The Horse-Riding Librarians of the Great Depression

During the 1930s, unemployment in Appalachia was as high as 40%. Roads were awful or nonexistent, and 31% of the residents of eastern Kentucky were illiterate. The region's needs gave rise to an innovative WPA program to put women who had horses or mules to work improving conditions: The Pack Horse Library Initiative.   

Unlike many New Deal projects, the packhorse plan required help from locals. "Libraries" 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, panniers 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. Nan Milan, who carried books in an eight-mile radius from the Pine Mountain Settlement School, a boarding school for mountain children, joked that the horses she rode had shorter legs on one side than the other so that they wouldn't slide off of the steep mountain paths. Riders used their own horses or mules-—the Pine Mountain group had a horse named Sunny Jim—or leased them from neighbors. They earned $28 a month—around $495 in modern dollars.

The program was extremely popular among the recipients of the books. Demand grew, donations came in, and the librarians even started making their own books. Read about the librarians on horseback at Smithsonian.

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