Allen de Hart, hiking guide author and whistling convention founder, dies at age 90

Allen de Hart, at Falls Lake July 19, 2008, where he helped nearly 70 volunteers clear trails.
Allen de Hart, at Falls Lake July 19, 2008, where he helped nearly 70 volunteers clear trails. 2008 News & Observer file photo

Allen de Hart, a college professor, whistling enthusiast and avid outdoorsman who wrote several hiking guides and helped spur development of North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail, has died at age 90.

De Hart was also the founder of two botanical gardens that bear his name, one in his native Virginia and another in Louisburg, where he taught history and psychology for more than 50 years at Louisburg College. He began and underwrote a concert series at the college that is also named for him.

De Hart and his wife, Flora, moved to Louisburg in 1957 and settled on a piece of land off U.S. 401 south of town. They began buying up surrounding land and in 1961 established the botanical garden as a nonprofit organization. Over the years, they added overlooks, benches, bridges and miles of trail.

De Hart donated the 91-acre garden to Louisburg College in 2012, the same year he donated the 172-acre DeHart Botanical Gardens in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to Ferrum College, his alma mater.

Sheppard Allen de Hart was born in Patrick County, Va., where the family name was spelled “DeHart.” It’s not clear when he adopted “de Hart,” which appears on the botanical garden in Louisburg, the concert series and his hiking guides.

De Hart was raised on a dairy farm in the Smith River Valley. The school bus ride was an hour and a half on winding mountain roads, so when de Hart was 12 he and his two brothers hacked a two-mile trail through the woods to walk to school.

“I grew up in a world of wildlife and plants,” de Hart said in an interview in 1996.

His 11 outdoors guidebooks to the Southeast include the popular “North Carolina Hiking Trails.” He was working on the 11th edition of the book at the time of his death, according to Robert Bruck, a Louisburg College professor and curator of the botanical garden.

De Hart also founded the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, an organization that promotes the development of a 1,150-mile hiking trail that stretches from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks. The trail was originally a state-led effort and is a part of the state parks system, but De Hart said he recognized that a private group was needed to help it along.

The concert, film, lecture and recital series that de Hart established at Louisburg College led to other arts and cultural endeavors, including the founding of the Franklin County Arts Council in 1978. He also started the Franklin County and Louisburg College Folk Festival, which led to an event with a broader reach: The International Whistlers Convention.

At the folk festival in the early 1970s, a songwriter from Durham asked whether he could whistle his song “Little River Blues” rather than sing it, and in time more people wanted to whistle, too. So de Hart, himself a whistle collector, organized a separate event that drew whistlers from around the world for 40 years.

Funeral services for de Hart will be held Wednesday at 2 p.m. at Moody Funeral Home in Stuart, Va., with burial to follow in the Woolwine Cemetery. De Hart was a veteran of the Army during the early 1950s, and the Patrick County Veterans Memorial Honor Guard will present a flag at the funeral.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling