Horseback Women Preserved US Literature in Depression

Image credit: KENTUCKY LIBRARIES AND ARCHIVES

During the Great Depression, many families in the United States faced severe hardships, particularly in Kentucky’s rugged terrains. Travel was difficult, isolating communities from essential services and cultural resources. Amidst these challenges, a group of women known as the ‘Book Women’ emerged as heroes, delivering books to poor and remote communities on horseback.

Who Were the Book Women?

The Book Women played a crucial role in maintaining literary access in some of the most remote areas of the US. Appalachian regions, like Kentucky, suffered greatly from a lack of educational materials. The government recognized that reading and education were essential for community recovery.

The Pack Horse Library initiative, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal,’ was launched in the mid-1930s to help lift America out of the Great Depression. Managed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from 1935 to 1944, it provided jobs and addressed the educational needs of rural America.

The Work of the Book Women

This project relied heavily on local women. Makeshift libraries were set up in churches and post offices. For those who couldn’t access these places, the Book Women delivered books directly to them. They not only distributed books but often read to people, fostering a sense of community during difficult times.

Regardless of the weather or terrain, these women rode hundreds of miles to deliver books, earning $28 a month. By 1938, there were 274 librarians covering 29 counties. By 1943, the project employed around 200 people and reached about 100,000 residents in rural Kentucky.

Personal Stories and Legacy

Nan Milan, a book woman from Pine Mountain Settlement, joked that her horse, Sunny Jim, had shorter legs on one side to better navigate the steep mountain paths. Riders used their own horses or leased them from neighbors, with most books being donations. One notable donation came from a former Kentuckian in California, who sent 500 books in memory of his mother. A Pittsburgh benefactor collected reading materials and shared stories from the Book Women, including a child’s request, “Let the book lady leave us something to read on Sundays and at night when we get through hoeing the corn.”

In 1943, the Pack Horse Library initiative ended after President Roosevelt ordered the WPA to close, as World War II efforts provided jobs. Although horseback book delivery ended, motorized bookmobiles began in 1946. By 2014, Kentucky’s public libraries had 75 bookmobiles, the largest number in the United States, continuing the Book Women’s legacy.

Re-reported from the article originally published in She the People.

Horseback Women Preserved US Literature in Depression

Image credit: KENTUCKY LIBRARIES AND ARCHIVES

During the Great Depression, many families in the United States faced severe hardships, particularly in Kentucky’s rugged terrains. Travel was difficult, isolating communities from essential services and cultural resources. Amidst these challenges, a group of women known as the ‘Book Women’ emerged as heroes, delivering books to poor and remote communities on horseback.

Who Were the Book Women?

The Book Women played a crucial role in maintaining literary access in some of the most remote areas of the US. Appalachian regions, like Kentucky, suffered greatly from a lack of educational materials. The government recognized that reading and education were essential for community recovery.

The Pack Horse Library initiative, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal,’ was launched in the mid-1930s to help lift America out of the Great Depression. Managed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from 1935 to 1944, it provided jobs and addressed the educational needs of rural America.

The Work of the Book Women

This project relied heavily on local women. Makeshift libraries were set up in churches and post offices. For those who couldn’t access these places, the Book Women delivered books directly to them. They not only distributed books but often read to people, fostering a sense of community during difficult times.

Regardless of the weather or terrain, these women rode hundreds of miles to deliver books, earning $28 a month. By 1938, there were 274 librarians covering 29 counties. By 1943, the project employed around 200 people and reached about 100,000 residents in rural Kentucky.

Personal Stories and Legacy

Nan Milan, a book woman from Pine Mountain Settlement, joked that her horse, Sunny Jim, had shorter legs on one side to better navigate the steep mountain paths. Riders used their own horses or leased them from neighbors, with most books being donations. One notable donation came from a former Kentuckian in California, who sent 500 books in memory of his mother. A Pittsburgh benefactor collected reading materials and shared stories from the Book Women, including a child’s request, “Let the book lady leave us something to read on Sundays and at night when we get through hoeing the corn.”

In 1943, the Pack Horse Library initiative ended after President Roosevelt ordered the WPA to close, as World War II efforts provided jobs. Although horseback book delivery ended, motorized bookmobiles began in 1946. By 2014, Kentucky’s public libraries had 75 bookmobiles, the largest number in the United States, continuing the Book Women’s legacy.

Re-reported from the article originally published in She the People.