Meet a sage of the Smokies

The story of Bert Garner comes back to Southland Books

“Ole Bert: Sage of the Smokies” is coming back to share the wisdom of Bert Garner once again.

Written by the late Woody Brinegar, “Ole Bert” has been out of print for 27 years. The book has now been re-published. A book release party, which is also a fund raiser for Foothills Land Conservancy, will be held from 2 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 28, at Southland Books.

In 1909, 23-year-old Bert Garner lit out from Maryville to head West. Unlike so many young men who have heeded the call to “Go West,” Bert didn’t cross the Mississippi in search of fame and fortune. Instead, he journeyed in search of a far more elusive quarry -- himself.

What followed was a 61-year journey that led him throughout the country and abroad, from Maryville to Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, England, France, Holland, Switzerland, Germany and several other areas. His fields of work were nearly as varied, ranging from working on the wharves of the port of Los Angeles to working in the Library of Congress.

While the extent of most people’s knowledge about Ole Bert these days comes from the road sign bearing his name in the Carpenter’s Campground community, even Garner’s closest friends acknowledged that he was a puzzle.

As author Woody Brinegar wrote, “My acquaintance at the end of his life left much of the developing body of him beyond my view. As I got to know him, the enigma of the man sharpened. The contrast in what I learned and didn’t know widened.”

Garner’s longtime friend Robert Kolsbun, a photographer for the Saturday Evening Post, put it this way: “He was a fellow of many characters, many hidden and unexpected to his fellow man and regardless as how he lived his life, no one could help but love him.”

On the one hand, Garner was simply a modern day Thoreau, a charming, thoughtful sage who shunned the “conveniences” of modern life in favor of a life lived simply. To him the so-called comforts of life were “positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

On the other hand, as the picture of Bert comes into sharper focus, you see an image of a man who was much more than just a simple rural bachelor. He was a well-traveled and well-versed encyclopedia of western knowledge. He frequently quoted from writers and philosophers of many shades. As Brinegar muses in “Ole Bert:” “Often I wondered whether it was Bert talking, or Whitman or Thoreau.”

Bert never stopped learning. Even while he was working at the most menial of jobs in New York, Philadelphia, or Los Angeles, he still exercised his intellect by attending lectures and sitting in on college classes, even attending medical school at the University of California.

For all his wanderlust, there was one thing that remained constant: Garner’s love for the mountains. He always returned to Maryville where he lived in the shadow of Chilhowee Mountain. Over the course of his life he hiked to Gregory’s Bald over 100 times, once meeting the iconic Horace Kephart. As he wrote in one journal entry, “If there are no mountains in Heaven, let me go sommers else. These mountains are stately epics of the Almighty, where I have always found a ready grave for my sorrows.”

What Garner is to be remembered for, more than anything, is his love of knowledge and people. His friends all remembered him as a true conversationalist, a man who could talk on any subject with authority and wit. It was his philosophy of life and the way he shared it that held him dear to so many people across the country.

Accordingly, it’s important to remember that any good conversation has two parts. “Ole Bert” is more than just the story of Bert Garner. In many ways, it’s a story about its author, Woody Brinegar, as well. Lisa Brinegar Slagle, one of Brinegar’s daughters, summed it up this way: “Daddy loved Bert Garner, philosophy, turning a fine phrase, and nature, especially the mountains. He was able to combine those interests in this one project.”

What Brinegar did in “Ole Bert” was to draw out as many of the hidden sides of Ole Bert as he could. Ole Bert draws from Woody’s conversations with Garner, as well as from Garner’s journals and conversations and correspondence with many of his acquaintances. Brinegar began writing the essays that would make up “Ole Bert” in 1968 and finished in 1975. He originally published the book in 1982, but it has been out of print now for 27 years. Until now it has been very seldom that one comes across a copy of “Ole Bert.”

In this book, Brinegar has helped continue a conversation with Ole Bert from beyond the grave. “We are pleased that our father’s book, “Ole Bert,” is being published again so that many more readers can enjoy it. It is our hope that my father’s words enrich your lives as they did ours,” stated Slagle.

The book release and reception will be hosted by ‘27/’37 Publishing at Southland Books at 801 E. Broadway from 2-4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28.

‘27/’37, a subsidiary of Southland Books, is a local publishing company committed to reprinting rare and out-of-print books related to the history of East Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. During the reception, which is also being held as a fundraiser for the Foothills Land Conservancy, the publishers will be collecting donations for the Conservancy as well as donating 20 percent of the profits from the sale of each copy of “Ole Bert” to the Foothills Land Conservancy in honor of Woody Brinegar and Bert Garner. Additionally, there will be the option to purchase and donate a copy of any the ‘27/’37 books to any local or school library with an inscribed “This book donated in honor of” bookplate.

In addition to “Ole Bert: Sage of the Smokies” ($15), there will also be copies of other ‘27/’37 titles for sale, including “The White Caps: A History of the Organization in Sevier County” ($17.95), the “1926 Maryville/Alcoa City Directory” ($6.95) and “Among Loyal Mountaineers: The Civil War Reminiscences of an East Tennessee Unionist by Major Will A. McTeer” ($20).

Books and information can also be found online at www.southlandbooks.org and www.independentmaryville.com.

© 2009 blounttoday.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 1

jimhumphrey writes:

I used to visit Bert at his little cabin in the late 50's and early 60's. No running water at his house. He loved to show me his outdoor shower. It was a bucket with holes punched in it.

I remember him having books covering the walls in his cabin. He seemed to me at the time to know something about everything.

But what I remember most was the mush he made to carry in the mountains while he hiked. I never knew exactly what was in it but ground corn, soy beans, and whole wheat were part of it. He just added hot water and he had his trail meal. I think of him every time I go hiking.

I am glad the book is being reprinted as I never new until now that anyone had written a book about Mr. Garner. I will be buying a copy.

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