Smoky Mountain Air

Janet McCue and Paul Bonesteel Explore Photographer George Masa's Fascinating Life: A Smokies Life ‘Missing Issues’ Feature

May 20, 2020 Great Smoky Mountains Association / Janet McCue and Paul Bonesteel Season 1 Episode 2
Smoky Mountain Air
Janet McCue and Paul Bonesteel Explore Photographer George Masa's Fascinating Life: A Smokies Life ‘Missing Issues’ Feature
Show Notes Transcript

“Early 20th century hikers in the Great Smokies were likely to encounter a small Japanese man on the trail. He was 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed a little more than 100 pounds. He might have been burdened with a pack containing a heavy camera, tripod, and accompanying equipment. Or he might be pushing the front wheel of a bicycle connected to handlebars with an odometer attached, a cyclometer, that he used to measure trail mileages. Any conversation with this diminutive man would have entailed responses in broken English. And as likely as not, he would have been accompanied by men and women, his friends, who frequently hiked with him. Years later this same man received a letter written April 20, 1932, from the associate director of the National Park Service, Arno Cammerer, that stated in part, ‘You surely are the Great Smoky Mountains patriot…’”

That's a short excerpt from Bill Hart's article about the enigmatic photographer who was born in Japan but came to America and gave his heart to the Great Smoky Mountains region. His name was George Masa, and Hart's article appeared along with a selection of Masa's photographs in one of our ‘missing issues’ of Smokies Life, Volume 2, #2. These missing issues are no longer in print but are available to view online at

Our guests Janet McCue and Paul Bonesteel are in the process of co-authoring a biography of George Masa. McCue is an independent writer and researcher, co-author of Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography, and collaborator on many Kephart projects. She is the former director of Mann Library at Cornell University.

Paul Bonesteel is a filmmaker, director, and founder of Bonesteel Films, a production company based in Asheville, NC. His documentary film The Mystery of George Masa (available on Vimeo with promo code "Masa") explores the compelling story of the immigrant who came to the mountains of Western North Carolina, gained employment at the grand Grove Park Inn, connected with many of Asheville's most influential residents, and found his passion in photography and hiking with his friends in the Carolina Mountain Club.

We spoke with McCue and Bonesteel on an online video chat while they were in their respective states of New York and North Carolina.

A digitized collection of George Masa’s photographs can be found online in the virtual "North Carolina Room" of Buncombe County Library's website. 


[Old-time guitar music and bird song]

Karen Key 00:06
Welcome to Smoky Mountain Air a new series from Great Smoky Mountains Association where we'll bring you interviews and author readings that delve into the diverse natural and cultural history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

I'm Karen Key, senior publication specialist, with my co-host Valerie Polk, videographer at GSMA.

[Old-time guitar music and bird song]

Valerie Polk 00:35
“Early 20th-century hikers in the Great Smokies were likely to encounter a small Japanese man on the trail. He was 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed a little more than 100 pounds. He might have been burdened with a pack containing a heavy camera, tripod, and accompanying equipment. Or he might be pushing the front wheel of a bicycle connected to handlebars with an odometer attached, a cyclometer that he used to measure trail mileage. Any conversation with this diminutive man would have entailed responses in broken English, and as likely as not, he would have been accompanied by men and women, his friends, who frequently hiked with him.” 

“Years later this same man received a letter written April 20,1932, from the Associate Director of the National Park Service Arno Cammerer that stated in part ‘You surely are the Great Smoky Mountains Patriot.’”

That's a short excerpt from Bill Hart's article about the enigmatic photographer who was born in Japan but came to America and gave his heart to the Great Smoky Mountains region. His name was George Masa and Hart's article appeared along with a selection of Masa’s photographs in one of our missing issues of Smokies Life, volume 2, number 2. These missing issues are no longer in print but are available to view online at

Karen Key 02:02
Our guests Janet McCue and Paul Bonesteel are in the process of co-authoring a biography of George Masa. McCue is an independent writer and researcher, co-author of Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography, and collaborator on many Kephart projects. She is the former director of Mann Library at Cornell University. 

Valerie Polk 02:25
Paul Bonesteel is a filmmaker, director, and founder of Bonesteel Films, a production company based in Asheville, North Carolina. His documentary film, The Mystery of George Masa, explores the compelling story of the immigrant who came to the mountains of Western North Carolina, gained employment at the grand Grove Park Inn, connected with many of Asheville's most influential residents, and found his passion in photography and hiking with his friends in the Carolina Mountain Club.

We spoke with McCue and Bonesteel on an online video chat while they were in their respective states of New York and North Carolina.

Karen Key 03:00
Welcome, Janet McCue and Paul Bonesteel!

Janet McCue 03:02
Thank you! It's nice to be here today.

Paul Bonesteel 03:05
Yes, very exciting.

Karen Key 03:08
So, who is George Masa?

Paul Bonesteel 03:12
George Masa showed up in Asheville as a 24- 25-year-old, very productive and engaged, somewhat recent immigrant from Japan. We don't know exactly how long he was in the States before he showed up in Asheville in 1914, but for the next 19 years or so was part of an amazing period in the 20th century, especially in the Western North Carolina-Eastern Tennessee area. Asheville blossomed and the Roaring Twenties were never more roaring than in Asheville. And within a few years, George Masa had befriended the Vanderbilts and some of the most influential people in the state of North Carolina and beyond through his personality and his photography and his passion. 

And so obviously also as a conservation movement was at a real pivotal moment where national parks were blossoming, the national forests were being added and expanded. And people were actually getting out and hiking and exploring in a recreational way. And Masa walked into Western North Carolina right while all this was happening—first in the middle of World War I and then into the Great Depression. 

I didn't really answer who he is, but he became an amazing character here mostly through his sort of selfless efforts to help to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Yeah, it's hard for me to sum it up in a minute.

Janet McCue 04:48
It's hard—it's hard to categorize George Masa. First, he's a photographer—he's an extraordinary photographer, but he's also a patriot. I think of George Masa as being, on the one hand, a man who hustled to earn a living as a photographer in a difficult period of our history but also was passionate about the mountains and used his photography to highlight the area which became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So, he's a man of mystery. I think Paul's film, The Mystery of George Masa—I joked with him when we began our project that we could name our biography “More Mysteries of George Masa” or maybe “Uncovering Some of the Mysteries and Finding Even More Mysteries." 

He arrived as a young man, as Paul said, in 1915. And what he accomplished in those 18 years of living in Western North Carolina is really quite extraordinary. It’s a story of a man who we don't know that much about, and I think Paul and I are trying very hard to find out some of those details of how he became the man we know him as.

Valerie Polk 06:01
Janet, you wrote a chapter on George Masa in the book you co-authored with George Ellison, Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography, so what interests you in writing a whole book about Masa?

Janet McCue 06:14
Well, George and I, as you said, did a chapter on George Masa, but there's so many other things that we didn't get into. We looked at George through the prism of Horace Kephart. To a certain extent, he was a secondary character in a book about our primary subject, who was Horace Kephart. So, we barely touched on his background. We barely touched on his photography, other than his work in the Great Smoky Mountains. We didn't talk at all about his motivations—what made George Masa so dedicated to capturing the beauty of the Smokies, what made him so devoted to mapping and the nomenclature work that that he did. I think there's a lot more that we could we could talk about. 

George Ellison and I did an introduction to Camping and Woodcraft—an 80-page introduction to Camping and Woodcraft—that was published by GSMA. We discovered we had a lot more to say, and so I said I think we could easily say the same thing about George Masa. We did a chapter on the man, but there's a lot more that is intriguing about him. And I think once you become fascinated with a person, you want to know more—you want to figure out. I almost feel like I have to go back and reread all the things that I read when I was looking at it through the filter of Horace Kephart because there's a different…When another person becomes the subject, Horace Kephart goes into the background when George Masa comes to the foreground.

Valerie Polk 07:51
Would you mind reading an excerpt from that chapter?

Janet McCue 07:53
Sure, Valerie. I'd be happy to read a chapter from Back of Beyond. This is Chapter 16, “Congenial Comrades.”

“George Masa was short and slim, barely over five feet, and little more than 100 pounds. His smile was broad, his hands slender, and his gait, the “light, springy step of one who is accustomed to walking much in the out-of-doors,” according to Lola Love, a reporter for the Asheville Citizen. On his trips through the Smokies, Masa lugged an 8x10-view camera, tripod, and equipment that weighed half as much as he. Moved by his evocative photos, appreciative audiences sometimes refer to him as the Ansel Adams of the Smokies. Little is known about Masa’s background and much of his photographic legacy has been lost. In spite of significant research, none of his biographers can verify where he was born, how he was educated, or when he arrived in the United States. What we do know is that Kephart and Masa made a formidable team.”

