As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, we are looking back at some of the most celebrated moments, milestones, and oral history interviews from across our world-class collections. Among our favorites is the Frontier Nursing Service Oral History Project, a treasure trove of local Appalachian historical, cultural, economic, and social knowledge that is invaluable to students, researchers, and Kentuckians across the Commonwealth.
Founded in 1925 by Mary Breckinridge, the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) provided primary health care services to remote areas of southeastern Kentucky, with a special focus on midwifery. Motivated by the loss of her two young children, Breckinridge dedicated her life to serving mothers and children across a 700 square mile area of isolated mountain communities where infant and maternal mortality rates were high. Serving areas with little road access, nurse-midwives often traveled on horseback to tend to the births of thousands of children and to treat countless ailments.
The history of this remarkable organization is documented through 212 oral history interviews, conducted largely in the late 1970s, that feature the stories of doctors, nurses, and the Eastern Kentucky residents that they served. The interviews detail the workings of the FNS, from house visits and daily operations to the development of national philanthropic networks that supported the organization.
Midwife Edna Rockstroh served the FNS from its inception, when it was still known as the Kentucky Committee for Mothers and Babies. In her interview, recorded in 1979, she shares anecdotes of her experiences with Mary Breckinridge as the organization was getting off the ground. Rockstroh suspects that she delivered the FNS’s first baby in Leslie County.
In addition to providing insight into innovative rural healthcare, the interviews also capture an enormous range of lived experiences and provide incredible slices of Appalachian life. Interviewees provide rich and textured accounts of everything from family feuds, home remedies, quilting, and moonshine to the unionization of the coal mines, the Great Depression, local politics, and race relations.
In an interview recorded in 1980, Minnie Stidham tells stories about her hometown of Daley in the early 1900s. Her family carried produce from their farm twelve miles on horseback to sell in mining camps, her mother spun wool from her own sheep, and her father sold baskets and ax handles that he made during the winter. She recalls neighbors visiting for bean stringings and shares accounts of mountain marriages, graveyard services, haint tales, and revival meetings. On election day, women would take gingerbread and cakes to town, and if the candidates did not buy their goods, they would not vote.
The Special Collections Research Center also holds the organization’s archives. The Frontier Nursing Service Records document the organization's background and development and include correspondence, minutes, reports, promotional materials, financial files, architectural plans, and memorabilia. The collection also details the life and activities of Mary Breckinridge. A continued collection contains FNS materials up to 2006, and a collection of Frontier Nursing Service Delivery Logs contains detailed information on FNS deliveries and patients.
The Nunn Center is internationally recognized for its work in collecting and preserving oral histories. With over 18,000 oral history interviews, our collections span an incredible breadth of topics and provide an invaluable resource to researchers across Kentucky and around the world. Find out more about our collections and collaborations, or learn how to support the Nunn Center as we pursue our mission of engaging communities, creating connections and life-changing learning experiences, increasing access to oral histories the world over, and collecting and preserving Kentucky’s story.
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