The Pack Horse Librarians Who Delivered Books Come Hell Or High Water
During the Great Depression, the creek beds of eastern Kentucky weren’t known for their hospitality. Cut Shin, Troublesome and Hell for Certain Creek — the level of their compassion was reflected in their names.
Still, the muddy mark of horse hooves in the creek beds pointed to their use as last-effort roadways, particularly by a group of librarians who once traversed the mountainsides and brought books to the isolated communities of Appalachia.
“I have always thought that … where you have a library that’s supported by the community, they are like the truest symbol of democracy because it’s equal access to information,” Kathi Appelt, co-author of Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky, said in an interview. “When a community gets behind a library, they’re saying, ‘We want all our citizens to be informed.”
Grace Caudill Lucas, a federal employee and Pack Horse Librarian, traversed the creeks and narrow trails of Lee County, Kentucky, in the 1930s. Bill, the retired thoroughbred she rode, helped lug the bags of books that would serve as a lifeline of information to those communities.
The bags ranging from saddlebags to flour sacks, carried tales of adventure, guidance, news and pictures. The books were not always in the most pristine shape, especially given the times. Most of them had been donated to the program, and people were not as likely to give away new books. But the librarians made use of whatever they could get their hands on.
Even the books that had been worn down and tested by time were reused, their pictures cut out and added to scrapbooks in which librarians and even those who received the books would add recipes or quilting patterns to create new material. Nothing could be wasted in the era of the Great Depression. Many across America had plunged into poverty, but Appalachian mining towns were among the hardest hit.
In May 1935, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), an American New Deal agency with the intent to employ citizens through the construction of public buildings, roads and bridges. The program included the Pack Horse Library initiative, intending to hire librarians to ride through the treacherous pathways and deliver reading materials to more isolated communities that wagons and cars might have had difficulty reaching. The project was not the first of its kind, though its predecessor in 1913 had struggled with funding after its patrol died in 1914.
One round trip by the librarians would typically take a full day, and they made trips four days a week. On the fifth and final day, the librarians would spend time sorting through books and collaborating on the scrapbooks.
“The thing was: There really was not much in the way of roads up in the hills and mountains in those days, so you often had to travel along the creek bed, or you had to travel along these very precipitous little tracks that followed high above the creek bed where the mountain would go right up on your right, and it would drop off to your left to the creek,” Dr. Sandra Opdycke, an American Historian, said. “And so it was tricky even in good weather.”
In bad weather, however, it would mean braving an icy trail and slippery footing along the 20-mile trek.
Of her many trips across the mountains of Lee County, the one Lucas recalled for Down Cut Shin Creek authors Appelt and Jeanne Schmitzer was a day of biting cold. When the water from the creek splashed up, it froze her boots to her stirrups. Upon her arrival, she had to chip at the ice to free them.
On a different trip, the weather turned bad one night before she could make her way home, with heavy rainfall adding to the cold, Schmitzer recalled Lucas telling her. She ended up staying the night at the house of one of her patrons, to whom she made book deliveries.
“And this was a very poor family. They didn’t have a lot, and it bothered her to have to stay there,” Schmitzer said. “She knew they were going to want to feed her, and she knew they didn’t have the food.”
Despite these often unforgiving conditions, it was predominantly women who answered the call. Of the nearly 200 Pack Horse Librarians, 90% of them were women.
“They were really tough, those mountain women,” Appelt said. Regardless of the danger, she said, “The job was considered a woman’s job.”
Opdycke pointed out that the majority of the WPA jobs were based in construction, which were more likely to hire men, in turn giving them more choices when looking for jobs than women. To add to this, the agency only hired one worker per family, preferably the head of the household.
Of the Pack Horse Librarians, many were single mothers, widows or divorcées. Other librarians had husbands who were either unable to work or had left looking for work and never returned. There were a few older women that participated more at the administrative level, like the state library or the Kentucky Teacher’s Association, Schmitzer said.
However, a shortcoming of the program, Appelt said, was that to her knowledge it did not involve people of color — or at least none that the photos included. Neither she nor Schmitzer nor Opdycke recall in their research coming across a Pack Horse Librarian who wasn’t white.
Appelt added that even today where she lives in Texas, libraries are not well-placed throughout communities to ensure equal accessibility.
“A lot of public libraries were not accessible to people of color I know here in my area,” Appelt said. “That was a real failing, and you know it continues to be.”
The Pack Horse Librarian project ended in 1943 along with the closure of the WPA, but its legacy was revived more than a decade later. In 1956, Congress passed a law providing the nation’s first significant federal funding for libraries with a special provision for bookmobiles — the latter detail proposed by Representative Carl Perkins of Kentucky.
“He had been a school teacher, a young school teacher, in the Kentucky mountains during the years of the Pack Horse Library,” Opdycke said. “He had seen what traveling books could do for a cut-off area, and so he’s the one that really fought the battle and made sure that that money went into the federal grant for libraries.”
Today, the state of Kentucky continues to operate more than 140 bookmobiles to deliver books to the public, working to make information more accessible.
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