Horses & History

The Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky

It was time to get women back to work and off the dole so the innovative program called the Pack Horse Library Project of Eastern Kentucky was created.

By: Horses & History |

Pack Horse Librarians, ready to ride.

Pack Horse Librarians, ready to ride.

From 1929 to 1939 the western industrialized nations were on their knees. The Great Depression had hit and while some men jumped off buildings having lost everything in the stock market, others rode the rails, moved from state to state and begged and borrowed in an attempt to keep themselves and their families alive. Many died.

In 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under his 1933 New Deal initiative. The WPA was designed to get people back on their feet, and men began to work on construction projects including schools, power plants and road building sites. It also became clear that it was time to get women back to work and off the dole so a most inventive and innovative program called the Pack Horse Library Project of Eastern Kentucky was created.

The region serviced by these pack horse librarians (mostly women) was the mining territory of Eastern Kentucky, and life was not easy for the resident families who had no chance of a different life or escape. Health and safety measures were few and far between, Black Lung disease killed men by the hundreds, and the pay was poor. In these mining regions and out of the way backwaters, people subsisted in ramshackle houses with no running water, electricity or insulation. However, in 1935 thanks to the Pack Horse Library Project, librarians making $28 a month, began to make their way to these forlorn towns and farms, and without roads, they got there riding on tough mules and horses. These librarians brought books and magazines, but they also brought news, comfort and contact with the outside world to these people, and gave countless more the chance to learn to read. It was the start of one of the most successful programs during the Depression era.

Leaving a typical backwoods house after a book delivery.

Leaving a typical backwoods house after a book delivery.

Schools in those regions had few books, if any, and the funding to buy more was a low priority. The WPA paid the librarians to maintain a head library often at a county seat. Early in the morning – sometimes by 4:30 a.m., these librarians and their horses or mules started off in many directions to places named Hell for Sartini, Troublesome and Cut Shin thanks to the treacherous terrain. Poor weather and narrow trails, rocky mountain paths, flowing rivers and creeks and wild animals called for bravery and determination. Local women were the preferred choice for the librarians and they were eagerly awaited by hordes of school children in one room schoolrooms, by the sick and the elderly desperate for some companionship, and by parents eager for news of the outside world. So enthusiastic were these people for reading material that one woman walked nine miles just to exchange books with the pack horse librarian on her route.

The books and magazines usually came from other libraries that were updating material or were getting rid of discards, unwanted donations and damaged books. Detective, romance, Women’s Home Companion and Popular Mechanics were the most eagerly awaited magazines while the most popular books were on travel and adventure. Children’s books were also popular, but it wasn’t just the wee ones who enjoyed these. Many adults were illiterate so the short sentences and easy words were easy for them to read. Some of the children who could read from their days at school, read to their parents and grandparents and helped them learn to read for themselves. Imagine not having seen a magazine for possibly years and suddenly a woman holds a copy – albeit six months old – of Women’s Home Companion featuring clothing fashions, sewing and knitting ideas, recipes and new hair styles. She might be able to create a new look from an old dress, or to use a recipe showing how to stretch a few ounces of meat a little further. But even if she never does, at least she is in touch with the outside world, she is more connected, and there are new things to discuss! Men enjoyed the Popular Mechanics publications as they found ways to repair and refurbish machines; their pay certainly didn’t stretch to buying anything new! The demand for material outweighed the supply so the librarians created scrapbooks of clippings and photos of interest to bring on their rounds. The idea of scrapbooking caught on, and some rural families began to create their own featuring family histories, recipes, child advice and sewing patterns.

Reading to an invalid wounded by a bullet. Note the newspaper used as wallpaper and insulation.

Reading to an invalid wounded by a bullet. Note the newspaper used as wallpaper and insulation.

The librarians travelled from 50 to 80 miles a week often into the unknown territory of a new route with no signs or clear directions. Maps might have been poor at best and if a librarian got lost, and assuming she found a nearby house or town, the directions she got from an illiterate resident would have included verbal only local insider information: hard to fathom and follow. If the home was truly remote some women had to negotiate the final part of the journey by foot or in a boat.

By 1936 it was clear that 800 magazines and books were not enough to go around and could not be shared by the five to ten thousand patrons. Happily help came in the form of the Penny Fund created by Lena Nofcier, chairman of the Library Service for the Kentucky PTA. Each member was asked to donate a penny for the purchase of new books and the success was so great that eight new pack horse libraries were developed. Boy Scout groups, private clubs and organizations, and Sunday schools were also asked to locate and contribute books. At final count the program was able to take credit for 30 libraries serving 100,000 Eastern Kentucky residents.

The Pack Horse Library Project did not last long, and when it closed it left a large gap in many lives. However, while it ran from 1935 to 1943 it was a Godsend to the thousands of people it served. Sadly the service lost its funding in 1943, and once again these small towns and communities were without books, news or contact with the outside world; there was no way for the service to continue without horses and willing riders. In the late 1950s with the development of roads, mobile libraries were introduced. There is little information about the horses and mules used by these Pack Horse Librarians but safe to say they must have been reliable, tough and resilient.

One of the libraries.

One of the libraries.

There are a few books on Amazon that feature the Pack Horse Librarians: one is child’s fiction based on fact, and the other is the true story behind these Pack Horse Librarians.

That Book Woman. A book about a poor, illiterate Kentucky boy learning to read from the Pack Horse Library Lady who just never stops coming to his house! This book for children won the Christopher Award as well as the Great Lakes Book Award.

Down Cut Shin Creek. An adult book that tells the whole story of these brave women who brought a bit of sunshine to the furthest corners of Eastern Kentucky.

Thanks to Roger Philpot, creator of an excellent website Coal Miner’s in Kentucky, for help in tracking down some of the information and the photos in this blog.

Photo credit:  University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center. Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection