The Quare Women’s Journal
Two “quare women” – not yet out of their twenties – set forth in August of 1899 on what became a life-time adventure in the Kentucky Mountains. Katherine Pettit, energetic and outspoken, was already deeply involved in the reform work which had begun among the Kentucky mountain people when these journals open. May Stone, quiet, serene, the “ladyest” of the two, a slim golden haired figure dressed in pastels, came to her calling almost by accident. The mountain people dubbed them “quare wimmin” for their strange looks and ways.
Together they spent three summers in social settlement work at Camp Cedar Grove, Camp Industrial at Hindman and in the Sassafras Social Settlement before founding a permanent school and social settlement, the Hindman Settlement School. The school, founded in 1902, would become one of Appalachia’s most important educational institutions of the Progressive era.
Their journals tell a simple and vivid story of those first three summers in the mountains. Reactions to mountain life and culture and people, especially to the children and women, come alive in the narrative of daily social settlement activities. We see Katherine and May trudging up to 12 miles a day – fording creeks and scrambling over rocks – to teach Sunday School, visit a family up a lonely hollow, or assist in preparing a child for burial. Their joy and sense of accomplishment is present on every page as the mountain people, especially the children, come into their camps to “larn somethin” – how to make beaten biscuits, sew buttons on to stay, sing the songs or play the games from the “level-land.”
Infused with the reform spirit of their age, Katherine and May set forth to improve the lives of the mountaineers. Teaching the aesthetic value of flowers on a table or pictures on a wall went hand in hand with lessons on the importance of healthier diets and cooking methods or the value of cleanliness in their home. A legion of volunteers followed them to their new school.
Pettit, Stone and the Hindman Settlement School were part of a transformation of mountain society – whose consequences are still debated today by scholars. Were they insensitive intruders dismissing what they failed to understand? Or did they blend reform with sensitivity in an attempt to “educate people back to their homes not far away from them” as they said? Publication of the journals, long known to scholars, will allow us to assess better these issues.
The work of Pettit and Stone continues today, and as the Hindman Settlement School celebrates more than 100 years of service to the people of the Kentucky Mountains, these journals bring to life again the two exceptional women who founded the school – and the ideals which brought them to the mountains so long ago.
Jess Stoddart is a professor of History at San Diego State University. She teaches both English and American History. She has published articles on the House of Lords and a centennial book, Eleanor Roosevelt, an American Journey (1987). Her family pioneered in the Kentucky Mountains more than 150 years ago and her mother and several aunts and uncles attended the Hindman Settlement School. Stoddart has been a member of the board of directors of the Hindman Settlement School since 1997.