The pool of water loomed in front
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The pool of water loomed in front of Virginia Young like a great yellow lake in the middle of the dirt road and she hit the brake pedal of the Ford Model A sedan. While not normally afraid of mud holes, Virginia was apprehensive about this one. She feared becoming high-centered. A team of stout mules could pull her from the mire of most puddles, but getting the car high-centered in one would require time she did not have. She was already running late. She shut off the engine and opened the door. This hole would need to be checked out. With the crude hiking staff she always carried, she probed the depths of the ruts that she suspected lay just below the surface. If they were lower than the undercarriage of the Model A, she would have to find some way to go around them.
Virginia Young had a job to do and little time to spare doing it. In the backseat of the Model A were the tools of her trade. Back issues of Good Housekeeping, Progressive Farmer, and Reader’s Digest lay scattered on the seat, while copies of the works of Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and F.Scott Fitzgerald were stacked on the floorboards. Worn copies of the King James Version of the Holy Bible occupied a place of honor on the seat beside her. She had carried these, and more, from the courthouse that morning. Her task was to distribute them to a woman who would, in turn, stuff as many as she could into saddle bags and deliver them, by horseback, to families living far beyond the reach of modern transportation and who, otherwise, would not be afforded the opportunity to avail themselves of the benefits of a public library. Virginia and her comrade were members of the McCreary County Packhorse Library. To the men, women, and children who lived in the remotest parts of the county, they were known, simply, as the Book Women.
The concept of delivering books and magazines to Kentuckians living in the Appalachian region was birthed during the Great Depression when a local minister of the Gospel in Leslie County approached officials of the Works Progress Administration and asked for funding to distribute the books from his own personal library to his neighbors in remote parts of his county. Officials in the WPA thought it was a great proposal and bought into the idea. The concept spread and by 1936, eight pack horse libraries were in operation in Eastern Kentucky. In 1938, one was organized in McCreary County with Mrs. Miles McDowell serving as supervisor. She was replaced a year later by Virginia Young.
In the McCreary County courthouse in Whitley City, a room was set aside to serve as headquarters for the library. There, anyone who wished to check out books or just linger for casual reading was welcomed. No funds existed, though, to purchase books and magazines for the library. Reading materials had to be provided by private donations. The WPA did, however, agree to pay the salaries of people who would operate the library. These would consist of a Supervisor who would operate the library at the courthouse and deliver books and magazines to five additional employees who would maintain branch libraries in the remote portions of the county. There, either in their homes or in a school nearby, the books would be taken and catalogued. Patrons could check out the books for two weeks and renew them, if needed. When demand for a particular book ceased in the branch library, it would be returned to the main library in town. There, pencil marks would be erased, dog-eared pages would be smoothed, and rips and tears repaired with cellophane tape. If considered still usable, it would then be recycled to another branch library.
Setting up the Packhorse Library was one thing. Implementing it was something else. Only one all-weather road existed in McCreary County. U.S. Highway 27 was paved with crushed limestone that assured drivers of a dependable north-south thoroughfare. Away from it, drivers of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines were at the mercy of the elements. Erosion, rock slides, and the inevitable mud holes rendered travel on the dirt roads that intersected Highway 27 unpredictable, at best. Consequently, when the Packhorse Library became a reality, in addition to being able to read and keep accurate records, the ability to ride a horse became a requirement for employment. Only those who could mount a steed and control it over roads that were little more than paths in the forest were encouraged to apply for the job of librarian. Moreover, they had to provide their own horse or mule. For whatever reason, only young women seemed interested in the job.
The success of the Packhorse Library was evidenced by the reception it received from citizens of the county who lived far removed from the seat of government and from the industrial heart at Stearns. McCreary Countians had an insatiable desire for education and school attendance was high. Each day, teachers traveled to schools in coal camps that were scattered up and down the Big South Fork River and to crudely built structures outside the camps that served as schoolhouses. They introduced their charges to a broader outside world, taught them the fundamentals of arithmetic and penmanship, but, most importantly, they taught them how to read. However, once the children finished school, usually after the eighth grade, few opportunities for reading presented themselves. There were no libraries in the coal camps and none in the dark hollows where they lived. So, one can only imagine the reaction to news that a library had been set up at the schoolhouse in Jones Hollow or Otter Creek or Bear Wallow or Day Ridge.
The advent of World War II ended the Packhorse Library and a brief and fascinating period in the history of McCreary County came to a close. The names of most of the stalwart women who steered their horses throughout the back country to bring light to a people who lived in darkness have been forgotten. They go unsung and unremembered. Only moss-covered stones in isolated cemeteries remain to mark their ever having been here. But, their work lives on in the memories of people whose great-grandparents benefited from their noble service. It lives on, too, in the bookmobile that departs from the ultra-modern McCreary County Public Library each week to deliver knowledge and information to McCreary Countians who, for whatever reason, cannot make it into town.
For $28.00 a month, the women of the Packhorse Library braved the searing heat of summer and the chill of winter to bring reading materials to their neighbors. They forded creeks that, sometimes, wet the belly of their horse. When a horse panicked at the whir of a timber rattlesnake and threw them off, they got up, brushed the leaves and pine needles from their skirts, and remounted. Sometimes, they took books and magazines to families who could not come to a school house. Not infrequently did they sit before the flickering light of fireplaces and read aloud to them.
Virginia Young got back into her car, satisfied that she could make it across the mudhole without having to walk to a nearby farm and ask for help. She had a few more miles to go before the road ran out. Waiting for her at the end of the road was a sister librarian. There, where the road ended, they would exchange books and some brief conversation before Virginia had to make the long journey back to the courthouse. Virginia had no complaints about her job. The roads were bad and the Ford Model A was a rough riding vehicle, but it was more comfortable, by far, than the hard saddle her sister would be sitting on.