Library on Horseback

Everyone has heard of FDR’s New Deal series of programs and projects to get Americans back on their feet during the 1930s Great Depression. Well, there was one special project many may not have heard of except for the people of Kentucky.

It was named ‘New Deal-funded Pack Horse Library Project’. What it involved was female librarians would ride around on horseback and deliver books to various residents of rural areas in the state of Kentucky. These events took place between the years 1935 and 1943, as they made sure that Appalachian counties in eastern Kentucky had all of the reading materials that they needed. Librarians in the Pack Horse Library rode up into the Kentucky mountains, their saddlebags stuffed with books. Earlier the local Berea College sent a horse-drawn book wagon into the mountains in the late teens and early 1920s. But that program had long since ended by 1934, when the first WPA-sponsored packhorse library was formed in Leslie County.

The basic purpose included helping all Americans to learn how to read, regardless of their background. In 1930, up to 31 percent of people in eastern Kentucky couldn’t read. It proved to be very successful project. It employed around 1,000 book women as mobile librarians…just paid less than a dollar a day. In just one year the ladies reached 50,000 families and 155 rural schools. The library horses were housed any in facility that would step up, from churches to post offices. Librarians manned these outposts, giving books to carriers who then climbed aboard their mules or horses, loaded with books, and headed into the hills. They took their job as seriously as mail carriers and crossed streams in wintry conditions, feet frozen in the stirrups.

Carriers rode out at least twice a month, with each route covering 100 to 120 miles a week. The librarians used their own horses or mules or leased animals from neighbors. Included in the library was books, magazines, Sunday school materials, and textbooks. Children especially loved the traveling library. Many mountain schools didn’t have libraries, and since they were so far from public libraries, most students had never checked out a book.

The Pack Horse Library ended in 1943 after Franklin Roosevelt ordered the end of the WPA. The new war effort was putting people back to work, so WPA projects—including the Pack Horse Library—tapered off. By 1946, motorized bookmobiles were on the move. Once again, books rode into the mountains.

It really helped the literacy rate in rural Kentucky. Check your family tree, any ancestors in Kentucky? Between mid-1930s and early 1940s? They may well have used the traveling library. This is an excellent example where rural America was not forgotten.

Photo: Librarians on a horse carrying books.

Related Blogs:

The New Deal and Your Ancestors

Kentucky Digital

Finding Ancestors in Kentucky

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