Diving Deeper on Benton’s Namesake

Date March 30, 2008

1993 was a big year for Julie and me:

  • We graduated from college (it looks like we may actually attend the reunion this year)
  • I hiked (with Julie in parts) the Appalachian Trail
  • We got engaged

And, now, we’re 15 years removed, approaching our 14th wedding anniversary, and enjoying our 3-kid/2-dog life in Ohio.

Benton, as many of you know, is named after the man who conceived of the Appalachian Trail: Benton MacKaye (pronounced ‘mu KIE’). Prior to hiking, from talking to people while hiking, and from various anecdotes picked up over the years, I knew the basics of MacKaye’s background and vision. For Christmas last year, though, my parents gave me a copy of Larry Anderson’s Benton MacKaye: Conservationist, Planner, and Creator of the Appalachian Trail (Creating the North American Landscape) , which I finished reading a few weeks ago. It’s not exactly a page-turner, but I gained a much deeper understanding of the beginnings of the modern conservation movement, as well as learned that MacKaye was running around with some people whom I’ve come across in my own life for various reasons.

Benton Mackaye

MacKaye was born in New England in 1879 into an artistic family. His father was a not-very-successful playwright and producer (who actually had a never-finished exhibition at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair). His mother was an actress, and his brothers went on to become authors and actors in their own right. He followed in his brothers’ footsteps and attended Harvard, although he struggled to get in, and his performance there as an undergrad was, at best, mediocre.

His first real career was as a forester. As a matter of fact, he received the first degree — a Masters — that Harvard ever awarded in Forestry. And, he did a bit of teaching at Harvard on the subject as the program grew. He bounced around a number of government jobs doing forestry planning work, which is when he developed his vision of how America’s wilderness should be managed. It was an extremely socialist vision (one of his brothers actually wrote a socialist manifesto of sorts, and Benton was close to that brother for his entire life). In a nutshell, MacKaye wanted to build up standalone communities of several thousand people tied to specific tracts of government-owned wilderness. These communities would be self-sufficient to a large extent, but would also garner income through (responsibly) harvesting the land for timber. Benton felt strongly that the land should never be owned by the members of the community. It almost seems like he undermined some of his own work when it came to drafting proposals or legislation for these communities, as he couldn’t resist going two or three steps farther into hardcore socialism than would ever fly. But, he gained a following over the years of other like-minded souls, even if he did not ever manage to get any of his proposed experiments implemented.

His vision on that front, though, led him into the world of regional planning. That, I think, is actually how he found himself hooked into a number of people who were coming from the world of architecture. A subset of architects and architectural critics pioneered the field of urban planning, and regional planning is, in many ways, simply an extension. MacKaye got hooked in with the architectural critic Lewis Mumford (who, it turns out, I wrote about in my main paper for the urban planning course I took in college), who, for the rest of his life, worked as an unofficial editor of MacKaye’s writings. MacKaye also met and became a lifelong friend of Aldo Leopold, who was a key founder of the modern conservation movement.

In 1921, MacKaye published his vision for "an Appalachian trail" in the journal of the American Institute of Architects. His fundamental premise was not the need for a continuous footpath that people use to walk all the way from Georgia to Maine. Rather, he saw the increasing urbanization and industrialization of the east coast driving a need for factory workers to be able to get into the wilderness quickly and easily. And, it was critical, in MacKaye’s mind, that the path be a hiking path in the wilderness. This deeply held belief led to a major schism between MacKaye and Myron Avery, who is another legend in A.T. lore. Avery led the Appalachian Trail Conference for the years when the A.T. went from being a concept to being a reality. His focus was on getting a continuous path completed, and he compromised in a number of areas to make that happen. For instance, Skyline Drive in the Shenandoahs of Virginia was proposed while the A.T. was being developed. MacKaye and his crowd vigorously opposed the road, as it was slated to run right along the same route as the A.T. Avery, on the other hand, took the view that negotiations as to the route of Skyline Drive could be used to garner support and resources for that stretch of the A.T.

In the end, Skyline Drive was built, and it runs within 20 yards of the A.T. in places. My takeaway was that MacKaye was the purist, while Avery was the pragmatist. They kept each other honest in a sense, albeit from afar (they were not on speaking terms for years, and the book includes a fairly acidic exchange between the two men through letters). The trail MacKaye envisioned would have been "better" in a lot of ways…but it very likely never would have become a reality.

On the personal side, MacKaye had a fairly tough go of things. Although he lived to be 94, he dealt with an uncooperative stomach for his entire life, which occasionally laid him up for weeks at a time. He had one heavy romance in his 20s that ended abruptly and somewhat mysteriously. Later, he married a widow, Jessie Hardy Stubbs, who was a bit older than he was but who was a very active suffragette. Activism was at the core of their relationship, it seems. They had an interesting living arrangement, as MacKaye was often away for long periods of time working on various projects, and, even when they were living together as a couple, they often had another one of their male friends living with them. Jessie battled with depression throughout her life and, ultimately, killed herself in 1920.

MacKaye also had a sister, Hazel, who grappled with mental illness throughout her life. And, although his own employment was off-and-on, MacKaye was the primary financial supporter for his mother and his sister. That, too, added quite a burden to his mental state at times.

MacKaye spent a lot of time at the "family estate" in Shirley Center, Massachusetts, and that’s where he whiled away his later years. He was a bit of a fixture in the small town — known and doted upon by many of the towns residents over the years.

So, overall, a pretty fascinating character who was a visionary participating in many of the initiatives that led to the birth and growth of the modern conservation movement and regional planning concepts. He was an uncompromising individual who was more interested in staying true to his vision for a better world than he was in his own career or in financial stability. Overall, Benton Wilson could do a lot worse namesake-wise!

Partly because of reading the book, partly because we’re at the 15-year mark of my own hike, and partly because we now have this blog running, I’m planning on adding a "feature" to this blog of writing up my journal entries from my hike. I’ll do it on the 15-year-anniversary of each entry, as best I can, and I will plan on adding some color/reflections when it seems appropriate. So, stay tuned for that! The first installment will be on April 8th.

5 Responses to “Diving Deeper on Benton’s Namesake”

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    [...] my journal from my hike of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) back in 1993. As I mentioned in an earlier post , the A.T. has been popping into my life for years. To expand on that informal list a [...]

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