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Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky

Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky

by Kathi Appelt, Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer

It's 4:30 in the morning, and the "book woman" and her horse are already on their way. Hers is an important job, for the folks along her treacherous route are eager for the tattered books and magazines she carries in her saddlebags.

During the Great Depression, thousands lived on the brink of starvation. Many perished. In 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt


It's 4:30 in the morning, and the "book woman" and her horse are already on their way. Hers is an important job, for the folks along her treacherous route are eager for the tattered books and magazines she carries in her saddlebags.

During the Great Depression, thousands lived on the brink of starvation. Many perished. In 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progess Administration under his 1933 New Deal initiative. The WPA was designed to get people back on their feet. One of its most innovative programs was the Pack Horse Library Project of Eastern Kentucky.

Thoroughly researched and illustrated with period photographs, this is the story of one of the WPA's greatest successes. People all over the country supported the project's goals. But it was the librarians themselves — young, determined, and earning just $28 a month — who brought the hope of a wider world to people in the crooks and hollows of Kentucky's Cumberland Mountains.

Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal
Gr 4-6-Imagine a cold, steep trip up a mountain path; it is icy and a light rain falls. A woman is riding an old horse and has a bag full of books to deliver. The families she stops to see are waiting for her, a one-room schoolhouse full of children greet her at the door. One woman walks nine miles to meet her and exchange her books and magazines. This is a day in the life of a pack-horse librarian. From 1935 to 1943, local Kentucky women were paid a meager salary as part of the WPA to do just this. Appelt and Schmitzer present an in-depth look at this unusual book-delivery system. With clear, thorough information, they take readers back to Depression-era Appalachia. Details of the project, such as why local women were the best choice to deliver the books, how materials were obtained, and how the delivery circuit worked, are offered in a readable format. The authors capably describe the isolated and poverty-ridden lives of the Kentucky mountain folk. Generously illustrated with black-and-white photographs, this book paints a complete picture of one WPA project. Extensive source notes are included. Pair this fascinating title with Rosemary Wells's Mary on Horseback (Viking, 1999) for an intimate look at the Appalachian region during the Great Depression.-Angela J. Reynolds, Washington County Cooperative Library Services, Aloha, OR Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A warm tribute to the WPA-funded "book women" (and men) who rode Kentucky's backwoods in the 1930s and early '40s, delivering library service to some of this country's most impoverished citizens. Gathering information from archives, hard-to-find published sources, and interviews, the authors write feelingly of the Pack Horse Library Program's origins and the obstacles its dedicated employees overcame. These ranged from the chronic scarcity of books and magazines (nearly all of which were donated) to the rigors of riding, generally alone, over rugged terrain in all weathers. Those rigors are made more immediate by a reconstructed account of a rider's day: rising at 4:30, stopping at isolated hamlets, cabins, and one-room schools to drop off materials and, sometimes, to read aloud, then plodding wearily home through darkness and drizzle. Supported by a generous array of contemporary photos and sturdy lists of sources and Web sites to give interested readers a leg up on further inquiry, this adds unique insights not just to the history of library service, but of Appalachian culture, and of women's work in general. (Nonfiction. 10-12)

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
7.25(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.37(d)
1030L (what's this?)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Putting Women To Work

"Son, the times they was so hard, you couldn't hardly crack them."

Grace Caudill Lucas, former Pack Horse Librarian

They were the darkest of times, the years following the crash of the stock market in 1929. Thousands of people across the United States were cast out of their Jobs, off their farms, out of their homes and apartments, and into the crushing depths of poverty. Fathers, forced out of work, abandoned their families rather than watch them suffer; mothers died of malnutrition; children went without shoes or shelter or schooling. An entire nation, it seemed, was standing in one long breadline, desperate for even the barest essentials. It was a crisis of monumental proportions. It was known as the Great Depression.

Already one of the poorest states in the country, Kentucky was particularly hard hit, especially the rocky and mountainous eastern half of the state. Coal was Kentucky's main resource. With so many factories shut down nationwide, and the use of natural gas for heating on the increase, the need for coal was diminished and hundreds of mines were closed. Thousands of coal workers were laid off. Though tough and resilient by nature, many Kentuckians barely hung on.

To add to the despair, the Ohio River, which borders Kentucky, flooded in 1930, killing more than a hundred people and washing away the already thin layer of topsoil that covered the hardscrabble landscape, making farming virtually impossible.

In 1933, Federal Emergency Relief Director Harry Hopkins sent Lorena Hickock, a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune, toreport on the conditions in the area. She wrote back: "[Residents] live in abandoned mining camps. The rest live in little communities, rather like Indian villages--and without any kind of sanitation whatever--back up at the headwaters of creeks, in the mountains...[f]ive babies up one of those creeks died of starvation in the last ten days...[M]et an old woman half dead from pellegra [a skin disease caused by malnutrition], stumbling along on bare, gnarled old feet, begging for food."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to find a way to help the American people. In 1933, he created a relief program known as the New Deal. Two years later, he expanded the New Deal by adding the Works Progress Administration, which was renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939. The goals of the WPA were twofold: to put people to work and to promote social and cultural awareness with art, theater, and literature.

Many of the original New Deal programs required heavy manual labor. WPA workers built hundreds of schools, health clinics, roads, park facilities, and community centers. Much of what we now call our "infrastructure "--highways, buildings, power plants, etc.--is here thanks to thousands of WPA workers. Most of those projects were considered "men's work," and even though today it is not unusual for women to work in these jobs, in the 1930s it was considered unseemly.

By 1935, however, with so many women heading households and ending up on the relief rolls, it was clear that employment for them was essential. Thus a concerted effort was made to create jobs to put women to work and take them off the dole. The new jobs included work in health services, school lunch programs, sewing projects, and libraries.

It was during the time of the WPA that many areas of the country, particularly poor rural areas, received free public library service for the very first time. In Mississippi and Louisiana, book service in some areas was provided by librarians who delivered books on small flatboats that they navigated with poles through the marshy bayous and backwaters.

But it was eastern Kentucky's Pack Horse Library that proved to be the most innovative of all.

Down Cut Shin Creek. Copyright � by Kathi Appelt. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Kathi Appelt is the award-winning author of many children's books, including Bat Jamboree, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, and Incredible Me!, illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Ms. Appelt teaches creative writing to both children and adults and lives in College Station, Texas.

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