Babies in Saddlebags

Ann H Gabhart Ann's Posts, One Writer's Journal 10 Comments

Photo courtesy of the Frontier Nursing University Archives

“When mountain children asked where babies came from, they were told, ‘The nurses bring them in saddlebags.” (Frontier Nursing Service)

One of the good things about writing historical fiction is that the writer has the opportunity to learn more about the history of our country and can discover some individual real life heroes or heroines. When I was digging around in Kentucky history for a new idea a year or so ago, I found Mary Breckinridge’s autobiography Wide Neighborhoods. Then the more I read about the Frontier Nursing Service she founded in Leslie County, Kentucky, the more intrigued I was with this Appalachian story.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, many women in rural areas of the USA had little or no access to health care. Most women gave birth attended by family members or neighbors. Sometimes a self-trained midwife might be called upon to help.  The mortality rate was high for mothers and for babies and young children. One only has to walk through an older cemetery to see many graves for infants and toddlers and to look at family trees to note that men were often widowed and remarried, sometimes several times. Childbearing was a treacherous journey through a valley of death for many women. Mary Breckinridge was a remarkable woman who had a vision of changing all that by bringing professional healthcare to mothers and children in poor areas.

Photo courtesy of the Frontier Nursing University Archives

She chose the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky, one of the poorest and most isolated regions in the country, to establish her Frontier Nursing Service in 1925. She thought if she could prove the success of such a service there that others might copy the idea in other poverty stricken areas. She recruited midwives from overseas, mostly England, where she herself had gone to midwifery school, to come work for the Nursing Service in Leslie County, Kentucky. These nurse midwives not only helped deliver babies, they gave prenatal and follow up care for the infants. They also treated many other health problems of the families and gave vaccinations to the children to prevent illnesses. By May 1931, the Frontier Nursing Service had attended more than 7500 men, women and children, including 2000 babies and toddlers. The maternal mortality rate in Leslie County, Kentucky went from the highest in the country to well below the national average.

And they delivered a lot of babies. Whatever the weather, whatever the time of year or day, they saddled their horses and rode up into the mountains to the mothers’ homes whenever someone came for them. Occasionally, they would need to carry a baby back to the hospital in Hyden for some special care. When they did this, they sometimes stuffed the little fellows in their saddlebags to keep them safe along the trail. It didn’t take long for the story to go around to the children that the nurse midwives brought the babies in their saddlebags. Guess that was better than saying the stork brought them.

I was eager to let one of my characters get on one of those horses and be a nurse midwife. So, after a lot of reading and research, I wrote my Appalachian story and invited readers to journey there with me and live the story through Francine and Ben, Woody and Granny Em and more. I appreciate those of you who have already read the story and have shared kind comments about the book.

I had my first book signing for These Healing Hills here in my hometown yesterday morning. Tastefully Kentucky, a neat store in downtown Lawrenceburg, that features  great Kentucky food products, including fresh produce, some delicious chocolate, jams and jellies plus much much more including books by hometown people like me, hosted a breakfast party for my readers. It was great having people come to talk books with me in such a fun setting. You can see how the tables were decorated and the food was delicious. It’s been a while since any place in town carried my books for sale. Klink’s Drugstore used to years and years ago when I published books back in the 1980s. That was good then too, but now it’s fantastic to be able to tell local friends they can get my books right here in my hometown.

I did hear from all my winners of the Giveaway Celebration for These Healing Hills. All the winners chose my new book. So that’s fun. I’ll have to think up a new giveaway for here on my blog in a couple of weeks. I am doing guest things out on the internet including the Lone Star Literary Book Tour. They are giving away some nice prizes there too. So far they’ve posted some songs that are important to the story, a character interview (I think you’ll like learning more about Francine), and reviews with more to come. There’s going to be a post from me about mountain lingo, a scrapbooks of photos about the book and me, and an interview. So check it out and maybe you’ll be one of the winners.

As always, thanks for reading. And would you like to see some more archive photos of the Frontier Nursing Service and learn more about its history?

