Why Debutantes Volunteered to Be Horse-Riding Couriers in Rural Kentucky

Between the 1920s and 1940s, wealthy young women signed up to run errands and carry messages for the Frontier Nursing Service, whose nurse-midwives provided care to patients in hard-to-reach areas

A courier cares for one of the FNS' horses
Couriers’ duties included fetching patients from cabins, weighing babies, delivering medicine, cleaning saddles and bridles, and escorting any guests who rode the routes between FNS outposts. Courtesy of Frontier Nursing University

“Debutante to Be Courier in Wilds of Kentucky Hills,” read a 1938 Baltimore Sun headline about a messenger for the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS), which dispatched horseback-riding nurse-midwives to patients in the state’s rural mountains. Reporters avidly covered the organization’s couriers—young women who volunteered to assist the equestrian health care providers by performing a wide range of tasks, including transporting messages. As a subject, the couriers held a certain appeal, calling up images of coddled daughters fleeing the dance floor to plunge through rushing creeks in aid of others. By offering up their time and talents to the FNS, these volunteers defied society’s expectations for privileged young women in the United States between approximately 1928 and 1947.

“Hundreds of young women popularly identified as members of the nation’s smart set are virtually tripping over one another these days to land hard jobs with no pay, … serving as all-around ‘errand boys’ in a tangled wilderness,” the Arizona Daily Star reported in 1932. As another journalist wrote in 1936, “Miss Mary Gordon, post-debutante daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Frank B. Gordon, of Ellsworth Ave., will soon discard silks and satins for gabardine riding breeches and sweaters. When she completes her role in the Junior League Follies this weekend, she will put away her dancing slippers and pack up her riding boots.” The contrast between the satin and gabardine (a durable wool), the slippers and boots, was heavily implied.

A 1932 newspaper article about the FNS couriers
A 1932 newspaper article about the FNS couriers Arizona Daily Star via Newspapers.com

Mary Breckinridge, a former socialite herself, founded the FNS in 1925 “to safeguard the lives and health of mothers and children by providing and preparing trained nurse-midwives for rural areas in Kentucky and elsewhere where there is inadequate medical service,” per the organization’s Articles of Incorporation. She was inspired in part by personal tragedy: Her daughter died six hours after birth, while her son died of an abdominal infection at age 4. “Breckinridge always believed that had she been nearer competent medical care, her son would have survived,” wrote former courier Nancy Dammann in a 1980 dissertation.

The FNS’s services included treatment at six remote outposts located 9 to 12 miles apart from each other, as well as house calls. Care was “practically free,” with the FNS charging families just $1 per year, according to Dammann.

As the FNS found its footing, Breckinridge realized that the organization needed logistical support. Initially, three teenage boys worked as volunteer transport helpers, caring for FNS’s horses and running errands for the nurse-midwives. Then, in 1928, Breckinridge’s cousin Marvin Breckinridge became the organization’s first female courier. She later created a silent film about FNS titled The Forgotten Frontier.

The Forgotten Frontier [Silent] (Frontier Nursing Service, Inc., 1931)

Over the next decade or so, Breckinridge drew couriers to Kentucky through talks that built awareness of and raised money for the FNS. Even first lady Eleanor Roosevelt donated to the cause. “In no time at all, Mrs. Breckinridge was listening to the pleadings of Junior Leaguers who saw in this rough mountain work something more exciting and useful than bridge and teas,” the Arizona Daily Star noted. “I do not want to sit around and just do nothing,” debutante Elizabeth D. Pagon, who planned to pursue social work as a career, told the Baltimore Sun.

In the early years of the FNS, the target audience for recruitment was “definitely that upper-class group of women that had solid English equestrian skills,” says Anne Z. Cockerham, a historian at Frontier Nursing University, a graduate school established by the FNS in 1939. “When you have this whole group saying, ‘I have seen [the FNS’s work] with my own eyes,’ that’s really powerful.”

Cockerham, who interviewed former couriers for her 2014 book, Unbridled Service: Growing Up and Giving Back as a Frontier Nursing Service Courier, 1928-2010, also highlights the innovative nature of Breckinridge’s system, in which volunteers’ families paid for their keep. Couriers publicized their experiences, encouraging their peers to serve. Melanie Beals Goan, a historian at the University of Kentucky and the author of the 2012 book Mary Breckinridge: The Frontier Nursing Service and Rural Health in Appalachia, notes that Breckinridge established publicity bureaus and committees in various cities, too.

Courier Susan Adams Bissell in 1932
Courier Susan Adams Bissell in 1932 Courtesy of Frontier Nursing University

The FNS’s founder emphasized that couriers would not be pampered in Kentucky. They had to be able to ride horseback. They also needed “a rural complex, fondness for horses, chickens, dogs and gardens,” Breckinridge told the Pittsburgh Press. In an essay for the Cincinnati Enquirer, she added that the courier experience was “wholesome, sportsmanlike and colorful.”

