Meet Tansy Calhoun from Ann Gabhart’s Along a Storied Trail

Welcome to Novel PASTimes! We are pleased you stopped by today.

I’m very glad to be here. Mrs. Weston, our head librarian, said you were interested in learning more about our packhorse library. So what would you like to know? 

We do want to know more about the packhorse library, but first tell us something about yourself so we can get to know you. 

All right. My name is Tansy Faith Calhoun. I live up in the hills in Owsley County, Kentucky. I’m one of six children. One sister is older than me and one sister, much younger. The others are boys, all younger than me. Sadly, one of my little brothers died of a fever a few years ago. 

I’m already twenty years old with no suitors knocking on my door. Most of the people around think I might end up a crotchety old spinster like Aunt Perdie who lives a couple of hills over from us. Girls get married young up here in the hills, but I figure I still have a few years to go before I have to admit to being an old maid. Meanwhile, I can enjoy being a book woman.     

Book woman? Is that what people call the packhorse librarians? 

They do, and I love it. I’ve loved books forever, but books are a luxury for most families like mine up here in the Eastern Kentucky Appalachian Mountains. Of course, we have the Bible, but books just for reading pleasure were few and far between before the packhorse library project. I did read every book I could get my hands on, sometimes three or four times. Pa says reading those stories turned my head and has me thinking above myself. He might have a different opinion about my love of books if he could see me now as one of the book women. 

Doesn’t your father know you’re a packhorse librarian?

No, I got the job after the mine where Pa worked closed down and he took off for the flatlands to find work. We haven’t heard from him since. Things got hard around our farm what with no money coming in and how last summer’s hot, dry months parched our cornfield and sass patch or garden. We didn’t have enough corn and beans to last through the winter. We thought we’d have to go on the dole but then I got hired on as a packhorse librarian. President Roosevelt–or some say it was Mrs. Roosevelt’s idea–came up with a way to put some of us women in the mountains to work and get books to folks up here that never had a way to have books before. I love my job of carrying books out to people on my book routes.

This program, the packhorse library, sounds fabulous. Tell us more about it.

I’m sure you already know about all President Roosevelt has been doing to put people back to work during this depression time in our country when so many can’t find jobs. The government came up with all sorts of programs. Men work at constructing schools, bridges, roads and more. Women do sewing projects. Young men joined up with the Civilian Conservation Corps. The government even started programs for out of work artists, writers and other creative people. 

But one of the best ideas for us around here is the packhorse libraries. We’d never had a library like some of the bigger towns and even if we did, most of the people wouldn’t have much way of getting to it. That’s why the program came up with a way to take the books to the people instead of making them come get them. A truck to deliver the books might sound better than packhorses, but here in Eastern Kentucky our roads are often creek beds running up the side of a mountain. Most people go by horse, mule or shankmare. That’s mountain talk for on foot. So we take the library to the people by loading our saddlebags of books on our horses or mules and riding miles along some rough trails up into the hills. The government pays the packhorse librarians, but doesn’t supply any books. We had to come up with a central location and the books to circulate.

You can’t have a library without books. So how did you fill your shelves? 

People in the community donated some books but most of our books come from a central location in London, Kentucky that oversees women’s work programs. Once the news got out that we needed books for our packhorse libraries, donations started coming in from all over the country. Those who head up the program divvy them up and send them out to the different packhorse libraries here in Eastern Kentucky. Some of the books and magazines we get are throwaways from city libraries. We don’t care if what they send is in bad shape. We work to piece them back together and tape up the binding. If the magazines are too tattered and torn to circulate, we cut out pictures from them to paste on thick paper. Then we print out something about the pictures or maybe poems to make books to loan out to our people. We even make book from recipes or quilt patterns our readers share with us. Those are popular loaners. 

You sound very creative. Have you written any stories yourself?

I don’t know if a mountain girl like me could know enough to write a book, but it is an idea that pokes at me sometimes. I did come up with some stories for kids that I made into books to share with our young readers. And I wrote down a Jack story that Aunt Perdie told us. A Jack story is a story passed down through families here in the mountains. As Aunt Perdie says, there’s no right or wrong way to tell a Jack story.    

That’s twice you’ve mentioned this Aunt Perdie. Is she your favorite aunt?

She’s not really my aunt, but she is a relative. My father’s second cousin. That’s still family and in the mountains we take care of family. So, when she needed help, we had to be the ones to give that help. But I can’t say she’s a favorite of any of us. Well, except Coralee, but that’s another whole story. Aunt Perdie is as contrary as sore-footed mule and seems especially prone to pointing out ways I could do better. Could be sometimes she’s right, but that doesn’t make her any easier to get along with.   

What do you expect the future will hold for you?

More rough trails to ride as a book woman. More books to read myself. More family to love. More mountain air to breathe, and maybe someday, love to grab hold of. 

That sounds good, Tansy. But before you have to go, tell us what you’ve learned while riding those rough trails as a packhorse librarian?

Oh, so many things. I’ve had the chance to have many more books in my hands and time to read more than a few of them. I’ve gotten to know my neighbors better and found out that even those who aren’t good at reading still like getting those magazines and books. Sometimes they simply enjoy the pictures in the magazines or they get their children or grandchildren to read to them. I do some reading aloud to people on my route when time permits. I never let weather stop me no matter how bad it is, because I know people are waiting to get those books to bring some light into their hard lives. But I’ve also learned books don’t hold all the answers. Some things you have to figure out on your own such as how the people nearest you can be the dearest. While books and stories are fine, the people you love are what make life blessed. 

Thanks for allowing us to get know you a little better and about the packhorse libraries!

Thank you for inviting me over. Now I’d better go pack up my saddlebags and get ready to head out on the trial to share some storiesThe people will be watching for their book woman to show up.


Ann H. Gabhart is the bestselling author of several Shaker novels—The Refuge,
The Outsider, The Believer, The Seeker, The Blessed, and The Gifted—as well as
other historical novels, including Angel Sister, These Healing Hills, River to
Redemption, and An Appalachian Summer. She and her husband live on a farm a
mile from where she was born in rural Kentucky. Ann enjoys discovering the
everyday wonders of nature while hiking in her farm’s fields and woods with her
grandchildren and her dogs, Frankie and Marley. Learn more at www.annhgabhart.com

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