Changing Times & The Pack Horse Librarians

September 21, 2010 in 1920s-30s, Historical Decades, Primary source, Social history

Reading about Kentucky in the 1920s and 1930s (1) revealed what was for me a much unexpected image of a society more in line with an undeveloped third world country than with the home state that I have always known. Although of course by that point Lexington and especially Louisville existed as urban centers, much of the state was rural and agrarian. People were isolated in their small communities and had little communication with or knowledge of the outside world. In eastern parts of the state, people in coal mining towns literally didn’t have roads, much less sanitation. Considering “women’s issues” in this context is difficult, because the isolation meant that women didn’t have many opportunities to unite on their own behalf. Their struggle was more often for the survival of their families than for a change in the relative position of women in society. However, I have come across a few examples of remarkable women who were able to serve as great advocates for their communities and, in so doing, also pave the way for future women.

My favorite is a WPA program in Kentucky called the Pack Horse Librarians. The WPA had initially provided work for men, but eventually reached out to impoverished women, as well. The Pack Horse Librarians were women that delivered books and magazines to coal mining towns and other communities. So-called because they had to travel by mule through undeveloped territory, these women made treacherous journeys through the mountains to deliver literature to people who suffered from widespread illiteracy. Old and young gathered around children’s books to work together to decipher words for the first time, or enjoyed the company of a woman carrier who would stay and read aloud to them (2). This website has some really great photos of women delivering books and reading to people: (3). Despite the rugged trails and the primitive state of the cabins, the women all look strong and proud to be providing the service. This simple program and the women that ran it obviously made a big step in opening these small communities to the world and granting them access to greater opportunities through newfound literacy. At the same time, I love how the women were able to demonstrate such rugged individualism, daring to make dangerous trips alone and gaining independence with their government salaries.

Times were certainly changing, and I think one of common trends in the material we’ve looked at so far is the stark division between the new generation of the ‘20s and ‘30s and the generation of their parents. Prior to the “Roarin’ Twenties” and especially before the New Deal Era, many people in the South were still very isolated and bound to tradition. Mae Street Kidd’s mother, for example, never advanced beyond domestic work and seemed to discourage open discussion about race or gender relations, while her daughter goes on to become a well-educated and vocal proponent for her rights in corporate and political America (4). Likewise, Alice Wilson’s mother Jennie Wilson was born to former slaves and in the video we watched, she recalled early memories of terrible conditions and great oppression, and that dark history shaped her life. Alice, on the other hand, frankly challenged the power system when she and her friends integrated the school (5). Because of the suffrage movement and the New Deal Era, children that grew up in the ‘20s and ‘30s faced a new world with fewer barriers to women and programs (like the Pack Horse Librarians!) that were creating opportunities and increasing contact between people, bringing them together in new ways and setting the stage for the Civil Rights Movement.

1 – Appelt, Kathi. Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky. This is a book which not talks about Pack Horse Librarians, but had a lot of good background info on Kentucky too.

2 – article published in Overton County News in Livingston, Tennessee

3 – Photo Library at the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute

4 – Hall, Wade. Passing for Black.

5 – KET “Rest of the Story” video –

3 responses to Changing Times & The Pack Horse Librarians

  1. I found an intresting women in Kentucky history named Cora Wilson. She started many ‘moonlight’ schools across Kentucky in the early 1900’s that were designed to teach children and adults how to read and write. She was the first women to be elected president of the Kentucky Education Association and I thought this tied in with your journal entry. I dont know who to hyperlink websites but the site is . These types of women became very important to the spread of education throughout Kentucky in the early 1900’s.

  2. That is really interesting. So strange that woman were paid by the government to carry books by mules to people some thing like that would be laughable today. Then though it was a real solution. I appreciate the link to pictures as well.

  3. Thanks for putting into perspective something a lot of people are starting to take for granted: learning to read and write. I enjoyed the Pack Horse Librarian information and pictures. It is troubling that a child was chided for using too much lamp oil for his nightly reading habits. The realities to survival are blunt and the frivolity line is oppressive.

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