“These two ‘congenial comrades’ were at first glance an odd couple—Kephart, a man in his sixties when they met, Swiss stock, well educated, and weathered from his lifestyle; Masa, 20 years his junior, of Japanese ancestry and aesthetic, with vague and conflicting details about his background. Kephart’s bookshelf held Dante and Chaucer; Masa’s collection included Japanese Samurai and Ninjutsu stories. But they had much in common: they were both outsiders, guarded about their past, and passionate about the Smokies. Their professional collaboration and friendship led to extensive explorations as they hiked, camped, and traveled by horse and by car throughout the Smokies. They shared interests in mapping, geographic nomenclature, and exploring the terra incognita of the Appalachian range."

Valerie Polk 10:06
Thank you so much for that, Janet. It will really be a pleasure to read an entire book about Masa.

So, I have a question about the pronunciation of his name—is it George ‘Mah-sah’ or is it George ‘Mas-sah?’

Janet McCue 10:18
I think it's controversial—you know, his name—if you were a Japanese person, you would pronounce it one way. But Bill Hart said that he asked Barbara Ambler Thorne how to pronounce it, and she pronounced it a different way. So, you have half the universe saying ‘Mas-sah’ and the other half of the universe is saying ‘Mah-sah.’ And I think after Bill told me that story, I think I've been trying to call him ‘Mas-sah,’ although I think in the Japanese language probably be more ‘Mah-sah.’ What do you say?

Paul Bonesteel 10:50
I generally say ‘Mah-sah.’ There have been different spellings even of that with two ‘S’s on some, which doesn't really change the way the ‘A’ is pronounced. If you were back hiking with him on the trail, he would probably respond to either one and not correct you. 

Janet McCue 11:10
I mean, that, to a certain extent, that begins the mystery. We don't really know how he pronounced his name or how, you know… and I suspect in Japan it would be pronounced one way. The way you even introduce yourself, whether you're using your first name or your second name—your family name or your first name—would be different in Japan and different in the United States. So, you know, there are lots of question marks we have.

Karen Key 11:40
Paul, after working on your film about Masa and now researching for the biography, what excites you about a more thorough telling of Masa's story, and have you been thinking about this for some time?

Paul Bonesteel 11:52
Yeah, well, making a film, especially that film, was a classic example of how you have to do all this, in this case, research and finding of material. In Masa's case, it was photographs. It was kind of gathering together letters and trying to understand who he was and according that out, gathering it, and then, when you have to make a hour-and-a-half film, you have to kind of squeeze it all back together again. It's an act of reduction. So, I always have regrets when I finish an hour film or an hour-and-a-half film that, oh there's so much that I couldn't go into. There was detail, there was backstory, there was side story. And of course, after 18 years, I look at the film now and go, "Okay, we got plenty of backstory and side story in there.” But at the moment that you finish a film, you feel like there's so much left. 

So, there was a lot of that, that I from the beginning felt that I wanted to write something more thorough about the story. But, more than anything, it was the knowledge that there was more information out there. We still don't know where all the answers are to the mysteries, but they are out there. So that kind of gnaws at you and keeps motivating me over the years to keep my hand in Masa research. And things have popped up. 

I think the most clear answer to your question really is that whenever, over the past 20 years, people asked me about George Masa, all of a sudden the rest of the afternoon is pretty much gone—either because I start talking about it or I get excited about and I get a box out and I start thinking, “How can we solve this mystery?” or “What haven't we researched?” or “Where could we find the answer to that?” or just more broadly and more artistically enjoying spending time thinking about what Masa’s experience was like just on a purely creative level. 

I know enough now that I can just kind of kind of create a fiction in my head. So, how much of that is true or fiction is now sort of the quest to bridge the gap between the fictionalized version that we all have about Massa and the reality. That's what I hope writing a book can do—give clarity and fact to things that haven't been clear, and then pose some possibilities that are much more clearly informed and expressed. 

Valerie Polk 14:56
Paul, how many photographs do you have that were Masa's or of Masa, because I watched the documentary recently, and I was surprised at how many pictures of him there were?

Paul Bonesteel 15:06
I don't know the count, but when I first started the project, one of the early goals was: Are there enough pictures of him or by him to make a film? And turned out, there were, but we did do the recreations, and we did do the recreations in the film partly because I wanted to kind of go there, like physically, up on the top of some mountains and show, not a black-and-white, but more a sort of realism or kind of flashback. 

But he never shied away from cameras for sure. I have to assume that a good majority of those pictures of him were taken with his own camera or other friends of his who had cameras. The smaller sized cameras were beginning to kind of become popular in the early 20s. And so, there were more people than just professionals carrying those cameras. So that makes up some of them, but in terms of his reticence for telling his story, which is sometimes mentioned that he was kind of secretive about his history, he wasn't shying away from the cameras. And we're very thankful for that. 

And that was early on… Can I make a film about this guy? Once I… there were a couple of collections in particular where we had photographs and then more started popping up, it got exciting that, not only to illustrate the film, but to actually see—this is going to sound strange, but I had questions about whether he actually existed, like, who was this guy? You know, everyone likes to tell a tale, and so I had to kind of, I don't know, explore. I tried to explore all the questions that were out there about who he was, his name, his origins, and such. And the photographs were helpful in that. Again, maybe it's my imagination at work, but I see him in different places, in different settings. And I'm reading into the relationships he has with people around him, his disposition in his presentation in some of those photographs speak to his place and his personality.

Janet McCue 17:14
Buncombe County Library has a really rich collection of Masa images that they've digitized, and you know, you might, to your listeners, if they wanted to get a sense of Masa's work, I mean, there are lots of different collections, but those you can look at online while we're all quarantined. 

Valerie Polk 17:33
Janet, what kind of research have you begun on the biography?

Janet McCue 17:38
Well, you know, we have some challenges right now because of COVID, so getting to any museum or archive or library is incredibly—it's impossible, frankly. So, I think what Paul and I are doing right now is gathering the things that we have and trying to digitize those so we can share them with each other. All of the online resources that we can garner, we're trying to do that. We've also hired somebody to help us particularly with the Japanese language and cultural aspects of the story, and she's been very helpful. She's a genealogist specializing in Japanese immigration, so that's been very helpful to us.

I was reminded of a quote that Lytton Strachey, the writer and biographer and member of the Bloomsbury Group… He said you have this vast ocean of information, and biographers' job is to dip a little bucket into that ocean and come up with some tidbits that allow you to learn more about that person or explain more details or insights about that person. And I think Paul and I right now we're trying to fill the reservoir. And it's a little bit challenging as we're in this period.

But, in reality, we just began. Paul and I had begun working on this biography really in January. So, even though it feels like four months have gone by too quickly, it's really just the beginning of that process.

Karen Key 19:13
So, what's it like to co-author a biography, and why not write it yourself?

Janet McCue 19:18
I'm not sure how universal this statement is, but I'll try and explain it from my own perspective. I loved working with George Ellison on the biography Back of Beyond. I think the advantage of working with somebody else is that… well, there are lots of advantages: One, you can brainstorm with that person, but you can also bring each other's knowledge base into the process rather than relying just on your own knowledge. You have that other person to consult with, to disagree with, to argue a point with, to come to an understanding or an insight, so I think that that certainly was my experience working with George. And I think working with Paul, it's similar. 

As I said earlier, I'm here in upstate New York. For me, it was helpful working with George Ellison who was in Western North Carolina, who had been engaged in Kephart studies for decades, and unbeknownst to him, I had also been engaged in Kephart studies for decades too. So, we met and then could share each other's knowledge bank, essentially. I think, with Paul, those same advantages are there. Again, I'm still in upstate New York, and Paul's in Asheville, North Carolina. Paul's a photographer, I'm not a photographer. If we were going to have a third co-author, it would be somebody who knew Japanese. 

It's advantageous to call on others' expertise, and I hope that Paul will find my expertise in areas that will be beneficial to him. I think it involves a lot of trust, and I think Paul and I have been working together for the last four months. You know, you share your knowledge; you share the tidbits of information that you have; you share the insights that you've gained; and you do entrust that other person with your knowledge. And it's been a pleasure working with Paul for these last four months. 

Both of us, I think, are looking forward to actually being in the same room and having more than Zoom conversations at some point. So, we have different tools that we use. We have our Dropbox folders where we're putting all of our information. And we have our little Slack discussions or email conversations, and our occasional zoom meetings as well. But it's going to be nice to actually see each other and to pour through research materials together which I'm sure we'll do.

