There are times in our lives when we have the distinct choice to heed a call. Some of us eagerly raise our hands and step up to the line. Others are dragged in queue, offering excuse after excuse, but still trudging forward. And then there are those who never seem to hear even the slightest ringing of a bell, feel the breath of a suggestive whisper, or glimpse the faintest glimmer of light in the darkness.
Perhaps the latter should take a lesson from history, and the former two should be encouraged to realize how the work of today can help meet the needs of tomorrow.
Such was the case of Katherine Pettit. The words of the letter she heard in Frankfort on a fine June day stirred her heart as she gathered with scores of other like-minded women involved in the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs. The year was 1899.
“Cannot the State Federation send us a woman, a gentle, womanly woman, a dear old fashioned woman, young or old, who can win woman’s true rights in that conquest, that in itself is simply being a woman? What do I want of a woman? I want her a few weeks of the coming Summer to assist in the conduct of meetings of wives, mothers, housekeepers, young ladies and little girls. Lectures and lessons in cooking and home-making should be made particularly enthusiastic and then the intellectual and moral features can be made interesting.”
The letter had been penned earlier that spring by Perry County Presbyterian minister Rev. J.T. Mitchell. He had taken pen in hand to request help from the Traveling Library Committee, an outreach arm of the women’s clubs in Kentucky.
The call in the letter was just what Pettit had been yearning for after nearly five years. She had first visited Perry County in 1895, just after the dust had settled from one of the notorious mountain feuds. In the five years that followed that initial visit, Pettit made several trips back and forth into the Appalachian Mountains. With each trip, she felt a pull back to the valleys and the steeps, to give as much aid as she could to the people who lived their lives on the sides of this strange land. As a member of the Traveling Library Committee, Pettit procured donated books and helped to put them into eager hands. But the need of the mountain people was greater than they could find in the pages of a book alone.
It seemed as if the entire history of the Commonwealth had worked its way to this moment, to this calling of extraordinary women to do extraordinary things in the most ordinary of ways.
Bearing Kentucky’s Cross
Kentucky historian Thomas D. Clark once wrote that education was Kentucky’s cross to bear. Many who have studied the educational history here cannot help but agree with him. Kentucky had long been known as an agrarian society, with families working from “can ’til can’t.” Education, for the most part, was secondary to survival. This was perhaps most keenly felt in the rugged terrain and isolation of eastern Kentucky.
School years were relegated to three-month spans. Lessons often were taught by those with no formal teaching themselves, and schools usually served children through only the third grade—if the school was located within 3 miles of their home. Children often worked as hard and as long as the adults.
Despite advances such as the 1838 state law that established a common school system, the 1850 Kentucky Constitution that established a School Fund, and the 1896 compulsory attendance law, education in the Commonwealth suffered, as did the families, the communities and the state’s economy.
In his book, A History of Education in Kentucky, William E. Ellis outlined the state of education in 1900. By the turn of the century, only 36.3 percent of Kentucky’s eligible students attended school; white teachers were paid $34.10 per month on average and black teachers received $29.95; and more than 16 percent of all Kentuckians over the age of 10 were illiterate.
It was into this educational morass that Katherine Pettit raised her hand and stepped forward. Turns out, she wasn’t stepping forward alone.
Here Am I, Send Me
Pettit was raised in central Kentucky, the daughter of well-connected, middle-class parents. She was educated at the Sayre Female Institute and was socially, morally and civically minded. The acting chairwoman of the Traveling Library Committee, she was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and possessed an unusual spirit of activity in her mind, soul and body.
This activity equipped her for the task set before her. Just a few months after her heart was stirred by Mitchell’s plea for help, Pettit and three other women set off for a small grove of cedar trees just outside of Hazard. One of those women was May Stone.
Stone was the daughter of former Confederate officer and Louisville City Attorney Henry Stone. Her maternal grandfather founded a school in Montgomery, Kentucky in 1810, and her great-grandfather had fought in the American Revolution. Stone was educated at Wellesley College and was active in the Louisville chapter of the Federation of Women’s Clubs.
In her book Challenge and Change in Appalachia: The Story of Hindman Settlement School, professor Jess Stoddart wrote that Pettit and Stone were “ … best characterized as opposites who combined to form a great team.”
According to Stoddart’s book, while Pettit was known as a “living dynamo,” full of vim and vigor and adoration of the outdoors, Stone was known as “the ladyest” of the duo, who lived her great faith and proved to be gifted with administration.
