The bulk of WPA jobs were concentrated in its vast array of building projects that employed men of varying skill levels. But women, too, headed families or needed to support themselves. In fact, they had constituted 22 percent of the workforce in 1930, a percentage so far not attained under any of the New Deal work-relief programs, so the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects under Ellen Woodward was constantly struggling to create new opportunities. Library services fell within this division, and librarians saw that WPA job slots could help them reach out to readers.
Getting books to people in the countryside had always been a challenge. Most of the nation’s rural counties had no libraries. A few had lending agreements with city libraries, but these provided mostly hand-me-downs, tattered books and dog-eared magazines that were severely out of date by the time they finished circulating among their primary customers. State and local governments that had never had much incentive to spend money on libraries in the first place had even less with the depression sapping their ability to pay teachers, provide relief, or on occasion even keep their citizens from starving.
Kentucky was among the states that had scrimped on library services. Sixty of its 120 counties had no public libraries, and the state spent an average of 10 cents per capita on library-related activities, versus 30 cents nationally. When the depression hit, librarians struggled in vain to supply books to schools, but elementary schools on average had only one book for every two children. In 1931 and 1932, counties statewide spent a mere 2 cents per pupil for books on average, and twenty-four poorer counties spent no money at all. Most of these counties were in eastern Kentucky, a region of few roads, inaccessible terrain, scattered pockets of isolated people, and the occasional school that could not be reached except on foot or horseback.
These conditions were mirrored in other rural areas around the country. Creative librarians soon saw that with the WPA, they could hire a new breed of outreach workers—women and men who would carry books into the rural outbacks using horses, mules, and rowboats. These came to be called packhorse libraries, rough-rider cousins of the recently invented bookmobile.
The idea of sending book-toting librarians into remote areas on horseback preceded the depression in Kentucky. Eastern Kentucky coal baron John C. C. Mayo, who made a fortune selling mineral rights in the Big Sandy coal fields at the turn of the century, had funded a mounted library in his adopted hometown of Paintsville, in Johnson County, in 1913. But when he died of kidney failure a year later, the librarian who had conceived the plan was left without a sponsor. Elizabeth Fullerton, the state administrator for women’s projects under FERA, knew the history of the Paintsville library. In 1934, when a clergyman in Leslie County offered to share the books at his community center if they could be carried into rural areas, Fullerton found room in her budget to hire carriers, and the packhorse library was back in business. The word spread to nearby counties, and when the WPA took over work relief the following year, county school boards and parent-teacher associations pressed their local WPA administrators to expand the program. At the heart of the effort was the Kentucky Congress of Parents and Teachers, and its chair of library service, Lena Nofcier.
A notice that jobs were available for book carriers went up in the WPA office in the Lee County seat, Beattyville, early in 1936, about the time that a tall, black-haired mother of two, Grace Overbee, was considering how to subsist.
Grace wasn’t slowly starving on a diet of soup made from wild thistles, as some desperate rural families were, but she was beginning to run out of options for her family. She had married her husband, Taylor Overbee, when she was just sixteen; their son, Richard, had come along on schedule nine months later, his birth coinciding more or less with the start of the depression. Now the boy was six, his sister, Elizabeth, three, and Taylor Overbee was gone, kicked out by Grace after he sold her frying chickens to buy whiskey.
When that happened, Grace and the children moved back to her parents’ house. Martin and Drusha Caudill’s farm, near the spectacular plunge in Brush Creek called Canyon Falls, had a bumper crop of gorgeous views, but its twenty-five acres were almost too steep to plow. The farm put food on the table but no money in the till for flour, kerosene to light the lamps, and other necessities. Grace kept a garden and worked where she could. The oldest of nine children, she had helped raise her younger siblings from the time she was seven, so work was nothing new. Lee County was home to a few productive and relatively prosperous bottom farmers and other folks with steady incomes: teachers, Spanish-American War pensioners, and wounded world war veterans who received disability payments. She would weed their gardens and clean for them and come home with a few coins and a bundle of old clothes. Sometimes she would pick corn all day long in exchange for a bushel of her own to feed the milk cow. Still, there were things the children needed that barter, hard labor, and gardening were unable to provide, but she resisted applying for relief until she heard the news that the WPA had jobs to offer.
