scraps or whatever you could scrape up? Now, if you were tasked to create the same today, how many of them would hold up to the first step you took on it before collapsing? Personally, I’ve been looking for a term for some time now to describe this theory. Now, I have it. Furthermore, it really illustrates why we have a juvenile desire to just be in the woods and somewhat away from modern civilization that we’re accustomed to.
Mr. Watts touched on the fact that what they are doing is not just recreational camping but re-creational camping, as in recreating the style that was at a per capita peak in about 1920. The idea was to head out in your Model T Ford for a weekend in the wild, in comfort, with your skills as a woodsman but with many comforts and luxuries of the day. Honestly speaking, I can now see how enjoyable and relaxing this camping can be. The furnishings may look old style but are deceptively comfortable. The tools are such quality that you often could finish a task in less time than you could with modern tools of a similar design but a sense of pride and enjoyment. We already are aware that anyone reading this article understands the enticing lure of the campfire and an honest meal cooked over it, as well as fellowship with your friends by the same fire before retiring to a nice slumber away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Steve did touch on, however, that there is no substitute for the knowledge in your head. The more knowledge of camping and woodcraft that you have, the less you have to carry with you and tasks are achieved more easily through an understanding and efficiency as opposed to confusion and struggle. He encourages us to research and participate ourselves.
The “Sermon on the Mount” lecture was one of the focal points of the events for me and really got me thinking. How many of our forefathers enjoyed this type of camping? Of course, miners, frontiersmen, soldiers, scouts, railroad workers, explorers, traders, etc. had to. But, how many after that did this because they truly loved and enjoyed it. Families would go out together to enjoy time together as opposed to substituting electronic devices for meaningful, wholesome interaction. One of my personal favorite historical figures, Theodore Roosevelt, specialized in this type of camping. He did so not just for his adventures and safaris, but because he loved it and the outdoors.
If you did not get a chance to attend Kephart Days this year, you surely missed a treat and I strongly recommend a trip to see these wonderful people and their craft next year. To that point, if you would like to see Steve Watts and the Acorn Patrol in person sooner than the 2016 Kephart Days, they will be having an event in The Cradle of Forestry in Pisgah Forest, NC in October. That too, I have no doubts, will be worth the trip, especially in the beautiful October weather. The entire group and all participants put on and together an amazing display. I have no doubt that Horace Kephart would have enjoyed this event and be proud of what his legacy represents as well as the movement it has spawned with these wonderful people.
To put some scenery to your imagination, I have included some pictures. However, you can also find pictures online that are surely captured with much better photography equipment and an eye than I have provided.
There are too many thanks to go around for the enjoyment that I received at the event and new friendships/bonds created, but I would like to especially thank the following: Libby Kephart Hargrave for organizing and putting on a great event to celebrate “The Dean of American Camping”, Horace Kephart. Steve Watts and David Wescott for their relentless study, effort, and desire to educate and encourage this movement, as well as their generous hospitality and warm nature. The Acorn Patrol: Thomas Ray, Tom and Jennifer Mancke, Steve Maxwell, Jim Green, Michael Eldridge, Kim Niedert, Cindy Carpenter, and Eve King. This group put a lot of time and effort not only to create an immaculate display but also had the most inviting personalities while doing so. George and Elizabeth Ellison, Bob Plott, George Frizzell, Bill Alexander, Joe Flowers, and Jason Brady for their lectures and invaluable contributions to the event. Janet Deyer who serenaded us with lovely, period violin music. All of the Kephart descendants and Libby’s amazing husband, John Hargrave, who came out to attend and support the event and cause. The Schiele Museum for hosting the event and having other great exhibits to tour as well. The camera and production crew documenting the event and working on the amazing Kephart documentary that will be coming out. Last but certainly not least, everyone who came out from near and far to the event or who just happened to drop in out of curiosity and stay for a spell. Without you, this event would not exist. I sincerely hope to attend and see some of you there next spring. Hey, if you notice, should your name be Tom, Bob, or George, you are a shoe in to be accepted. Just be prepared to participate in the “Hello” echo when your name is called!
[I’d like to thank Kevin for sharing his experience and photos with us. Hopefully we can share a campfire and canvas at next years event. Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance! – Todd]
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