Both women filled unique roles that late summer of 1899 and set in motion a course that would change the lives of Appalachian folks forever. For that summer and the next two summers, Stone and Pettit established summer camps, ranging from six to 10 weeks. The first camp, Camp Cedar Grove, was near Hazard. The second camp in 1900 was dubbed Camp Industrial and was located up the mountain from the banks of Troublesome Creek in Hindman in Knott County. It was during this camp that Pettit began collecting the ballads of the mountain people. The next summer, in 1901, the women moved their summer camp to Sassafras at the invitation of local residents Mary and Simon Stacy.
During these summer camps, the women, under the sponsorship of the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs, set up tents in which to live and teach for several weeks. Instead of blazing into an area, tearing down the culture that already existed and replacing it with the “flat-lander’s” idea of a correct culture, Stone and Pettit desired to learn what they could from the eastern Kentucky residents and to teach as much as they knew in return.
Pettit and Stone brought practical resources, like the recipes for “light bread” (bread cooked with leavening), which could be used as a substitute for the region’s customary cornbread. They shared different ways to cook vegetables to help vary the diet of the region. Pettit handed out various flower and vegetable seeds, and saw to it that families knew how to plant and harvest their rewards. They also taught women new sewing methods and distributed temperance materials and books and periodicals at every house they visited. They taught young mothers how to bathe their children to keep sores and fleas at bay, and learned how to weave to keep the heritage of the art alive.
Certainly, at the beginning of their camp experiences, Pettit and Stone were shocked on several occasions at the living conditions and the traditions of the area. Instead of finding sturdy mountaineers, in many cases they often found families who were in poor health and lacked the resources and education they needed.
Pettit and Stone brought something else with them the Appalachian people lacked: they knew what the advances of the Industrial Revolution could do to a society that was not prepared. By the end of the Camp Industrial summer in 1900, Pettit and Stone had heard the call to even more work with the mountain people they had come to love and respect. That work would manifest itself in a permanent social settlement school.
“To live among the people, in as near a model home as we can get, to show them by example the advantages of cleanliness, neatness, order, study along both literary and industrial lines, and to inspire them to use pure language and to lead pure, Christian lives; these should be our efforts, if we wish to elevate and uplift them; and they stand ready, willing and waiting to do their part, if we do ours.” Pettit penned these words, which Stoddart has captured in another book, The Quare Women’s Journals.
Filled with desire to help and offer hope, Pettit and Stone embarked on another journey, this time under the sponsorship of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1902, after much research and work, Hindman Settlement School became a reality.
The Good That Still Lives
In Pettit’s journal from Camp Cedar Grove, she writes of one man’s response to their work: “You don’t know what your being with us has done for us, and you may never know. But after a long while, when you may have forgotten you have ever been here, we will not forget and the good you have done will live with us,” Pettit recorded.
The good the women accomplished through Hindman Settlement School included introduction of a kindergarten for the youngest students, which helped children discover how to learn through play. It offered boarding rooms for students who lived too far to walk every day. Hindman became the local high school and in later years would become the hub for the best place to help dyslexic students.
Another addition was teaching local folks how to garden well, how to prepare and store the food they harvested, and how to do more than just survive on what they had. Industrial arts was added to the curriculum, helping folks learn new methods of woodworking and construction. To preserve the rich heritage the mountain folk already had, Pettit and Stone introduced the Fireside Industries that showcased local artists and craftspeople and gave the families in the region another means to supplement their income.
During the early years, Pettit and Stone brought traveling nurses and some physicians into the area. This helped to eradicate trachoma, an eye infection that caused partial or full blindness, a condition rampant in the mountains. They also helped to educate residents on how infectious diseases were spread and how to prevent infecting others.
In 1913, Pettit heeded yet another call, this time from William Creech Sr. of Pine Mountain. Creech recruited Pettit to establish a settlement school there, while Stone remained at Hindman to continue their mission.
Over the decades, culture, people and needs have changed, and both Hindman and Pine Mountain in Harlan County have changed to accommodate those needs, but perhaps this is in keeping with the original design of Pettit and Stone more than 100 years ago.
History, like beauty, often is in the eye of the beholder. What one person deems a worthy cause can sometimes be the bane of another. But Stoddart, in The Quare Women’s Journals, combines the history and the heart of the place that many have learned to call home and presents a fine sum of the two in the epilogue: “To the end, Katherine Pettit and May Stone remained practical idealists. They poured out ‘social love’ to the Kentucky mountaineers … Both Hindman and Pine Mountain endure although in very different forms from their early twentieth-century precursors. Neither Pettit nor Stone would be disappointed with this … The remark of that local citizen long ago during the first, Cedar Grove summer that, ‘the good you have done will live with us’ remains a reality today.”