Extension homemakers become community leaders

Linda Benedict, Overstreet, Karen  |  6/12/2014 9:23:24 PM

Karen Overstreet

Imagine life without cell phones, the internet or even electricity. You are responsible for sewing most of the family’s clothes, raising and preserving their food and even making the mattresses the family sleeps on. Your mother and grandmother probably trained you well for your role as housewife, but there was no easy way to learn what to do if your batch of canned vegetables spoiled or you wanted camaraderie with others in similar situations. It was out of this rural environment that the Home Demonstration Clubs, later known as Extension Homemaker Clubs, emerged as a way to share research-based, practical information from the state landgrant university.

As early as 1905 special trains brought home economics teachers from Louisiana Polytechnic Institute to rural areas to give lectures on better practices in agriculture and homemaking. The need to support a system for teaching farm wives and girls the basic principles of homemaking was recognized by U.S. Rep. Frank Lever, one of the sponsors of the Smith-Lever Act, which created the Cooperative Extension Service.

Our efforts, heretofore, have been given in aid of the farm man, his horses, cattle, and hogs, but his wife and daughters have been neglected almost to the point of criminality. This bill provides the authority and the funds for inaugurating a system of teaching the farm wife and farm girl the elementary principles of homemaking and home management and your committee believes there is no more important work in the country than this.
– Congressman Lever, 1914 


1914 Two years before Extension’s official beginning in 1914, women were gathering to share information. In 1912, Elizabeth Price was hired in Lincoln Parish as the first home demonstration agent in Louisiana. From the beginning, clubs for women existed along with clubs for youth. The women were part of “Tomato Clubs” patterned after the “Corn Clubs” for youth. By 1916, there were 450 members in clubs for women in 12 parishes. East Baton Rouge organized the first parish council for these clubs in 1923. Their slogan adopted in 1928 was “A Kitchen Sink and Running Water in Every Home in East Baton Rouge Parish.”

By 1931, there were 8,577 members in 369 clubs organized into 16 parish councils. Ellen LeNoir, the state home demonstration agent, met with council representatives, and the Louisiana State Home Demonstration Council was created on Aug. 11, 1931. In 1935, representatives from 12 states met to discuss creating a national council. LeNoir served as the chair of the constitution committee creating the national council. It was later determined that members should be rural homemakers, and extension agents would serve in an advisory capacity, thus creating the independent organization that it remains today. Today’s organization continues to honor LeNoir’s work by giving the Ellen LeNoir scholarship to a Louisiana graduate student majoring in family and consumer sciences or agriculture.

In 1961, the Pelican State Homemakers Council was organized with clubs serving primarily African-American home demonstration club members. The Pelican Council and the Louisiana State Home Demonstration Council merged in 1966. Louisiana changed its name in 1972 to Louisiana Extension Homemakers Council to follow the national organization, which had changed its name in 1964. Today, the Louisiana council is no longer affiliated with a national organization and goes by the name Louisiana Volunteers for Family & Community Inc., which better reflects its work. It is still an independent organization but maintains its strong ties with the Extension Service.

Topics addressed by the home demonstration clubs reflected issues of the day and gave homemakers the opportunity to develop leadership skills. In the 1940s, club members joined war efforts by tending victory gardens, rolling bandages and making mattresses from surplus cotton or Spanish moss. The state council bought its first war bond for $100 in 1942.

Food and nutrition was a major topic from the beginning. The name Tomato Club was a result of addressing a major issue – how to save tomatoes for winter use. In addition to fruits and vegetables, meats were often canned. Some canning was done with tin cans, which required a special device to safely seal the cans. In many parishes canning centers were organized by the home demonstration agent and club members and supported by school boards or local government. Home pressure cookers were often purchased by the clubs and circulated among members. Egg Circles were popular as a way for women to learn how to raise chickens for their meat and eggs. Surplus eggs were sold, and the “egg money” provided much needed income for running the household. During the Depression and times of war rationing, the clubs provided both an educational and a support system. Hot lunches for school children were another project tackled by the club members.

Electricity was slow coming to rural areas. Working with extension and rural electric cooperatives, club members learned to appreciate and tame the “monster in the wall” and were instrumental in its acceptance. By the 1970s the energy focus was on conservation. The goal was for club leaders to reach at least 50,000 residents, and they exceeded that goal by reaching 75,000 people. A follow-up program to reach secondgraders involved members dressing up as ENERJEAN, the energy clown. More than 250 ENERJEANs reached 80 percent of the state’s second-graders and 275,000 others at fairs and other events.

In the early 2000s during a serious outbreak of West Nile virus, the volunteers were asked to reach people over the age of 50 with information as part of the Fight the Bite campaign. Members presented programs in community centers, Sunday school classes, various club meetings, senior living centers and any place seniors gathered. In addition, materials were included with meals delivered to senior citizens.

International interests have always been a part of the work. The Coke-a-Month program started in 1949 to bring a European home economist to Louisiana for a year. Half the time was to be spent visiting in members’ homes to learn about American life and democracy and half studying at LSU. Each club member was to donate the price of a Coke each month to fund the program. Four home economists – one each from Germany, France, The Netherlands and Norway – participated in the program. The remaining funds were put into savings for a scholarship fund. International teas, exchange programs, donations for water wells and numerous other programs continue today.

Leadership for women was an objective from the beginning. In the early 1990s the W.K. Kellogg Foundation awarded the Louisiana Council $50,000 to support a Family Community Leadership Program (FCL). These leadership skills were used for other public activities including support for extension work and the 4-H program. Members in Vermilion and Acadia parishes helped support a tax for extension facilities, which were two of the first parishes to do so. Members have served in the Louisiana Legislature, on local police juries and school boards, as well as numerous other local boards.

Mini colleges have become popular in recent times as a way to explore new topics. Mini colleges have been held to study coastal issues, the forestry industry and nutrition. Legislative Day is held every other year to learn more about state government.

Throughout its history the organization that started as home demonstration clubs has always worked to improve lives of rural families. A few examples include:

  • The first project of the Livingston Parish Council in 1937 was to set up a circulating library. Members donated books and magazines, and the council added to the collection as funds permitted. In 1947, the Lafourche Parish group was asked by the Louisiana State Library to establish branch libraries in Raceland, Larose, Cut Off and Golden Meadow. Many other parish homemaker councils worked to establish local libraries or bookmobiles. After Hurricane Katrina members collected cookbooks to create a lending library in St. Bernard Parish.
  • Following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the volunteers organized the Measure of Friendship program to collect measuring cups, spoons, tape measures and rulers. 
  •  One of the earliest projects was the effort to provide hot lunches in schools. In some communities members actually cooked soups for the students or brought in food. Members were instrumental in seeing that lunchrooms were included when schools were built.

Karen Overstreet is the associate department head for 4-H and Youth Development.

(This article was published in the spring 2014 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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