A new book, “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek,” by Kim Michele Richardson, has brought national recognition to the Pack Horse Librarians of early twentieth century Appalachian Kentucky. Richardson’s book is a haunting testimony to the first mobile library in Kentucky. It is a literary psalm of praise for the brave Pack Horse Librarians who rode hundreds of miles each week to dispense literacy while making an important human connection with people who lived in isolation and desperate poverty during the Great Depression. Richardson’s book is an inspiring tale about the power of reading during a difficult period in Kentucky’s educational history.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, conditions in Appalachia’s rural schools were primitive, at best. Most barns and jails were better built, better equipped and more comfortable than the little one-room schools that dotted the hills and hollows of Kentucky, southern Ohio and West Virginia.
In Kentucky, 5,000 illiterate public officials presided over 24,900 equally illiterate and often uncaring trustees who oversaw 8,300 schools. The system was horribly ineffective, yet the vast majority of Kentuckians did not care. Living in poverty, they saw education as a luxury, not a necessity. When the century began, 100,000 shivering (or sweltering) barefoot children attended 2,000 schools without seats and blackboards while 4,500 other schools had no globes, maps or educational aids of any kind. In 1933, the average elementary school teacher made $459 per year, and the state stood next to last in the Union in all the categories by which state educational systems were measured.
During the 1930s, the educational system sank deeper in despair because of the Great Depression. One-room schools still operated in some areas that could locate a teacher, but many rural areas of Kentucky had no school, so, to supplement the efforts of one-room school teachers, new educational heroines arose — the Pack Horse Librarians.
In 1913, the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs convinced eastern Kentucky coal baron, John C. C. Mayo, to subsidize a mounted library service to reach people in poor and remote areas. But a year later, the program expired when Mayo died. It would be almost twenty years until the service was revived.
The Pack Horse Library Project was established in 1935 and ran until 1943. The service was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). It was an effort to create jobs for women and bring books and reading materials into Appalachia, into the poorest and more isolated areas in eastern Kentucky that had few schools and no libraries.
The librarians were known as “book women,” though there was a small number of men among their ranks. These brave Kentucky librarians traveled by horse, mule and sometimes foot and even rowboat to reach remote areas, in creeks and up crags, into coves, disconnected pockets and black forests, and to towns named Hell-fer-Sartin, Troublesome and Cut Shin, sometimes traveling 100 or more miles a week in rain, sleet or snow.
Pack Horse Librarians were paid $28 a month and had to provide their own mounts. Books and reading materials and places for storing and sorting the material were all donated and not supplied by the WPA’s payroll.
With few resources and little financial help, the Pack Horse Librarians collected donated books and reading materials from the Boy Scouts, PTAs, women’s clubs, churches, and the state health department. The librarians came up with ingenious ways to provide more reading resources, such as making scrapbooks with collected recipes and house-cleaning tips that the mountain people passed on to them in gratitude for their service. The book women colored pictures to make children’s picture books, journals, and more, all the while vigorously seeking donations.
Despite the financial and social obstacles, and the harshness of the land during the most violent era of eastern Kentucky’s history, the Pack Horse service was accepted and became clearly embraced. These clever champions of literacy and learning turned their traveling library program into a tremendous success.
In the years of its service more than one thousand women served in the Pack Horse Library Project, and it was reported that nearly 600,000 residents in thirty eastern Kentucky “pauper counties” were served by them. During those years, the beloved program left a powerful legacy and enriched countless lives.
Some families living in eastern Kentucky today proudly claim a Pack Horse Librarian as an ancestor. Loretta Brown Payne of Ashland reports that her paternal grandmother, Rhett Brown, served as a Pack Horse Librarian in Elliott County and later became the first librarian at Sandy Hook High School. Loretta also reports that the father of Dr. Brownie Adkins was also a Pack Horse Librarian in Elliott County. My late friend, Jack Ellis, often told me that his mother was one of the original Pack Horse Librarians in Rowan County. If any of my readers are descended from a Pack Horse Librarian, I would be interested in hearing your story. You can call me at (606) 326-1667 or email me at email@example.com.
Inspired by the true and historical blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the brave and dedicated Pack Horse Librarians, Kim Michele Richardson’s excellent 2019 novel, “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” is being hailed by readers and critics as a riveting read and a “unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.”
“The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” is available at the Jesse Stuart Foundation Bookstore and Appalachian Gift Shop at 4440 13th Street in Ashland. For more information, call (606) 326-1667, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.jsfbooks.com.
DR. JAMES GIFFORD, Ph.D., is the CEO and Senior Editor at the Jesse Stuart Foundation.