Valerie Polk 21:47
How did you first get introduced—each of you can respond—how did you first get introduced to George Masa? And we'll start with Janet.

Janet McCue 21:58
Well, certainly my introduction to George Masa was through Kephart. He became someone that you needed to know more about in order to understand his relationship with Kephart. We can't ask George Masa questions at this point, but what others said about him becomes a rich source of information. So, understanding Kephart through Masa, what Masa had to say about Horace, what Horace had to say about George, was also important. 

And through that, I certainly watched Paul's film, which I found extraordinarily beautiful and moving. I watched Ken Burns' film. I think what Ken and Paul did was animate the story of George Masa. I can imagine him being Kephart's traveling companion, but I think in both, and particularly in Paul's film, he was the focus of the film. And he became a person that I wanted to know better. As a person writing a biography and realizing that you're going to be spending years with this person, it's really good when you can value the contributions of that person, or value the personality, or relate to that person. 

So, certainly George Masa's story, which I learned through the Kephart story, was my introduction. Bill Hart also helped. Bill wrote the first piece, really, the first research piece about George Masa. And there's nothing like sitting in Bill's study surrounded by his incredible library on Western North Carolina with amazing collections of George Masa material which he opened up to me. But sitting in his study with Bill strumming the banjo and telling you what Barbara Ambler Thorne said to him, that too brought George Masa to life for me. I'm up here in upstate New York. It's snowing today. I'm so far away from sunny Asheville environment. So, I need surrogates to help me keep Masa-focused. I came to him through intermediaries.

Valerie Polk 24:10
And Paul, how did you come to know Masa?

Paul Bonesteel 24:12
Yeah, you know, what's interesting is, I've always been interested in black-and-white photography and just sort of old things. And when I moved to Asheville, I grew up around here, but then I moved back in ’97. Bill Hart's article—his research chapter—in a book came out in like ’98, I think, ’99, somewhere in there. Rob Neufeld in the paper here wrote some articles, and some things started happening, and I saw those. 

I was just immediately intrigued for all the same reasons that often people are with George Masa. Just the idea of this Japanese man, and then seeing some pictures of his. Bill Hart's article came from such a place of passion as well, Bill having hiked these mountains for a long time and being a part of the Carolina Mountain Club. When he wrote the article and I called him, I just realized what an important story it was to him and to the region. And I said, "Do you think there's more to be done with this?" He was like, "Oh, I just scratched the surface on telling the story of George Masa." 

And so, I'd made a few films at that point, but I needed something to both ground me in Asheville, and I needed kind of a film commitment. And I've hiked and I've loved being outdoors since I was a kid. And these things kind of combined, and, as I found out, I really like trying to solve problems or do research. I really enjoy the idea that I'm going to uncover something that needs to be uncovered. 

So, it was Bill Hart and just the general passion that I connected to them to Masa's story that started me on the adventure. And then a whole bunch of the things fell into place at the same time. Fortunately, there were a handful of people who were still alive and, as it's happened with other films, it was a race against time to try to get some interviews before some people died. 

Simultaneously, I get kind of passionate thinking that this box of photographs is sitting in someone's attic, and so I'm scouring the obituaries and wondering if this person who died might have been connected to the same family who might have, you know… I just begin to spiral out of control with possibilities. So, yeah, you know, people love, at least I do, a story that that can express a lot of facets simultaneous to the kind of core story. 

And, like I mentioned earlier, Masa's story incorporates so many other threads from the period that it's an opportunity to tell history through Masa's story. Like George Ellison telling Kephart's story, there's no question that when you fall in love with someone's story and you retell it, you incorporate some of your own existence in that retelling. I mean, it is it is your story that you're adopting into the world. And you either want to be like that guy, or you share some values and some ideas that are so important to you that you find a character that you fall in love with, and you want to express it. That's been the same way with some of the other films I've made. 

Yeah, if you don't have that passion, it's really hard for me to do anything, so when you find it, you have to do the most you can with it, I think.

Valerie Polk 28:01
Well, let's listen to a piece from your film, Paul. In this selection, George Masa is writing letters to his friends about his financial struggles and other challenges during the Great Depression and how his trips to the mountains have reinvigorated him. 

Narrator 28:18
In the summer of 1930, Masa and Horace Kephart encountered an intelligent young woman who shared their interest in the Cherokee. Margaret Gooch worked as a court magistrate in the small town of Lexington, east of Asheville. Masa would turn to Gooch, writing frequently and openly of his financial struggles with the onset of the Great Depression.