 

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Comments 10

  1. Paula

    Thanks Ann. I love hearing the background information about your book! I totally loved These Healing Hills! Looking forward to the next one!

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      Ann H Gabhart

      So glad you enjoyed my mountain story, Paula. The story has been getting good responses from readers. Of course, that makes me happy.

  2. Emily Shanahan

    Hi Ann! Yes, please! 🙂 I would be tickled purple to see archive photos and learn more about the history of the Frontier Nursing Service. 🙂

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      Ann H Gabhart

      Tickled purple? That must be even better than tickled pink, Emily. I’ll think about what else I can share. So many great pictures and stories about the FNS. Everything I read was a treasure trove of inspiration.

  3. Sharon Moore

    My husband, Fred and I, spend two weeks in October every year volunteering at Red Bird Christian School in Beverly, KY. We have been doing this several years and every year except one (rained out) we went to the Hyden, KY parade in honor of Mary Breckenridge. There is a wonderful bronze statue in Hyden of her; perhaps you have seen the statue. We ordered your book on Kindle, and have also ordered a hard copy that we will take to Red Bird, to show the children, and donate the book to the school library. By the way, we have met you twice…once in Kentucky at a festival with Bev Poyer, and the second time at the Memphis Quartet Show last year. I have been reading your blog for a couple of years now and always enjoy it. I don’t know if you would have heard, but Bev Poyer died this last April of liver cancer. She was a good friend and loved your books too. By the way I have met some ladies at Red Bird who had worked with this program in the horseback years.

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      Ann H Gabhart

      Great to hear from you, Sharon. No I didn’t know about Bev. So sorry to hear that. She was a good reading friend. Am I right that your husband was the one who sang an Elvis song in German for us in Memphis? I’m terrible with names, but I remember the fun of talking to you two.

      Interesting about your work with the Red Bird Christian School too. I did go to Wendover while I was researching for the book, but I missed seeing that statue and I had no idea they had a parade for Mary Breckinridge. I should try to go to that and see that statue too. I have, of course, seen pictures. Thanks for sharing with me and sharing my book too. That’s so very nice of you.

  4. Karen L Chaudoin

    I am a soon to retire nurse who looks lovingly back at my years as a mother/baby nurse remembering all of the nights of taking care of new littles and tired mothers who really just needed a few good nights sleep. I imagined and could see in the eyes of the mothers a thought that their baby was a little bit like an alien that they could never learn the language to connect with and how ever could they even just make sure their infant got nourishment to survive. I adored working with them and felt honored to be in the presence of the spirit of newness and preciousness. To do all of that with a horse and a dog would only have increased the total pleasure of this job. So yes, I would love to hear more stories from you Ann.
    With warm regards,
    Karen in NC

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      Ann H Gabhart

      That’s great to know, Karen. Thanks for telling me about your nursing background with babies. I love the way you describe a new mother’s feelings. We love those babies we’ve carried for nine months, but you’re right that we feel a little overwhelmed by the responsibility of their care at first. An experienced nurse to help is a blessing as I’m sure you’ve been to many moms and babies.

      I’ll be sharing more pictures of the FNS in the weeks ahead.

  5. Fran Foor

    The breakfast with you was wonderful. I came home and started reading your book. I am really engrossed. I love these kind of books with some of our great history included. You are a genius with words dear Ann. Thanks for everything, your the best. Will let you know soon about my book review. Have a great week and I hope your doggie is going to feel better soon.

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      Ann H Gabhart

      It was such fun to have you there, Fran, and so glad you brought your friends with you. I had fun seeing everybody and of course, talking. Sometimes you just can’t get me to shut up. 🙂 But I did let you all eat first! I hope you will enjoy the rest of the story when you get a chance to get back to the book. I did something I haven’t done in a long time yesterday and just sat and read for a while. Loved it.

      I appreciate your sweet thoughts about Oscar, but he’s not doing too well. I keep wondering if I’m doing him any favors by putting off the vet visit. But he still wags his tail and hobbles around somehow to take care of necessary functions. I’ll have to help him to shelter somehow before we start getting the hurricane rain.

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