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George Masa’s life and vision documented in the new book by author Brent Martin

A black and white photograph of Appalachian mountains, with pine trees, some with needles, some logged, in the foreground and clouds in the sky.
George Masa/Hunter Library, Western Carolina University
A photograph of an Appalachian mountain landscape was made by George Masa (1881-1933).

Brent Martin will be holding a book reading on Thursday August 18 at 6pm in the Jackson County Public Library in Sylva.

George Masa was a Japanese immigrant who moved to Western North Carolina and became one of the pivotal figures in establishing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, for most of the 20th century, his contributions fell into obscurity. That’s what motivated local author Brent Martin to write a book about him, George Masa's Wild Vision : A Japanese Immigrant Imagines Western North Carolina. Martin said he was inspired to explore George Masa’s life and “think about him as individual in [the Western North Carolina] landscape” because he was such a “rare individual at the time.”

A Bright and Gentle Butler

The earliest known record of George Masa in the United States is in 1907 in San Francisco. He placed an ad in The San Francisco Call as a “bright and gentle” butler looking for employment with a good family. By 1915, he was in Asheville, working at the newly opened Grove Park Inn. We don’t know much about his time there, except for one thing: Fred Loring Seely, a businessman who was managing Grove Park Inn for his father-in-law owner Edwin Wiley Grove, accused Masa of being a spy. Seely tried to report him to the Department of War, but fortunately for Masa, Mr. Seely’s accusations went nowhere.

Masa didn’t stay at the Grove Park Inn long. According to Martin’s research, he began working as a photographer and joined Pelton Studios in Asheville in 1918. Throughout the 1920s, he produced newsreels, promotional pieces, postcards, and news photography for media publications such as the Asheville Citizen Times and the New York Times. The town of Highlands even back then was a retreat for wealthy people, dating back to the times of slavery, and the town hired him in 1929 to take promotional photos for their tourism industry. So did the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. So, did the whites-only park, Mount Mitchell.

For a love of the Mountains

Masa’s heart – however – was in the mountains. He would spend weeks at a time, alone, or with his companion Horace Kephart, in the Smokies. And he turned those excursions into a big mapping endeavor and survey of the land that would become Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “He kept a map of the Smokies on his wall,” Martin said, “that he put pushpins in for every place he had been in the Smokies. People who saw that map said it would be covered. He had been everywhere.”

 A sepia image of George Masa standing on a rock in the forest, wearing a long coat and plaid cap.
George Masa/Hunter Library, Western Carolina University
Born and raised in Japan, George Masa (1881-1933) came to Asheville in 1915 where he worked as a photographer and was part of the movement to establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Through his travels, he contributed to the committee that would later establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the National Park Service never officially accepted him as a member. That’s from Brent Martin’s research which he includes in the book. Masa spent a lot of time interviewing Cherokee people trying to understand the land. He also worked on mapping the southern route of the Appalachian Trail – this project took Masa across the Southern Highlands and Great Smokies where he produced a catalogue of photographs unlike any had seen before.

George Masa was a pioneer of his time. He established himself as a successful photographer during Jim Crow. He found ways to participate in white-only spaces when Black people and Cherokee people were outright excluded. He surveyed Stone Mountain in Georgia at the same time the state was carving a confederate monument into the rock face. Unfortunately, we don’t know what Masa knew about Jim Crow and neo-confederacy, nor do we know how he felt navigating day to day in a racist landscape.

“Ansel Adams of the Smokies”

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Masa’s financial prospects also crashed with it. Like most Americans during the Great Depression, he suffered a great deal. His business partner abandoned their photography business, leaving Masa with the debt. Masa had to sell many of his photograph negatives to get by, and he relied on friends and acquaintances for financial support. Then, his companion Horace Kephart died suddenly, and Masa fell into a depression. Also, around the same time, his car was stolen. In 1933, Masa died from tuberculosis.

Masa wished for the Carolina Mountain Club to bury him next to Kephart, said Martin. However, this didn’t happen. Leaving few funds behind, the Carolina Mountain Club, instead, raised money to bury him in an unmarked grave at Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery. For three decades, the club petitioned the National Park Service to name a mountain peak in Masa’s honor. It wasn’t until 1961 that the petitions finally came through – the peak is called Masa Knob, and it’s in the Great Smokies. The Appalachian trail leads to its summit. Masa Knob is next to a larger peak named after his companion – it’s called Mount Kephart. So, in a way, Masa got his wish to be placed alongside Kephart after all.

Much about George Masa’s life we still don’t know. Through Martin’s book, we get a glimpse of his life, his photography, and his love for this landscape in Brent Martin’s book. Martin remarked how influential Masa’s photography might have been. “Masa has often been called the Ansel Adams of the Smokies,” Marin expresses in the book, “but I think it should be the other way around. Adams should be referred to as the George Masa of the American West.”

In the end, Martin hopes this book contributes to remembering the legacy of George Masa, of seeing his contributions as greater than the limits of a racist past. “He did live a unique life and a rare life,” said Martin. “I hope that he serves as an inspiration for people.” Brent Martin will be holding a book reading on Thursday August 18 at 6pm in the Jackson County Public Library in Sylva.

Learn more about George Masa in WCU's Southern Appalachian Digital Collections.

Anastasia is a Memphis-native who has been living in Western North Carolina since 2011. Before joining BPR, she was a full-time freelance musician and teaching artist. She’s a graduate of the University of Vermont and the UNC School of the Arts, where her background includes ecology and music performance. She continues her private voice teaching practice through Being Vocal Freedom and is currently an Alexander Technique teacher-in-training. Anastasia lives with her husband and two dogs in Candler.