Actor portraying George Masa 28:43
"Banks closed their doors. I never saw such excited people in my life."

"I lost every cent I had in American National Bank. So that's that, but my head is up. Never surrender."

Narrator 28:57
Masa's spirits were further dampened when, devastated by the Depression, several acquaintances committed suicide.

Actor portraying George Masa 29:05
"If Clarence suicide depend on his business worries, I might do the same thing. There is only one thing I can: Raise up $250 more and do business by myself or burst…. and I never told anyone business is rotten. Whenever they ask, I say, 'business fine.'"

Narrator 29:24
Within three months, Masa's optimism had returned.

Actor portraying George Masa 29:29
"My financial situation has settled… Soon I like to stand on my feet. When I want to make trip, these things don't bother me. I just leave the office and go into woods, get fresh balsam air, then come back. Start strong fight, no use to worry. That's way I do. Maybe I am wrong, but it's good to me all the time."

Valerie Polk 29:53
Paul Bonesteel's film, The Mystery of George Masa, is available on Vimeo.

Karen Key 29:59
Paul, since your documentary was made, what mysteries have been answered, and how are you going to try to unravel the existing unknowns?

Paul Bonesteel 30:06
Well, you know, some interesting things have come up over the past 15-18 years. There has been a steady stream of people engaged in the storytelling and an additional research, obviously Janet and George and the Ken Burns film that came out on the National Parks. So people have been exploring the known universe of Masa during this time. 

Some very intriguing things have popped up, some letters that I didn't have when I made the film, some acknowledgement and I think we have somewhat confidence now that we understand a little bit more about the fact that Masa came to America probably with some friends or a group that was supporting each other in some way. There was mention in the film about him keeping an account of his funds very closely, and there was some scrutiny and question about why he would be keeping such records. And so, there's some more information about that, and it does speak to one of the things that we're researching actively—what was the experience like for immigrants to America during that time, especially from Japan. It's a fascinating journey for any immigrant, but just the enthusiasm and the optimism that Masa had and that others had to come to a foreign country and to launch out on an adventure. As Masa said, there's a great spirit and there's a great sort of American story there to retell it. And so, to dive into that backstory hopefully leads to his roots in Japan and his family dynamic. 

There are some things that have come up since the film was made that kind of clarify more about the fact that he did have a family, and we think we know more about when his parents died and some things of that nature that we hope to explore fully in the book. So the kind of soul questions about what made George Masa do the things he did, those have been contemplated for quite some time. Even his friends who knew him I think we're asking some of those questions when they were together. So the answer is there are work in progress too, but I think we're finding again with looking at his work and his relationships, like with Kephart and with others, how he was drawing on this very enthusiastic group of people who were creating the Appalachian Trail and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and promoting Asheville, and doing a lot of things. He was caught up in an amazing group of people, and he loved what he was doing. So when you can do what you love, have the support of people from the Rockefellers to the people who took him in in his first house and fed him, and he became part of their family for a few years, it just is a neat story.

Like Janet said, there are clues even in the material that has been around since he since he died that we're now looking at differently through the lens of a biography. Carl Sandburg said, "Biography is the hardest of all genres," and he had experimented with quite a few of them. We are at the beginning, but I can already tell it's going to be hard. Janet's been through it with George. I've been through it, but not in the same way as writing 300 pages or something, so I'm glad that Janet's on board to help guide me through that process. I expect some pain and suffering along the way, but we hope to produce a book that is the definitive story of George Masa. I mean, why would we do anything other than that? And as soon as it gets published, maybe something else will turn up, but hopefully it'll be a great story for those involved and interested in what Masa was passionate about. But hopefully it'll be something that a lot of different lovers of history would find fascinating and to see his work. 

I'm excited to show photographs of Masa's in this book that are presented well and are beautifully curated, if you will, so that people… Any photographer, you've got to see his work to really appreciate his vision. And new photos are popping up continually. Yeah, I could go on, but there's the Kephart collection of Masa photographs and there's… One of the big, big mysteries is where did his archive go? Where did Masa's negatives and his collection and that is unfortunately still an unresolved question. Do we have a large majority of his work because his best stuff was printed in multiple publications and was given his gifts? Yes. Is there no doubt that a good 20 to 40% of it is not visible to anyone because it was kind of lost after his estate spiraled into multiple hands? Yes. That may be the most difficult thing to button up, because where that collection went is a mystery for sure. 

