Pine Mountain Settlement School
Books and Horses

Pine Mountain Settlement student Ruth Shuler on horseback, delivering books as part of the Co-op library program. c. 1941. garner_006 (120)


In 1941 the Co-op Program was a well-tested and central part of the educational curriculum at Pine Mountain Settlement School. As an important part of the progressive curriculum, it was a community outreach program that included many aspects of the popular WPA librarians on horseback or packhorse librarians initiative.

In addition to bringing books and magazines to the surrounding Community, the Pine Mountain Settlement program also checked on the health and well-being of the families it served. Many of the visits were in countrysides so rugged that the only means of reaching the home was to travel along streambeds or over roadless mountains. Horses and mules were the only viable transportation. The visits of the Co-op students and often their staff monitors were eagerly anticipated in the homes and they opened the way for families to connect to the Pine Mountain Settlement School and for the School to expand its services.

While the program was conceived under the direction of Glyn Morris, the young Settlement School Director, it was not implemented until the mid-1930s and ended in 1949.  While not unique in the many mountain programs of Librarians on Horsebackt, it touched the lives of many children and their families. While established for very pragmatic and often life support reasons, the idea of young women on horseback traveling through difficult mountain terrain, in the rain, sleet, and snow also had a romantic over-tone.

Perhaps it is the romantic notion of a young girl and her horse facing the world together that appealed. In older generations, the story of Black Beauty still lingers with romantic nostalgia. Perhaps it is the Kentucky horse ambiance. Whatever the inspiration, the stories surrounding the workers and “librarians” who participated in the packhorse program have, in recent years, begun to proliferate. The reasons for the recent uptick in interest in the WPA Librarians on Horseback are many. But, the message, one of service, sacrifice, selflessness, and literacy is important to any generation.

The many selfless hours spent doing community work by women while dependent on the courage and coordination of a horse has far more practical lessons than many contemporary children’s book themes. Further, getting lost in the imagination while on the pages of a book seems far more productive than the passive clicking on electronic media.

A new book has just been published by Little Bee Books, written by noted children’s author Emma Carlson Berne, and illustrated by Ilaria Urbinati. It fires up the book imagination. What is so very special about this delightful book is that it is written for and about special children and is based on conversations with people from the Pine Mountain Settlement School and its Valley in Eastern Kentucky.

The book, contains a very accessible tale of Edith, the “Librarian” who sets off to deliver books while riding Dan, her trusted horse. As the story gallops along, it is sprinkled with local references such as pawpaw pudding, mountain springs, an unexpected thunderstorm, and even a familiar mountain family name, “Caudill.”

The second delight is in the beautiful illustrations by Italian artist Ilaria Urbinati. Ilaria, who lives in Turin on the northern mountainous edge of Italy, has captured the dual nature of mountain living with its beauty and its danger. Her images nearly gallop off the page with energy that competently matches the animated narrative. While Edith looks a bit like a modern Pippi Longstockings, the artist has captured the energy of horseback riding and of the narrative that tells of the many obstacles that the riders often faced in delivering their “libraries.”

Edith, the librarian in her book, as Berne explains in her Author’s Note, is not the typical urban librarian that families may know in their urban settings. She is a very special librarian, but one that historically existed in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Edith, like the other “librarians” that were often called “Packhorse Librarians” in the WPA era, was special. In the Appalachian region, young girls were often hired from the local community to fill the librarian role. They knew the mountains, the weather, the dangers that come with the rugged countryside, and the lives of the isolated families.

In her notes, Emma Berne places the story within the growing genre of Packhorse Librarians in the Appalachians, but she captures both the intimate nature of the program as well as the bravery of these mountain “librarians.” She describes how her local interviews and personal background helped her to shape her story. What she offers up is an inspiring and beautifully illustrated tale that will capture the imagination of young children of both genders and also enchant the parent reader.

Pine Mountain thanks Emma for her interest in the Settlement School and for the inclusion of interviews in the region while developing her book. This book is highly recommended for all libraries. While other reviewers have pointed out that the book is “White”, suggesting that it was purposeful in excluding people of color, they have most likely not traveled in the most remote regions of Appalachia. It is a book that gives dignity to all peoples and which is independent of race, ethnicity, and class.


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About Ann Eberhardt

Member, Pine Mountain Settlement School Board of Trustees 2008 - 2013, and currently living in Phoenix, AZ. Ann's mother, Susie (Hall) Angel was a PMSS boarding school student, graduating from the high school in 1934. During that time, Ann's father, August Angel, was a PMSS teacher of science and printing,1933-1937 and 1940-1942. In June 1936 they were married in the Chapel. Ann was a toddler on the campus in 1940-1943, while her mother worked as a housemother, her father continued to teach, and her brother, Michael Angel was born in the Infirmary. In later years, August owned a printing business, Graphic Arts Press in Viper, KY, and often provided printing for the school. During the 1990s, August was treasurer of the PMSS Alumni Association.