Bert Garner, a simple life of complexity

May 17, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, writers, writing.

Bert Garner (1885-1970) was a man well-known in East Tennessee and beyond. Some referred to him as the Sage of the Smokies, and others thought of him as the Appalachian Thoreau. For the last third of his life, he lived in a two-room cabin near the Great Smoky Mountains without plumbing, running water, or electricity.

Garner was no hermit or recluse. Far from it. He enjoyed the company of anyone who could find the way several hundred yards off the road to his cabin. He would talk with anyone, and he could talk on just about any topic. If he invited you inside his cabin, which he often did, you would find more than 2,000 books. One of Bert’s passions was buying books, and the large mailbox on the road to his property became a symbol for that passion.

During his younger years, Garner traveled widely and worked in many places from California to Manhattan. By the 1930s he had returned to East Tennessee and endured the Great Depression, often jobless and in debt. He married a woman with three children by a previous marriage, but he and his wife found themselves unsuitable to each other, and eventually they separated and divorced.

Gradually, Bert climbed out of debt, but the Depression had taught him that he could live with minimal material and money. He turned that into a lifestyle and became famous for it. As a man of simple habits and means, Bert never sought the limelight, but he never ran from it either. He was the subject of numerous newspaper columns and stories and even appeared on national television in the 1950s.

By all who knew him, he was considered congenial and affable.

When Bert died in 1970, his friend Haywood “Woody” Brinegar inherited many of his journals and writings and turned them into a self-published biography a dozen years later. The Blount County Public Library has recently re-published this biography, Ole Bert: Sage of the Smokies, and I will be giving a presentation on Bert — with a few words about Woody — next week (Monday, May 20) at the book’s official launch. All are invited. It should be fun.

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