Six and Twenty learns of Pack Horse project and blue-skinned people


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Members of the Six and Twenty Club met at the home of Mrs. Kathleen Blake on Aug. 27. Mrs. Mindy Henson was the program leader. The book that Mrs. Henson selected for the year is “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” by Kim Michele Richardson.

The author felt led to write her novel after stumbling across information about the Pack Horse library project and the rare “blue-skinned” people of Kentucky years ago. She was surprised to not see a literary reference to either subject, as they each have a fascinating history.

Cussy Mary Carter, the protagonist of the historical novel, is one of the unusual “blue-skinned” people and has been hired as one of the traveling librarians of the Kentucky Pack Horse Library project, an initiative implemented by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. It hired locals, mainly women, who distributed reading materials to resource-starved Appalachians in eastern Kentucky.

Carriers rode out on horses or mules at least twice a month, with each route covering 100 to 120 miles a week. The thrifty librarians mended materials; those too worn to circulate were made into new books and scrapbooks. The Pack Horse Library ended in 1943 after Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the shutdown of the WPA.

Mrs. Henson then moved to her second subject about the “blue-skinned” people of Kentucky. In approximately 1820, a French immigrant named Martin Fugate married Kentuckian Elizabeth Smith. They settled in the area near Troublesome Creek. Martin and Elizabeth coincidentally each carried the extremely rare recessive gene that causes congenital methemoglobinemia.

Martin and Elizabeth had seven children, four of whom inherited methemoglobinemia. People with this disease have lips that are purple, the skin looks blue, and the blood is “chocolate colored” because it is not well oxygenated.

Due to the remoteness of the area and their isolation from others, members of the Fugate family intermarried. The prevalence of this genetic trait continued for generations until roads and a railroad were built and the Fugate family dispersed over time. Subsequently, their gene pool expanded and the family trait “disappeared.”

Methemoglobinemia has also been identified in some populations in Alaska, Algeria, and among Navajo Indians.

Mrs. Henson ended the program by sharing the tribute song created for the novel with words and music by Ruby Friedman and her Orchestra made available on YouTube. It accompanies photos from the real-life Pack Horse project work.

Refreshments of cheesecake, various confections, and punch were served to enjoy after the meeting or for members to take home.

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