For $28 a month, these librarians loaded books and magazines into saddlebags or pillowcases. They climbed on a horse or mule and rode through the mountains of eastern Kentucky. This was the Packhorse Library project. They were hoofing it for the love of books, to help their community and combat illiteracy.
The History of Horse & Books
May Stafford, a Kentuckian, raised money in 1913 to take books to rural people on horseback. That program lasted one year. Berea College sponsored a horse-drawn book wagon. The book wagon operated in the late teens and early 1920s. After that, the mountain people had no access to libraries and the books provided there.
The Great Depression began in 1929. There was no work. No money. The mountain people of eastern Kentucky suffered. By 1933 the unemployment rate in the Appalachians was 40%.
The New Deal
President Roosevelt’s New Deal created The Works Progress Administration (WPA). Its function was to create jobs for men (usually unskilled). The President’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, knew many women were the heads of households. She encouraged the creation of WPA projects that would benefit women and children. She knew women would respond best to projects that supported their community. Projects like the Packhorse Library.
With no money to feed the body, how could they feed the mind?Eleanor Roosevelt
The Packhorse Library project began in 1934 in Leslie County Kentucky. They hired local women when they could. The mountain folk they would serve were suspicious of strangers. The WPA paid the librarians’ salaries only. The librarians provided their own horse or mule. Their library of books and magazines consisted of donations.
A Tough Job
The librarians rode out twice a month. They covered 100-120 miles per week. It wasn’t easy. The areas they served had no paved or gravel roads. Cabins perched on the mountains side had no radio, no television, no newspaper, and no electricity. One librarian’s mule died. She finished eighteen miles of her route on foot. Bad weather and rocky terrain provided unending challenges. But the librarians had grit. They felt driven to provide their mountain people books. Books could give the destitute mountain people hope for the future.
To gain the trust of the people on her route, a librarian would ride in and read Bible passages aloud. This behavior engendered trust among people familiar with the oral tradition.
The mountain people were hungry for news and learning. They burned costly oil so they could read after dark. The children cried out for books. Not a specific book. Any book. When the people couldn’t read, the librarians often read aloud to them.
When books and magazines wore out, the librarians cut the books and magazines up. They pasted articles, and recipes, and quilt patterns into scrapbooks. On their circuit, they’d collect local recipes and quilt patterns and add them to the handmade books. They’d swap scrapbooks with other counties and share the new books with the folks on their routes.
The Program Grew
The Packhorse Librarians served a 10,000-square-mile part of eastern Kentucky. The program hired nearly 1,000 librarians before it ended. More than 60,000 books circulated to an estimated 50,000 families, and 155 public schools.
Until the Funds Ran Out
Franklin Roosevelt ordered the end of the WPA in 1943. The new war effort was putting people back to work. The Packhorse Library and the librarians faded into history.
Thank you for joining me in celebrating Women’s History Month. Would you like to know more about the Packhorse Library project and the librarians who were hoofing it for the love of books? Check out these resources: the Smithsonian, NPR, Atlas Obscura, and Cleo Lampos’s site. Or read That Book Woman by Heather Henson and Down Cut Shin Creek by Kathi Applet and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer.