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The Pack Horse Librarians Of Eastern Kentucky



Picture a librarian on horseback hauling books over the rugged terrain of Kentucky coal country in the 1930s. The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, take us there. This is part of their new series, "The Keepers."

MARY RUTH DIETER: My name is Mary Ruth Shuler Dieter. I'm 97 years old. We traveled on horses, riding down in the mountains of Kentucky. Very poor country. I was delivering books to the children. Pack horse librarian. It was one of the works of President Roosevelt.


FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: Our problem is to put to work three and one-half million employable persons, men and women, who are now on the relief rolls.


KATHI APPELT: In the Depression, those horrible years after 1929, the Appalachians were hit so hard. Coal mines were being shut down. Lots of people in dire poverty.

HEATHER HENSON: Eleanor Roosevelt decided to help create projects that would specifically benefit women and children. My name is Heather Henson, author of "That Book Woman." Eleanor Roosevelt felt very strongly about the Pack Horse Library Project.


ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: If the women are willing to do things because it's going to help their neighbors, I think we'll win out.


APPELT: The pack horse librarians, mostly women, rode circuits around 18 miles to 20 miles. They followed animal paths, fence lines. I'm Kathi Appelt. I co-wrote "Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians Of Kentucky." They would stuff their saddlebags or a pillowcase with books and strike out by horseback or mule to provide library service to the remote areas of the Kentucky mountains.

HENSON: Going into the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky was going back in time. No running water, no electricity, very few schools. Families lived way up in the mountains. A creek bed, that would be the road.

DIETER: We forded Greasy Creek, take the horses across. We wore boots and pants.

JEANNE SCHMITZER: One county would start a pack horse library. Another county would hear about it. They would want one. Then that community would ask the WPA to let them hire carriers.

RICK OVERBEE JR: My grandmother, she was a horseback librarian. She was involved with the WPA because that was the work force of the time 'cause Eastern Kentucky, you either worked or you starved to death. I'm Rick Overbee. I'm the grandson of Grace Caudill Lucas. She would ride that horse - carriage trails, mud holes, going back up into these hollers. She didn't own the horse. She rented it for fifty cents a week. She would arrange the books in a pack that would ride behind her in the saddle, and not only books, but magazines of the time and newspaper.

APPELT: Grace was a young mother with two small children. Her husband left. In the Depression, a lot of men did that.

RICK OVERBEE SR: My father left home when I was 2 and my sister was about a month old. My mother, she'd get up every morning about 4:30, feed me and my sister and take us to my grandma's till she got home at night. Made a dollar a day. She was glad to have it. She bought groceries and things that we'd never had before. My name's Richard Overbee, and I'm the son of Grace Caudill.

SCHMITZER: The only thing the federal government provided was the salary for the carriers. My name is Jean Schmitzer, co-author of "Down Cut Shin Creek." As people from all over the United States learned about this, they would donate cast-off magazines, used books, "Swiss Family Robinson," "Heidi."

APPELT: Better Homes and Gardens. National Geographic. Popular Mechanics.

JASON VANCE: The librarians would go through these ragged magazines and dilapidated books, and they would cannibalize them, deconstruct them, remix them and create these new scrapbooks. I am Jason Vance, librarian, Middle Tennessee State University. "Library Manual For WPA Pack Horse Library Projects."

(Reading) The following scrapbooks have been found useful - recipes, mountain ballads, Kentucky history, odd names, articles on a particular subject, dogs, Spain, Nazis, model airplanes.

SCHMITZER: Carriers would collect recipes and patterns for quilts from people on the route, put them together into a scrapbook and share county to county.

VANCE: In 1940, there were 2,582 of these scrapbooks. They became part of the circulating collection. The pack horse librarians were creating these cultural artifacts, snapshots of life in Eastern Kentucky during the Great Depression.

DIETER: They were so happy to get a book. Tickled to death. We always sat under the big old chestnut tree. They didn't know how to read so I read it and read it again so they could understand it.

SCHMITZER: There was a lot of illiteracy there. The pack horse librarians would sit and read things and then mount back up and get going. They were really hoofing it to get done before dark.


OVERBEE SR: Grace would ride that horse, and he would swim through the creeks. She had mountains to climb and valleys to go through.

VANCE: The program ended in 1943.

SCHMITZER: We're in the war, we're pulling out of this Depression. The library program was no longer funded. In 1954, the state of Kentucky starts a bookmobile program.

APPELT: In Alaska, there are bush plane librarians. In Africa, there's camel librarians.

VANCE: In Thailand, they were using elephants. In Zimbabwe, they were using donkeys. In Mongolia...

APPELT: In our mind, we think of librarians as the quintessential "Marian the Librarian" who puts the books back on the shelves, makes sure that everything's tidy. Librarians are a determined bunch. They're far more subversive than that.


GREENE: "The Pack Horse Librarians Of Eastern Kentucky." It was produced by the Kitchen Sisters and mixed by Jim McKee. You can hear more from "The Keepers" series on their podcast, "The Kitchen Sisters Present." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning, NPR series, Hidden Kitchens, and two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. Hidden Kitchens, heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below-the-radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year that was also nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food. The Hidden Kitchens audio book, narrated by Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, received a 2006 Audie Award.