Grace borrowed the mule her father used for plowing to make the ten-mile trek to town. Beattyville nestled on the north bank of a river bend where the North and South Forks of the Kentucky River came together. When she found the WPA’s downtown storefront, she was disappointed to see that most of the job postings were for men. The WPA was paving and graveling and building in the county, turning rutted tracks and stream fords into roads and bridges that a car or truck could use year-round. Then she saw a notice for a position that wasn’t just for men. The job was delivering books to remote schools and individual families scattered about the mountain coves and hollows beyond the reach of roads. It paid about $7.50 a week. She snatched the notice off the wall and went to a desk inside the office.
The clerk at the desk was not someone she knew, but it still killed her to sign the paper admitting that she was a pauper eligible for relief. But once she swore to that and the fact that she was the head of her household, the job was hers.
On her first day, she hitchhiked to town to collect her supply of books and magazines from the Beattyville storefront the county school board was using as a library. She took about a dozen books and several magazines, enough to fill a saddlebag. Since her father was unable to spare the mule from its daily farm work, she walked her route, carrying her saddlebag of books slung over a shoulder. She had been assigned to service three schools, plus a few families along the way. Monica, the closest school, was just two miles from home. Primrose and Oliver were farther. Sometimes she hitchhiked and caught rides, but even then the road didn’t go as far as she was going, so she still walked most of the distance.
Once she received her first paycheck, life got easier. She and the children moved back to the two-room cabin, half a mile from her parents, where they had lived before she booted Taylor out. A neighbor owned a big black horse he was willing to rent for 50 cents a week plus feed. The horse’s name was Bill, and he doubled her book-carrying capacity. In addition to the schools, her circuit took in the tiny communities of Bear Creek, Brush Creek, Wide Creek, Burton Bend, and Tallega, each consisting of just a few families, and several isolated farmsteads.
The days she rode out started with her dressing in her side of the cabin by the light of the kerosene lamp. What she wore depended on the weather, but she always wore pants and riding boots. It was still dark when she roused the children, and while they got dressed she saddled Bill in the barn and slung the saddlebags over his flanks, then led him to the cabin and mounted before she pulled Richard and Elizabeth aboard, one in front of her, one in back, so she could drop them at her mother’s before starting on her rounds.
Her route was too long to cover in one day, so she split it into several sections. The only requirement she gave herself was to hit every house and school at least once every two weeks to trade fresh books and magazines for old ones. Once a month, she rode to Beattyville to meet the other traveling librarians and swap materials; what was old to her readers would be new to those on other routes. These trips often intersected with WPA road crews clearing ditches or crushing gravel to spread across the muddy tracks. The men welcomed distractions from their work, especially a young and pretty woman, and they always paused to wave and shout greetings. She took these as the compliments they were, and also as a form of camaraderie: We’re all in this together, working for the WPA. Sometimes her father, Martin, was one of the men waving, since he had qualified for the WPA in order to raise cash by working with the road crews.
The terrain she traveled was tough and her rides harrowing. One stretch followed cliffside trails so narrow she had to lead the horse rather than ride him, where one misstep would take them off the edge. They forded creeks that swelled up with rain until the water reached the bottom of her saddlebags. Winter was the worst; snow obscured the trails, ice made footing treacherous, and more than once, trying to dismount at her destination, she found she couldn’t move because her boots were frozen to the stirrups. There was a human factor, too. Moonshiners who plied their trade in the Kentucky hills were jealous of their territory and wary of intruders, and when she encountered signs that warned travelers in no uncertain terms to stay away, she obeyed them.