Applicants had to be 18 or older. During their first term, which lasted between six weeks and two months, volunteers were referred to as junior couriers. If they returned, they became senior couriers. Married women could not apply. At least one British courier served in the organization.

Some volunteers’ families were reluctant to let their daughters sign up for the service. “Young girls riding alone through the mountains. Unthinkable!” said Josephine Yandell Henning’s mother. To assuage her mother’s apprehension, Henning agreed to take her collie, Mocha, with her to Kentucky.

Courier Virginia Watson in 1939
Courier Virginia Watson in 1939 Courtesy of Frontier Nursing University

Upon arriving in the state by train, new couriers like Henning took a taxi to the mining town of Hurricane Creek, which was as far as a car could go. “Someone would meet you with a horse, [and] then you rode four miles down,” said courier Fredericka Holdship in a 1979 oral history. She remembered caring for six to eight horses at a time and carrying mail over unpredictable waterways on rounds that could take three to four days. “[The] trouble was fording the rivers,” she recalled.

Couriers’ duties included fetching patients from cabins, weighing babies, delivering medicine, cleaning saddles and bridles, and escorting any guests who rode the routes between FNS outposts. In the early years, “there was no way for nurses to send word back and forth from the cabins to the headquarters, so … taking messages was one of the main things that couriers did,” said volunteer Katherine Trowbridge Arpee in a 1978 oral history.

Volunteers also cared for the horses. Before coming to work, they might have known how to groom, saddle and bridle their mounts, but they likely didn’t know barn management or veterinary care. “And these horses were valuable assets, trained and skilled [at] navigating that terrain,” Cockerham says. “[For] these young women, that was a lot of responsibility, and there were stories of having to diagnose [the animals], flipping through veterinary books and trying to keep the horses alive.”

Henning recalled one night when she was sent to check on a nurse-midwife who had been gone for longer than 12 hours. “I can still feel the blackness of that night,” she wrote for the Courier-Journal in 1938, “without a star in the sky or a glimmer from the moon. We could not even see our horses’ heads in front of us. … The mountain horses are wonderfully sure-footed in the dark as well as the daylight.” In 1934, Cincinnatian Mary Elizabeth Rogan told her parents about riding “the most terrific descent I’ve ever experienced,” on a cold day when she’d already been lost for hours. “I think I must be getting pretty tough,” she wrote in a letter home.

Couriers could wear tape advertising their affiliation with the FNS on their sleeves, but this wasn’t usually necessary, as locals quickly started to recognize the horses and volunteers. “Taking patients from the clinic to their cabins was often a two days’ journey,” courier Mary MacCaughey told the Chicago Herald and Examiner in 1932. “Quite different from riding in the park on a bright morning!”

“They got to wear pants, they got to act independently,” says Goan. “And for sheltered young women, that’s a great experience—a defining experience, I would say, in their lives.”

FNS couriers crossing a river
FNS couriers crossing a river Courtesy of Frontier Nursing University

By the early 1930s, FNS had a long waiting list for courier postings. When one former courier gave birth to a baby girl, she signed her daughter up to serve in 1957.

“It was rustic, but they were sheltered,” says Cockerham. “It was one of those [situations that] sounds really cool but is actually pretty safe.” Couriers remembered attending square dances with banjo or guitar players and going to box suppers at local churches. Some families encouraged their daughters to volunteer to get them out of an undesirable romantic relationship; others simply hoped the experience would help their children grow up, Cockerham adds.

Couriers’ journals often mention log cabins and allude to how volunteers expected “to come to Appalachia and be transported back to the early 19th century,” says Goan. She adds that couriers were “really clinging to this idea of a nostalgic, … isolated place where traditional American values continue to survive. Part of [the couriers’] adventure is the idea that they’re escaping from [parental] authority, but also that they’re going to go in back in time to this really quaint place.”

A pair of horses used by FNS couriers
A pair of horses used by FNS couriers Courtesy of Frontier Nursing University

After World War II, couriers still rode horseback, but they also began driving Jeeps. The need for horsemanship ebbed. “When motorized vehicles become [the] standard, … it suddenly doesn’t make much sense to be roaming around on horses,” says Goan. By the mid-1970s, “just a few horses remained, mostly elderly horses and those kept for staff members’ recreation,” writes Cockerham in her book.

Couriers’ roles evolved in tandem with the times. Between the 1980s and the 2000s, these volunteers shifted focus to community service, such as offering tutoring and literacy education, and working at hospices.

According to Frontier Nursing University, 1,600 couriers have served with the organization since 1928. Today, college students can apply to the school’s seven-week Courier Program Public Health Internship—no horseback riding experience required.

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