Knoxville's Best Idea

When I heard Burns and Co. were planning a long series about our national parks, I figured, Knoxville would finally get some sepia PBS-documentary cred. Among national parks, the Smokies project was a rarity in that from its inception it was an idea generated and promoted not by general-interest national conservationists, but by longtime locals, mainly Knoxvillians.

So many of these heroic stories seem pre-tailored for the Ken Burns treatment. You wouldn't even have to exaggerate. The cast of characters sounds made for a documentary:

The Knoxville housewife—forbidden by gender to vote until she was in her mid-40s—who became one of the first women in the South to be elected to state Legislature, and as a politician in the mid-1920s became a key promoter of the park project. Annie Davis had reason to push it; the whole effort to build a national park in the Smokies had been, after all, her own idea.

The middle-aged, bespectacled Gay Street druggist who led the gritty and complicated movement to obtain land from residents and industries and raise funds for what was perhaps the most complicated of all the national-park projects. After 20 years of tireless daily effort, personal death threats posted on trees, and a memorable fistfight, David Chapman became known as the Father of the Smokies, and whose name was given to one of the mountains' highest points.

The lumber baron who, perhaps like his contemporaries Rockefeller and Carnegie, had a change of heart, only after making his fortune, and became a friend of conservation. Today there's a town named for Col. W.B. Townsend.

None of their stories made the cut. None of these people, who, along with others like Ben Morton, Willis Davis, Carlos Campbell, and Jim Thompson, without whom the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would not exist, are even mentioned in the documentary. If you look fast and know what you're looking for, you can make out a couple of their images in a collage of photos of supporters. Viewers who recognize them already know their stories.

The documentary makes much of Horace Kephart's worthy 1913 book, Our Southern Highlanders, but doesn't mention another event the same year, the National Conservation Exposition, declared the first of its kind in human history. It drew over one million visitors in its two-month run at Knoxville's Chilhowee Park. Organized and promoted by local progressives, the Exposition's chief goal was to consider the wisest treatment of the southern forests. Some of the same people involved in the exposition, including Chapman, were also leaders in the Park movement in the 1920s.

But it wouldn't really fit the Burns storyline: an interesting drama about two talented and eccentric outsiders, Kephart and photographer George Masa. The story of the Smokies Park is, from Burns' perspective, the story of their friendship. They're represented as a writer-photographer dream team who swayed national opinion about saving the Smokies at a critical time. The fact that they're talented, fascinating, and worthy people is more certain than the fact that either was critical to the park's founding. For Knoxville's conservationists, it was an often gruelling political, financial, and personal struggle.

I've been in touch with Burns' writer, Dayton Duncan; he responds that the documentary makes clear many others were involved in the park movement. During his recent appearance here at the Tennessee Theatre, Dayton Duncan implied, after the screening, that Kephart and Masa were meant to represent lots of other stories of people who weren't mentioned.

You can judge for yourself how representative they are of this grassroots effort, accomplished not by outsiders, as most national parks are, but by longtime locals who understood the value of what they had. The true story of the Smokies—and to find it, I'd recommend histories by Carlos Campbell and Daniel Pierce—is proof that you can make a huge difference where you live.

Cynics have assumed the Kephart-Masa story was just the easier route for this impossibly ambitious project, which set out to tell the story of all America's national parks. An earlier documentary, The Mystery of George Masa, made by Asheville documentarian Paul Bonesteel and broadcast to limited markets in 2003, tells the same story, with many of the same images. The material was handy, assembled and ready to use again.

Knoxville's conservationist heroes have never been the subjects of a PBS documentary; they would have required much more original video research. Duncan is a good writer and seems like a very nice guy, but archivists tell me his researchers didn't even visit Knoxville's major resources on the subject—not UT's archives, not the McClung Collection. They did make a few phone calls and wanted everything yesterday, and cheap. They didn't seem very curious, and already knew what they wanted; not ideas, but fill-in illustrations for a story they'd already outlined.

And it is, to be fair, a story worthy of Charlotte Brontë. Horace Kephart, who suffered what they used to call a nervous breakdown, abandoned his wife and several children in St. Louis to live by himself in the woods, effectively out-Thoreauing Thoreau. George Masa, the mysterious Japanese immigrant, running from a past he wouldn't discuss. Both suffered untimely deaths. It's a fascinating segment, in keeping with the series' other eccentric icons, like John Muir—even as it's maddening to anyone who anticipated the Burns documentary would be the definitive story of the founding of our national park and the people who really made it happen. It's not.

The sad truth is that the Knoxvillians who actually started the park movement were comfortable, well-adjusted, middle-class folks. They had nice houses, remained married to the same people, and lived long lives. They knew drama, but maybe not pathos. As far as history is concerned, that's where they screwed up. They were affluent suburbanites; some were even Republicans. You don't write operas about people like that, and maybe it's prudent to leave them out of documentaries, too.

The Knoxvillians' primary problem, from a documentary point of view, was a general shortage of mysteriousness. It just makes me think, if Knoxville only produced more dramatic citizens, we'd get in more documentaries. Aspiring heroes might want to keep that in mind.