Valerie Polk 35:56
So why is George Masa relevant today—why is his story relevant today, Paul? 

Paul Bonesteel 36:02
There's a sort of a paradox going on where you can hike into the Smokies and see the same exact views that Masa and Kephart and others from the 20s or early 30s saw as the park was being formalized, and you can share that experience. And so, telling the story is a way of connecting the timelessness of the experience and of the mountains and of the sort of biodiversity and all the beauty that make up the Smokies. 

And you can also drive from Cherokee to Gatlinburg and wherever else in these mountains right now and see the world that's very different from when they were forming the idea and hiking these ridges. And there is need for conservation today that needs to be as passionate and as intelligent as ever. So, if the story can inspire people to take ownership, and not just passion, but intelligent sort of operation from our park service and from the federal government, from all the factors, and all the forces that keep our natural places beautiful and functional… I mean, these are important messages now. 

And, for me, the story, the history, and the journey of George Masa illuminates the need for people to be involved and engaged today. The volume of people and how the national parks and national forests and private land—how its managed and how it's used—has never been more important in this age of global warming and political divisiveness. 

Hopefully these stories and taking some time to go back in time, you always hope to make a difference, you know. Kephart and Masa and all of the people involved wouldn't have done what they did if they didn't feel like it was important to them. In Masa's life story and Kephart's life story, the mountains provided a very important respite for them and a place of nourishment. And we all need that, like, right now in our society and culture broadly. But it brings responsibilities too. 

Who was it that said, oh, I don't know if it was Ed Abbey or somebody: "Sometimes you have to be very passionate about preservation, but sometimes you have to just go out and jump into the river and swim and enjoy it and see it all and take it all in and just use it and love it." And I think Masa was caught up in that dichotomy of both the passion and the love for being out there and the responsibility. So, that's why it's relevant to me is that we carry those responsibilities today.  

Janet McCue 39: 09
I think it's also an immigrant story too, and I suspect Paul would agree that it's—to me, here's a man who comes to the States in the early 20th century. Then in 18 years, he accomplishes so much, and reminding ourselves of the richness that our country has because of immigrant contributions, I think that's a really important story for us to also ponder in the George Masa biography. 

He had significant challenges, particularly with anti-immigrant fervor, and yet he didn't seem to allow that to get in his way. And you know, his friends didn't seem to limit his experience in the United States, which I also think is a wonderful part of the story. He accomplished much by taking opportunities, and he was helped by friends and neighbors who believed in him. I'd like to think that that's also very much a part of his immigrant story but also of others. 

Valerie Polk 40:16
Do you think he was treated a bit like a novelty at first, and then his personality won a lot of people over, especially in the upper class in Asheville? Did they treat him like a novelty that they just wanted to get to know him for that reason? 

Janet McCue 40:33
I remember Rob Neufeld said that Sealy, the manager of the Grove Park Inn, liked to have interesting people on the staff. They were part of the entertainment. But George Masa's job at the Grove Park Inn was ironing clothes or pressing suits. Eventually he also was developing film for clients of the hotel, but I think once he displayed his photography, I don't think it was so much a matter of him being a novelty. I think he was hired for his professional expertise. I don't think the Asheville Chamber of Commerce would have said, "We think you're the best photographer," unless they thought he was the best photographer to represent Western North Carolina.

Paul, did you have anything to add to that? 

Paul Bonesteel 41:20
I think he might have been looked at as a novelty for a short period of time before he became much more than that, obviously. And what's fascinating to me about that is is how quickly that transition happened from laundry hand to leading hand in the park movement—like within 10 years time. But even that, even in the 1915-1917 period, he either taught himself photography very quickly or he had learned it somewhere else. He's very intelligent, very quick learner, because even in 1919, he was borrowing Fred Sealy's camera for one of his early businesses. I was just reading that letter last night, and it kind of struck me like, wow, he'd been borrowing Fred Sealy's camera for four years. He earned the trust of people with his skills and his intelligence very quickly. 

Valerie Polk 42:16
Well, cameras were a lot harder to use back then too, it seems. They were not as simple as they make them nowadays. 

