Henrietta Liebknecht

Born: November 9, 1897

Died: unknown

“I still remember that first week – halls, elevators, stairways, offices – MEN, MEN, MEN, everywhere!” (Liebknecht letter)

Henrietta Liebknecht was orphaned when she was twelve years old but that did not stop her from finishing high school ahead of time. When her mother died, she moved in with a sister and brother-in-law near Cincinnati. In her early teens she began working in a lawyer’s office full time and completed all the requirements for a degree through the University of Cincinnati night school, but as the courses were unaccredited, she did not receive the degree. (Bess)

She moved back to Louisville and in 1916 took a job with Ballard & Ballard, a flour company in Louisville, Kentucky. All the men in the office worked on the first floor, while the women worked on the second floor under the direction of “a very aristocratic little lady and a perfectionist,” Ira Poke Galt. The women had a strict dress code including cotton stockings, low heels, and no makeup. Ballard & Ballard served its employees a hot lunch which was a benefit Henrietta considered before leaving them to work for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N), but the salary at Ballard was only nine dollars per week and L&N paid fifty dollars per month. (Bobo)

In 1917 Henrietta joined the Engineering Department at L&N as an accountant and found herself the only girl in a department of seventy men. When she began work at the Louisville General Office Building only one other woman worked in the building. To accommodate the ladies, a men’s room on the second floor was converted and the word WOMEN painted on its entry. (Liebknecht letter)

One holiday, Henrietta was working, and the telephone rang. There was a wash out on the line between Louisville and Cincinnati. She gathered all the information – the bridge number and its dimensions – and went over to the Louisville Terminals. A work crew was needed immediately, so Henrietta got out the payroll sheet and began calling men. After calling thirty or so men, she finally found enough who could come and do the work on the holiday. When she contacted the man at Union Station to send out the workers, he was surprised to be getting this order from a woman and was told she needed a letter from the Chief Engineer. So, she typed up a letter and signed it W. H. Courtney, Chief Engineer.

“Mr. Courtney had said on the first day that I was employed, ‘Whenever you write a letter and sign it W. H. Courtney, you are W. H. Courtney.’ And I took him at his word.”

The work train got out and the men fixed the bridge. When Mr. Courtney returned to the office, “he came out of his private office, walked over to the chief clerk, and said, “Joe, Miss Henrietta is the best man you’ve got.” (Bobo)

On top of her regular, full-time job with the Engineering Department, she voluntarily worked as associate editor for the L&N Employes’ [sic] Magazine. She edited the sections for women (“Of Feminine Interest”) and children (“Half Fare – Our Page for Girls and Boys”), did the page layouts, and contributed original artwork.(Bess) Most of this work she did at home in her free time. She received $20 a month to defray costs.

Outside of work she used her writing skills to publish poetry and books, including Childhood’s Sweet Enchantment, Tell It Like It Is, The Mystic Garden of Childhood, Let There Be Light, and The Stranger, and Other Christmas Stories. She also performed regularly on the mandolin with a string trio on radio station WHAS.

One friend of Henrietta’s said, “She has more genuine interest in other people than anyone I know!” (Bess) In the mid-1940s Henrietta heard stories of how the children in Breathitt County would follow the L&N train tracks collecting coal to help heat their homes. She thought about what kind of Christmas these children would have and set up a program to gather toys and put them on the train to the orphans of the Dessie Scott Children’s Home in Eastern Kentucky where the toys were delivered to delighted children from the train’s caboose.

Henrietta worked with Louise Winship (the home’s director since its beginning in 1934) to find other ways to help. She raised money and organized contributions of food, clothing, and other supplies for the school. She served on the home’s advisory board. One of the first projects she organized was to supply all the children with new shoes. The children sent her pencil outlines of their feet which she took to Sears where a clerk helped her choose shoes that would fit. (Reed) At Christmas, she’d ask the children to write a letter to Santa asking for a gift. Then she’d distribute the letters among L&N employees and make sure that each request was filled and sent to children for Christmas. (Bess)

Henrietta Liebknecht retired from the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in November 1967 after 50 years of service to the company.(Bobo)


Bess, Barbara. "The Many Talents of Henrietta Liebknecht." Louisville & Nashville Employes' Magazine, January 1964, 14.
Bobo, Mary D. "Henrietta Liebknecht." In Oral History Collection. University Archives & Records Center, University of Louisville, February 15, 1980.
Liebknecht, Henrietta. Childhood's Sweet Enchantment. Appalachia, Va.: Young Publications, 1965.
Liebknecht, Henrietta. "Half Fares: Our Page for Girls and Boys." Louisville & Nashville Employes' Magazine, March 1925, 43.
Liebknecht, Henrietta. Letter from Henrietta Liebknecht to Mr. Prime F. Osborn. July 31, 1979 University Archives & Records Center, University of Louisville.
Liebknecht, Henrietta. The Stranger: And Other Stories. Appalachia, Va.: Young Publications, 1968.
Reed, Billy. "End of the Rail Line Doesn't Stop Santa." Courier - Journal, December 22, 1975.