'Our harried people were left in peace': Frontier Nursing Service came through in 1931

December 24, 2013 

Christmas was an important time for the Frontier Nursing Service. Each year there was an appeal for money to continue operations and toys for the mountain children the nurses cared for.

Mary Breckinridge, the founder of the FNS, describes a number of Christmases in Wide Neighborhoods — boys' eyes wide with amazement over harmonicas and red wagons, girls receiving their first real dolls, and barefoot children in shoes that fit.

The Christmas of 1931 brought special challenges, both for Breckinridge and the families FNS served. Her response speaks volumes about the breadth of FNS' mission and the woman who formed it.

In late November, Breckinridge suffered a crushed vertebra when her new horse spooked and bolted. Taken to Lexington for treatment, she installed herself in the Lafayette Hotel because "I thought I could work better in a hotel than at the hospital." She was confined to a Bradford frame, a metal rectangle that immobilized her back. An assistant held a phone to her ear so she could make calls and conduct business.

She was particularly worried about the families of farmers who had taken out federal loans after the drought of 1929 to buy seed to plant the next year. With the Depression, the 1930 crops were worth very little. For most farmers, repaying the loans meant selling virtually everything they'd produced. "To take away so large a part of their crops would have caused another famine."

Breckinridge had appealed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for relief, with no success. She was disgusted. "A nation that could give financial assistance to banks, railroads and insurance companies ... could afford to extend credit relief to its drought-stricken farmers."

Using some pull, she succeeded in getting a USDA representative from St. Louis to meet with her in Kentucky. Still in her brace, she told him, "I would go to Washington by ambulance and appear on my Bradford frame" before congressional committees to make her case if need be.

This "brought real results," she said. "The Department of Agriculture changed its policy and our harried people were left in peace."

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