Paul Bonesteel 42:25
That's absolutely true. He had ordered some books on photography, and we have evidence of that. And so, I'm under the belief, until proven otherwise, that he was mostly self-taught with that, and quick learner from other people showing him very rudimentary things and then turning that into skills. 

Valerie Polk 42:43
Wow, that's impressive. 

Karen Key 42:46
Janet, what are you hoping people who love the Great Smoky Mountains will take away from this George Masa biography? 

Janet McCue 42:53
I think one of the things that I hope, and I think Paul expressed this too, is that our book would be a showcase for George Masa's photography. Paul has a backdrop right now of two photographs that are George Masa's, and these photographs are extraordinary. I'm looking at them through Zoom with four people on this screen, and the luminosity of his artistry is extraordinary.

Paul has once described George Masa's photographs as almost walking through a landscape the way he uses layers, and I think that that's one of the things I hope that people who have never been to the Smokies will see some of that beauty through his photography. But I think I'm also hoping that people will see the kind of human being he was to devote so much of his energy and his expertise to a cause that was bigger than he. To me, it's an inspirational story and I hope that others will become inspired by reading the biography.

You don't necessarily know how your readers are going to take the story, so I'm also—one of the things that I particularly enjoy is hearing what people take from a story. That certainly has been fun to hear people's reactions to Back of Beyond. They have their own interpretation, but they come away with additional questions that they have about that individual, so I'm hoping that the book will both tell his story, but also let people imagine their own kind of biography of George Masa based on the research that we did.

But they're also going to formulate their own image of who this man is and, I think—Paul and I were talking about this the other day—I think, to a certain degree each, generation has rediscovered George Masa. George died in 1933, and ten years later, his tombstone was marked by members of the Carolina Mountain Club. Thirty years after he died, members of the Carolina Mountain Club petitioned to have Masa Knob named in honor of him. Sixty years after Masa dies, Bill Hart rediscovers his contributions and does incredible research to bring George Masa to life. And then—I'll have to get my calculator out—70 years later, Paul is doing The Mystery of George Masa, the documentary that again animated, brought to life, George. And then Ken Burns… so I feel like there's this cycle of rediscovering who Masa was and being compelled to tell his story again. And I feel, to a certain degree, that that's what Paul and I have come to at this stage. 

Karen Key 45:46
Do you guys have any plans to travel to Japan? 

Janet McCue 45:49
I don't really feel like it would be fruitful for me to travel to Japan not knowing Japanese. As I said, we have hired a person to help us at this end, and she has some good contacts in Japan. And Japan is under lockdown as well, but what we'd hope is that we could hire somebody there. I would love to go to Japan. I don't know that… our research budget is non-existent. I'm not quite sure that our research budget is going to take us to Japan, but maybe someday. Maybe someday I would be able to. 

Paul Bonesteel 46:31
When we are able to identify exactly where in Japan George Masa was born and spent the first 20-some-odd years of his life, that would be more meaningful to me to visit and to experience. But I've always wanted to go to Japan even before I knew George Masa, so I would love to go. But it's not on the research agenda, yeah, not in person at least.

Janet McCue 46:59
Thanks for the suggestion though! (laughs) 

Valerie Polk 47:06
Well, Janet McCue and Paul Bonesteel, it was wonderful to talk to you today. Thank you so much for being our first live guests on Smoky Mountain Air. 

Janet McCue 47:13
Well, thank you, Valerie, for having us. Thank you, Karen. It was really a pleasure. 

Paul Bonesteel 47:19
Yes, thank you. It's always fun to talk about George. 

Valerie Polk 47:22
Janet McCue and Paul Bonesteel are co-authoring a biography of George Masa, the enigmatic photographer of the Great Smoky Mountains and Western North Carolina who, among other accomplishments, contributed to the efforts to create a national park in the Southern Appalachians. We look forward to their book, which is currently in the early research stage and will be published by Great Smoky Mountains Association. 

Karen Key 47:48
Be sure to check out Bill Hart's article about George Masa in Smokies Life magazine, volume 2 number 2. You can find this out-of-print issue and others at You can also find more of George Masa's photographs on Buncombe County Library's website. A link is available in this episode description.

Look for more episodes in our series Smoky Mountain Air from Great Smoky Mountains Association to come soon. Our theme music is from Old Time Smoky Mountain Music, GSMA's Grammy nominated music collection available at Bird recordings by Mark Dunaway. Thanks for listening! 

[Old-time guitar music and bird song]