Pettit, Katherine (1868–1936)

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Pettit, Katherine (1868–1936)

American settlement worker. Born on February 23, 1868, near Lexington, Kentucky; died on September 3, 1936, in Lexington; daughter of Benjamin F. Pettit (a farmer) and Clara Mason (Barbee) Pettit; educated in Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky, and at the Sayre Female Institute of Lexington; never married; no children.

Worked to improve the lives of rural residents in Kentucky; was instrumental in founding (1902) andrunning the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County (1902–13) and the Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harlan County (1913–30).

Katherine Pettit was one of the new generation of female settlement workers who first became active in the 1890s. Many of these women worked with immigrants in large cities, but Pettit, who was born into a well-to-do farming family and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, concentrated on helping impoverished residents in her home state whose families had lived on the land for generations. She first began to notice the deprivation of residents of the backwoods of Kentucky, many of whom lived isolated from towns or even roads, while working with the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Kentucky State Federation of Women's Clubs. Pettit started several programs in the area of the Cumberland plateau to help these people and soon found that her efforts became her life's work. In her 20s, she made annual summer pilgrimages to Perry and Harlan counties, bringing local women seeds to plant flowers and pictures to put in their homes. Later, she worked at a camp near Hazard, Kentucky, which gave housewives instruction in such areas as food preparation, gardening, and homemaking. With her friend May Stone and others, Pettit also held other camps called "Industrials" at Sassafras and Hindman, Kentucky, where they had been invited by community leader Solomon Everidge.

Pettit and Stone were encouraged by their positive experiences with the camps, where enthusiastic participants frequently invited them to live in the area and continue their work. Taking their inspiration from well-known settlement workers like Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr , they assisted in a fund drive to establish a permanent educational institution in the area. After they made a successful tour through the East, and with contributions from individuals and local organizations, the Hindman Settlement School, in Hindman, Kentucky, opened in August 1902, under the auspices of the WCTU. The institution taught academic subjects in addition to crafts and industrial and domestic courses, and by 1911 had enrolled some 200 students. In an effort to share the culture of the region, in 1907 Pettit published several mountain ballads in an issue of the Journal of American Folk-Lore.

Pettit left Hindman (which May Stone continued to run) in 1913 to move to Pine Mountain, in Harlan County. There William Creech, a much-respected "patriarch" of the area, contributed 250 acres for the establishment of a settlement school to aid the community. Pettit and Creech supervised the clearing and planting of the land and the construction of the buildings, and within two years the Pine Mountain Settlement School was serving 40 boarding students. In addition to organizing the school and conducting clinics to control diseases that plagued the area, such as hookworm and a contagious eye disease that frequently resulted in blindness, Pettit also encouraged the production of traditional arts and crafts, and arranged for them to be sold to assist the income of Pine Mountain residents. Pettit retired from the Pine Mountain School in 1930, after which she became an itinerant social worker, giving advice on farming and working with artisans throughout Harlan County. In 1932, four years before her death, the University of Kentucky awarded Pettit the Algernon Sidney Sullivan Medal in honor of her contributions to the state. Both the Hindman Settlement School and the Pine Mountain School remain active parts of their communities at the beginning of the 21st century, although their missions have adapted to cultural changes over the course of nearly 100 years; the Hindman School now focuses on education and educational assistance for children with dyslexia, and Pine Mountain concentrates on providing environmental education to local residents and visitors.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Sally A. Myers , Ph.D., freelance writer and editor

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