Frontier Nursing Stories

Ann H Gabhart Ann's Posts, One Writer's Journal 7 Comments

Photo courtesy of the Frontier Nursing University archives


Photo courtesy of the Frontier Nursing University Archives

Last time I wrote about the all important saddlebags the Frontier nurse midwives carried, but the horses they slung those saddlebags over were as necessary as air to the nurses as they rode up into the mountains to deliver babies and treat the mountain people.

When Mary Breckinridge or her representatives went out to recruit people, they looked for women who were already nurses and for women who knew how to sit a horse. Most of the nurses did, but sometimes a new woman would come in who had little or no experience with horses. Then the couriers, the volunteers who helped the nurse midwives, would give riding lessons.

Even when the new recruits thought they knew how to ride, they may not have expected the riding conditions they found in the mountains where they had to ford rivers and streams and sometimes hang on while the horse swam during times of floods. They didn’t expect steep mountain trails often slippery with snow or ice. One new nurse midwife told of following another midwife up a dark mountain trail to assist with a birth and the only way she knew where to guide her horse was the occasional sparks the other horse’s shoes made against the rocks.

One of the nurses in 1926 was called out in the early morning for a case on Coon Creek six miles from Wendover. The nurse rode off into the gray dawn with the man who came to fetch her. Eight hours later her horse, Nellie Gray, came back with saddlebags dangling and riderless. But the nurse was okay in spite of being dragged off the road and surprisingly calm for a woman who said she died “a thousand deaths” in her early horse riding days in the mountains.

Another nurse, Hannah O’Driskell (Nancy) from Ireland was a rough and tumble girl who took everything in stride. She loved riding the more spirited horses and everything was an adventure for her. When she had appendicitis, she delayed getting treatment for her pain until the appendix had ruptured. Since there were no antibiotics at that time, the attack was fatal. Nancy was taken to Lexington for burial, but first they carried her body on a stretcher down the winding path from the hospital through the town of Hyden past hundreds of mountaineers solemnly standing along the route to bid her farewell. Her horse, Raven followed behind the stretcher, stirrups crossed over the empty saddle.

Can’t you just see that? These kind of true stories about the nurse midwives and their horses helped me bring my fictional people to life in my story.

Do you know how to ride a horse?

As always, thanks for reading. Come next Sunday, I might just start another mystery photo game. I think it’s about time I gave away some books, don’t you?

Comments 7

  1. Birdie

    I am really enjoying your book “These Healing Hills” about the Frontier Nurses. I just love the way you describe the mountains and all the nature that surrounds them. I have lived in the mountains for awhile in western North Carolina, so some of it sounds familiar to me. I wish you would write a sequel, so i can read more about Ben and Francine.


    I’m savoring Fran’s story as I finish Small Town Girl. The stories of the Frontier Nurses inspire courage and adventure as does Kate’s story. I think a trip to Wendover and a search for Mary Breckinridge’s autobiography is in order.
    I’ve also recently read The Outsider and The Believer. These stories trigger a desire to visit Berea and the surrounding area.
    Brice and Jay along with Gabrielle and Kate might be friends. Hannah reminds me of Fern’s free spirit.
    Your words often spark a desire to hear them read aloud. Weaving history with the stories of everyday people gives a sense of ownership.

    1. Post
      Ann H Gabhart

      Hi, Rebecca. So glad you are reading my Rosey Corner stories. I loved those Merritt sisters. I hadn’t thought about relationships between my characters, but I suppose I do sometimes give them a few similar characteristics. Hannah and Fern would definitely get along, in spite of the differences in age. Both of them were fun to get to know while I was writing their stories. I sometimes imagine Hannah on past the story in The Believer. I know she had some adventures.

      I really appreciate what you said about my words sparking a desire to hear them read aloud. That is a very nice compliment. Thank you so much.

  3. Marji Entler

    Thank you for sharing the wonderful pictures and information about the brave frontier nurses.
    You’ve done a wonderful job incorporating this reasearch into another award winning book!

    PS….I love horses, but, have not ridden one in many years.

    1. Post
      Ann H Gabhart

      I’m glad you’ve enjoyed delving into my research with me, Marji. I was so happy when the Frontier Nursing University said I could share some of their pictures here on my blog posts. Love all those historic pictures.

      I should learn to ride a horse if I’m going to writing about people riding horses, but I’ve only been on a horse a few times in my life.

  4. Ruby Henson

    Your book made the nurses come alive in real settings and among the real people. Our mountain people had hard lives and were very independent and one had to prove themselves for trust. Medicine was so new to them and doctors were few and far away. Bless the archives in D.C. for storing and archiving the pictures and stories of our frontier Midwife nurses. Blessings to you for sharing more with us.
    A transplan from Ky to CO

    1. Post
      Ann H Gabhart

      So glad you thought my people and the story came to life in my book, Ruby. I appreciate you saying that. Mountain people have historically had some hard times and still do, but those mountains touch something inside them that goes deep. With roads and access to conveniences, things are different than the time period of my story and before.

      I am blessed by all the wonderful pictures I found about the Frontier nurse midwives. It helped me dive into my story. You’ve gone from Kentucky mountains to Colorado mountains.

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