Grace was not much of a reader herself. She had gone through the fifth grade before dropping out to help her parents, and after that she had never had the time. Being honest, she would say she did not feel the call of books and words, although on the days between her travels she often browsed through the materials she had ready for delivery. Being a packhorse librarian was a job in her eyes, not a mission, but what amused and touched her most, as she recalled it years later, was that she was welcomed like a queen practically everywhere she went. Her job had status, which she had not anticipated at the start. She felt necessary, like a person delivering the mail.
So eagerly was she received that she came to feel that the people all along her route were starved for experiences outside their own. Books gave them this, apparently, and almost any book would do. The children loved adventure stories. They doted on the tale of the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe and the strange predicament of Lemuel Gulliver, as generations of children had before them. Her own son, Richard, was held in thrall by a book called Bears of Blue River, especially the section where its boy heroes were fishing on a log when they found themselves trapped by a bear, and cleverly decided to throw their fish at it so they could scramble off the log to safety. They also liked reading and reciting poetry. She noted that the adults tended to like history, especially accounts of the Civil War and the world war. Farmers wanted books and magazines on crop improvement, their wives information on their health and their children’s. Some—not many—would read penny dreadfuls or romantic novels, but as an anonymous report covering all the Kentucky packhorse programs lamented, “It has been discovered that novels in general will not be read.” Nonetheless, Grace found that all her clients eagerly took whatever books she had on hand, and were just as eager to exchange them for new ones on her next visit. Those who could not read looked forward to her visits, too; instead of books they took magazines and catalogues for the pictures of places they had never been, things they’d never seen, goods they might have seen but never owned. And some who lived all alone in the remote hills wanted nothing more than the sight and sound of another human being.
She saw the worst effects of the depression on her routes: gaunt children, men lost inside their overalls, women whose threadbare dresses could not possibly keep out the cold. There were rumors of starvation; a member of the Tolson family died, and people said he hadn’t gotten enough to eat. The Deaton family, too. Neither family was on her route, but at one farm she visited, where it was clear the children barely had sufficient food, the woman of the house always insisted that she stay for dinner. She felt as though she was taking food from the children’s mouths; before the WPA put her to work there were many nights when her own children had eaten nothing but cornbread and milk. But the proud family insisted on its hospitality.
The best days brought her to the schools on her circuit. Grace’s friend Carlie Lynch taught forty-five children at the one-room school at Monica, where Richard started in the fall of 1936. Grace knew that when she and Bill approached the school, the children would hear the horse’s hooves and rush outside to greet her. Sunshine, rain, or snow, when she came around the last bend in the trail they would be gathered in the yard, calling out: “Book lady’s comin’! Book lady’s comin’!”
The WPA’s Division of Women’s and Professional Projects eventually deployed 107 packhorse librarians across eastern Kentucky—96 women and 11 men—reaching into more than fifty counties. But even in 1936, when the program was still limited to Lee and nine other counties, they delivered 33,000 books and magazines to 57,000 families. Over time, their collections of books and magazines improved as news of the roving librarians reached cities such as Boston and Chicago, accelerating donations, and the Kentucky Congress of Parents and Teachers campaigned for pennies to buy books. Meanwhile, volunteers mustered by local parent-teacher associations attracted more gifts of reading matter, from books and magazines to catalogues and recipes.
WPA traveling libraries, using horses, mules, cars, and boats, were also deployed in rural Ohio, in rural counties of Georgia, South Carolina, and most other southern states, and in each of the eighty-two counties of Mississippi, where 1,240 WPA workers distributed 168,000 books. And everywhere there was a library struggling to reach readers, there were WPA book repairers working with old cloth, razor blades, cardboard, glue, and sewing awls to bring worn and damaged books back to useful life, allowing meager budgets for new books to stretch further. As the concept spread, WPA library services set up distribution points in schools and remote stations in Kansas, Iowa, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Montana, Vermont, Maine, and Pennsylvania. These were welcome additions, of course, but they lacked the personal touch the packhorse libraries provided; they used the U.S. mail to deliver books to individuals.