'Homemaker' groups a fading tradition

Homemakers Clubs, a rural tradition that is fading with the changing times, are dissolving and disappearing throughout the Otter Tail countryside. Though many of these clubs have disbanded, the tradition stays alive with an annual "Home Council" ...

Homemakers Clubs, a rural tradition that is fading with the changing times, are dissolving and disappearing throughout the Otter Tail countryside.

Though many of these clubs have disbanded, the tradition stays alive with an annual "Home Council" Christmas Party, which is set this year for Dec. 5, 11-3 p.m. in New York Mills, at the Otter Tail County Extension office meeting room.

"It's a reunion for us, so we really try to spread the word," said Betty Werner, a long-time participant. "We're asking everybody to bring a $5 exchange gift, and we'll have a potluck."

These rural clubs provided both education and a social outlet for decades, especially for farm wives. Homemaker clubs were scattered throughout the rural areas, but there were also groups in the cities. The "Home Council" was the "governing" group, so to speak, comprised of officers and representatives from the various groups.

The very word, homemakers, has long been out of favor since the women's movement of the 1960s. "Home Study Groups" has been the preferred, politically correct, name for at least a couple decades.


In the old days, homemakers gathered for lessons and projects, with materials usually provided by the University of Minnesota Extension Service, through county Extension agents. Subjects would range from canning to sewing to nutrition. The groups hosted modest fundraisers for scholarship programs, organized an annual fall kick-off, and holiday gatherings.

Dozens of "Neighborhood" homemaker groups were once active

As recently as 2002, there were 17 of the clubs still active--all with clever names. The New York Mills Merry Maids; the Busy Belles of Parkers Prairie; the Compton Step Savers of the Deer Creek area; the Happy Hours, Thrifty Lane and Whistling Pines of the Perham area; the Kross Kountry Krafters of Henning; the Helping Hands Homemakers from over in Vergas; the Hope Homemakers of rural Frazee and Perham, and others. There were two Dora groups listed, based in the Dent and Vergas areas.

Today, there are only a handful of active clubs in Otter Tail County.

The home study groups still do exist, but they're not as structured as they once were.

When the Extension Service underwent major budget cuts in the 1990s, the agency was reorganized, many Extension positions were eliminated, and the home study program was essentially left to the individuals to sustain. Organizational support for the homemakers was no longer funded by the University.

"At one time, Extension had a home economist in every county that worked with study groups. The University provided a lesson plan every month...but that doesn't exist anymore," said Vicki Schwanke, from the New York Mills Extension office.

"There are still some groups meeting, but they've become more of a birthday club, a social group," said Schwanke.


The mailing list in East Otter Tail alone was nearly 1,100 as recently as 25 years ago, said Schwanke, who joined the Extension Service in 1982. Today, the mailing list has dwindled to less than 300.

Membership is aging, younger women active outside the home

A leader from one of the clubs phoned Schwanke recently, and said that they were going to discontinue as an active study group. The youngest member was in her 70s, and the women "just didn't get out much any more."

As participation declines, leadership positions are nearly impossible to fill. "I tried to quit as treasurer twice," chuckled Donna Schiller, Richville area member of the Kool Kooks club and a former Home Council officer.

"Homemakers at one point were women who didn't work out of the home. Their daughters would join the study groups. They met in the daytime, so when more women worked out of the home, the clubs became less active," said Schwanke. "In this day and age, most families need two incomes coming in. With women in the workforce, they're not in the home as much anymore and don't have the time."

Study groups have explored new topics and issues, including domestic abuse, drug-alcohol addiction, youth mentoring, modern parenting and even post-9/11 discussions, but for the most part, younger women simply aren't getting involved in the clubs.

Computer lessons were also incorporated. But technology and computers have probably been factors in the demise of study groups: Women are using the Internet to gather the kind of information that was once the domain of Extension services. Ironically, the U of M Extension Service offers an extensive, easy to navigate website that provides all the information that study groups utilized--and more.

"We stopped using the term 'ladies,' and we opened to everybody," said longtime Home Council member Betty Werner. "We even had men come to meetings--but they never joined."


"Kool Kooks" disband; final official act was a good cause

One of the victims of the changing rural landscape was the Kool Kooks club, comprised of rural Perham and Richville-area women.

Instead of dying with a whimper, the Kool Kooks went out with dignity, dissolving within the past two years. The group's final official act was closing the bank account--with the money going for a good cause.

Though the Kool Kooks' account was a modest $250, it was less about the sum than the gesture.

With little fanfare, Betty Warner, Rush Lake area, and treasurer Donna Schiller, Richville, presented the donation to Lina Belar, director of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.

With changing times, traditional

organizations falter, vanish

As a historian, Belar has an especially keen sense of the cultural importance of homemaker groups, particularly for most of the last century.


"The heritage is very important. The homemakers promoted all the things we valued as a society," said Belar after receiving the Kool Kooks donation. "The whole idea of the state university system was to preserve things that were important and to educate each new generation."

In reviewing a century of newspaper clippings, you can follow the rise and fall of local organizations, noted Belar. Disappearing from the scene were the Oddfellows, the Woodsmen of America, and traditional women's clubs. The Masons and associated women's Eastern Star have also declined.

Meanwhile, Lions Clubs and Rotary--which have opened doors to women--are in some respect replacing groups of the past era. Women are also much more involved in Chambers of Commerce and similar civic organizations.

Belar likened this evolution to that of more primitive cultures. In African villages, for example, you went to a communal well for your water--keeping informed by constant visiting and networking with others in the community. With the advent of plumbing, villages started to lose that "network" because of less frequent visits to the well.

Women today have plugged in to other networks. "They're finding new wells," said Belar.

"Americans are getting busier and busier, you see it in church participation too," said Schwanke. "There is a transition for rural homemakers, and they aren't doing things they used to...The study group tradition is slowly fading away."

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