Part Two of Four
Two decades before the legendary Adams published images from his visit—only four—George Masa ceaselessly roamed the rough terrain of the Smokies capturing vistas on film that he would sell to tourists. Small in stature and laden with a heavy tripod and bulky camera, Masa somehow managed hikes up to twenty miles in search of a suitable location to capture those views. And, much to the chagrin of those who sometimes accompanied him, he patiently would wait hours for the perfect lighting, or even a precise cloud placement or formation.
Masa arrived in the United States in 1906 as Masahara Lizuka and sometime thereafter changed his name. He told a family in Asheville with whom he once boarded that he discontinued the use of the Iizuka and changed his first name to George when he converted to Christianity while still living in Japan. Americanizing his name to George Masa was perhaps simply a matter of convenience. The actual events of George Masa’s life prior to the time he moved to Asheville are cloaked in mystery.
He once told a newspaper reporter that he was born in Osaka, Japan and studied mining engineering at Tokyo’s Meiji University. He claimed to have arrived in America at the age of 24. His birth date was estimated but has never been verified. The date of birth on his grave marker, which was erected 14 years after his death, is January 20, 1881. Interestingly, the information Masa gave for the 1920 and 1930 federal censuses revealed inconsistencies.
He had somehow aged 16 years in ten, and his immigration date—first reported as 1914, had changed to 1906—a difference of eight years. When Masa died, a newspaper report stated he’d come to the United States to further his studies—mining engineering—at the University of California and had severed all ties with Japan following the death of his father, a jeweler.
Writing in Japanese, Masa’s journal entry for January 18, 1915 said he was “launching out on an adventure today.” This journey started in San Francisco where he boarded a train headed for New Orleans. During his brief stay there, Masa recorded a small income in his journal as well as expenses but there was no source of income listed. After a gap of four months with no journal entries he wrote, “Now I have to raise money. It can’t be helped, for I have just enough money to travel and not a penny extra.”
On July 10, 1915, reportedly traveling with a group of Austrian students, Masa arrived in Asheville by train. Two days later, he was hired to work in the laundry at the Grove Park Inn. The Inn, built by pharmaceutical magnate E.W. Grove, had opened just two years earlier. Grove’s son-in-law Fred Seely designed the magnificent building and served as the Inn’s manager. Seely purposely recruited a group of foreigners, including Masa, to work at the hotel feeling they created a cosmopolitan atmosphere for his wealthy clientele.
Captivated by the beautiful mountains surrounding Asheville, Masa began taking extensive trips to the lofty peaks with his Austrian companions. Perhaps Masa saw himself as a character in the small volume of Japanese Samurei and Ninjutsu tales he carried. The Ninja, from humble backgrounds, were devoted to living in accordance with nature; seeking enlightenment through long mountain pilgrimages. Masa frequently said that his “church” was in the mountains. Clearly, the mountain landscape was fundamental to his spirituality.
When the Austrians left Asheville, Masa remained. Within a few months, he had been promoted to the valet desk at Grove Park Inn where he enjoyed interacting with the well-to-do guests. Masa had an engaging personality and presented himself in a manner that was both respectful and engrossing. The guests were fascinated with him.
Realizing that photographs would portray a positive image of the Grove Park Inn and its clientele Seely allowed Masa the use of his personal camera and Masa photographed the guests at the Inn and on outings in the surrounding mountains. Masa’s skill as a photographer and the quality of his film processing suggests that he had received previous training, but that is another fragment of the mystery surrounding his life.
Part three of four will be published next week.
Editor’s note: This article appeared in the August/September issue of Smoky Mountain Living Magazine. For information on SML visit www.smliv.com.