Celebrating the Legacy of Rural Woman

— Written By Susan Condlin and last updated by Kay Morton

On Monday evening of this week, as part of their business agenda, the Board of Commissioners recognized the Lee County Extension & Community Association volunteers for their steadfast dedication to the improvement of quality of life for families in Lee County.

Counties across the state owe much of their success today to the women who participated in Extension “Home Demonstration Club work.” Since 1913, members have worked to improve the well being of families and their communities and this year North Carolina’s Extension and Community Associations (ECA) will celebrate 100 years of home demonstration and community development. Their legacy to agriculture, family, and their communities has helped shape the state we live in today.

By partnering with N.C. Cooperative Extension, ECA, a grassroots institution, has actively addressed the needs of families. In 1911, Jane S. McKimmon, North Carolina’s first home demonstration agent, convinced 14 county superintendents of education to employ home demonstration agents to support the girls’ tomato club program. Tomato clubs, the counterpart to the boys’ corn clubs, taught girls valuable skills for life on the farm. Seeing the growth in the young girls, Tomato Clubs soon evolved to Home Demonstration clubs for their mothers.

Throughout the last century Home Demonstration Clubs, later renamed Extension Homemakers and today known as Extension and Community Association (ECA) clubs, have been involved in helping North Carolina become the progressive state it is today. From the earliest days, women organized efforts beyond their own homes to support their communities. During the 1918 flu pandemic, home demonstration clubs provided food for those who were ill and even helped run emergency hospitals.

In times of economic hardship like the Great Depression, rural women were the first “local foods” producers when they started curb markets as a place for women to earn extra income for their families by selling farm fresh products such as eggs, butter, buttermilk, cheese, garden produce and canned goods to “city folk”. Through their efforts of selling poultry and eggs, rural women helped jump-start the poultry industry in NC. Homemakers served as supervisors for community canneries, and canned untold numbers of jars of produce grown in “Victory Gardens”.

To improve the nutrition and health of children, Home Demonstration clubs launched efforts to feed school children by preparing and serving hot milk-based soups in North Carolina’s rural schools in the 1930s. This effort evolved into today’s school cafeteria system. Rural women added cows to the family farm to improve their families’ diets, preventing pellagra and other nutrition deficit diseases.

Home demonstration clubs supported the war efforts during World War II by conducting scrap metal drives and selling war bonds to outfit military hospital ships. Clubs encouraged literacy in their communities, first by borrowing books from the state library in Raleigh and later developing book lending programs that led to the establishment of many county public libraries. Still others led classes, teaching families how to eat healthy, to decorate their homes, to manage their finances or to sew their Sunday best.

Home demonstration club members in Lee County used their influence in 1914 to secure Mrs. J. H. Henley, our first a home demonstration agent for Lee County. Under her direction and those who followed, members’ homemaking skills were enhanced. Women learned to repair, refinish and recycle furniture, decorate their homes, preserve food, sew fashionable outfits and accessories, landscape their homes, and increase family income through cottage industries. Over the years, the programs of Lee County Extension and Community Association have come full circle. As in the previous century, global events and economic times continue to highlight the need for relevant programs such as food safety and preservation, indoor air quality, energy conservation, health and well being, financial management, basic cooking, sewing and supporting local agriculture and the consumption of local food products. In order to effectively deliver these programs, members worked along side our Extension staff, farmers, 4H youth, Central Electric, Farm Bureau and others to influence elected officials and helped secure funds to build the Ernest & Ruby McSwain Extension Education and Agriculture Center. The Center provides a place for us to meet the needs of the total community and to deliver educational programs, which empower individuals and families to improve their quality of living through continuing education, leadership development and community service.

This year the North Carolina Extension & Community Association (ECA), formerly “Tomato Clubs”, Home Demonstration Clubs or Extension Homemakers, will be celebrating their 100th year Centennial. A statewide celebration is planned for October 27, 2013. During this Centennial event we will honor rural women who have worked to make North Carolina counties a better place to live and to raise strong families.

For more information on Lee County’s Extension and Communication Association, contact N.C. Cooperative Extension in Lee County at 919-775-5624.

Susan Condlin is County Extension Director for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.