Photo by Dawn Gaddis on Unsplash

A history of the mountain folk that no one has told you about.

The Appalachian Mountains has always been a harsh, poverty-sickened environment, as we have all seen from articles about the infamous “Mountain Dew Mouth” and endless accounts of meth, crime, and murder hidden in the rolling mountains.

We forget they are people. We see them as idiotic hillbillies with their missing teeth and cigarettes and dreams no higher than the mines their fathers work in; but, in reality, they’re a society, they have communities closer than families, and they have traditions and culture of their own.

My favorite little tidbit about their culture is the Pack Horse Library program, a project by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) that began in the 1930s to distribute reading material to those who lived in the rural areas of eastern Kentucky. The mountain people who lived there didn’t have basic necessities like electricity, plumbing, access to water, and books were a thing of luxury; most couldn’t read, and most didn’t want to — there were more important things to do, after all, like feeding their families, maintaining their crops, working in the mines for hard-earned pay as deadly dust settles cancer into their lungs.

Until, the Pack Horse Library took root.

The carriers were mostly women, and they took their jobs as seriously as a mail carrier, often crossing through dangerous mountain territory in spring, summer, and winter. They used their own horses or mules, or even rented them, trusting their steeds to carry them through perilous mountain passes and frozen rivers

The mountain people were cautious at first, suspicious of outsiders and their strange books and newspapers, so the carriers would read passages of the Bible aloud to earn their trust — eventually, the mountain people welcomed the carriers into their homes with open arms.

It took time, but the mountain people took to reading so much that over three thousand books were circulated through Kentucky a month, books donated from local libraries and good samaritans — even from all around the nation.

They were starved for the knowledge that they had been deprived of for so long, and the children ate up whatever books the carriers could give them — illustrated books were particularly popular due to the fact that most adults were illiterate, and the colorful pictures could be enjoyed by all.

Franklin Roosevelt eventually canceled the program in 1943 because war efforts produced more jobs and the WPA slowly faded away into history. It became the sad end of horse-delivered libraries, but it certainly wasn’t the end of the mountain people and their beloved books.

Motorized libraries became even more and more common, and to this day, Kentucky has more moving libraries than anywhere else in the nation, proving that the mountain people of the Appalachians have a thirst for knowledge that goes unparalleled in the fifty states.

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