Home Demonstration Clubs of Vermont

by Silverbelle Margaret (Ridge Road SBs)

A cookbook in the pantry caught my eye recently. It has been a long time since I’ve visited the contents of this old book. Bound together by two metal rings, it’s dressed with a simple cover made from vintage, mottled-gray shelving plastic. Sandwiched between the front and back cover are recipes contributed to twenty-seven women who were members of the Bull Run Home Demonstration club. The ladies involved in this particular group lived in Northfield and Roxbury, Vermont. I knew several of these contributors well, and I have fond memories of each one of them.

I was first introduced to these women as a teenager. Two of these farm women from Roxbury played an influential role in cementing my love for rural life in Vermont. Mattie and Nan took me under their wings to teach me a good deal about the old ways. Both women were school teachers at one time, but they were retired from teaching by the time I was introduced to them, and their lives were then focused on the farm. Mattie was the farmer’s wife, and she was in charge of the house and serving meals. She always wore a housedress and an apron. Nan was the farmer’s sister. She never married, and she lived on the farm with Mattie and her brother. 

A vintage 1948 Ford 8N tractor belonging to Ron Schoolcraft of Randolph Center, Vermont

Nan loved the outdoors and often worked in the barn and fields. I never saw her in a dress —  her typical attire was a plaid shirt and men’s jeans. I admired her stylish yet practical wide-brimmed straw hat she wore in the hot summer sun. I can vividly recall her wearing that hat in the hayfield while raking hay on a gray Ford 8N tractor. There wasn’t anything Nan couldn’t do. She showed me the dignity of hard work.

Both women did a lot of sewing and were good at it, and they were also accomplished cooks. These ladies impressed me with their day-to-day rhythm and routine they created while living and working together. Looking back, life was so much simpler, safer, and less chaotic than it is in today’s times. Distractions such as cell phones and the internet were unheard of and far from our minds in those days. Nan and Mattie presented me with this cookbook shortly after I started spending time with them in the early 1970s.

“One may forgive even one’s own relatives after a good dinner.” 

— Excerpt from the Home Dem Bull Run Cookbook

Now, nearly fifty years later, I have more questions than answers about the members of the Bull Run Home Dem and the history behind these clubs. I called the UVM Extension Service since this program was a part of their organization. I spoke with a woman who has been with the extension service for 15 years, and she hadn’t heard of the Home Demonstration program. She kindly directed my call to the Women’s Agricultural Network. Once again, I received a similar response. This lady mentioned a publication called 100 Years of UVM Extension, 1913–2013 thinking it might contain the information I was looking for, and she was correct.

If we step back in time to the early 1900s, education for children living on subsistence farms was often minimal. Older children were often needed at home to work on the farm. High school was not a requirement, and once eighth grade was completed, formal education ended for many. My mother was one of these individuals. Keeping this in mind, the importance of extension programs across the country becomes clear.

The UVM extension service has been serving rural Vermonters by providing education in agriculture and in homemaking for over 100 years. In 1862, President Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act which federally financed land grants to be used for the establishment of colleges specifically focused on the education and addressing of rural agricultural issues. In Vermont that college was, and is, the University of Vermont. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 officially created the extension services within those educational institiutions across the country. 

Prior to World War I, during the infancy of the program, seven county agents, six Home Demonstration agents, and five 4-H agents were hired to create the backbone of the extension service. Agents took advantage of Grange Halls and state fairs in the early days to disseminate information and make necessary connections while organizing, educating, and unifying rural Vermonters. As time went by, these connections were made and clubs were formed. Educational meetings rotated between homes. Many Home Dem agents took advantage of traveling by train and were met with horse and buggy by a hosting farm family. 

During World War I, Home Demonstration agents focused on survival skills, wartime support activities, and emergency programs designed to keep families clothed and fed on the homefront. The initial efforts focused on food preservation, such as canning meats, vegetables, and fruits. Talks on sanitation practices, household management, clothing construction and repairs were just some of the topics discussed. After the war, the survival programs that were popular among rural women were no longer in demand. Homemakers were seeking ways to enrich their lives through fashion and interior decoration. Hatmaking, tailoring, chair caning, and furniture restoration were among popular subjects of this era. Topics, such as managing work schedules and personal time, were introduced within these groups.

With the 1930s came the Great Depression, and Home Demonstration agents once again adapted to the changing times. Goals and energy were refocused to helping Vermont families become more self-sufficient by teaching women how to make the most out of available resources during this challenging time. Many Home Dem groups offered classes for achieving good nutrition on a limited budget. One such project, Making the Farm Feed the Family, focused on menu planning and gardening. Because prices were so low for beef during this time, pork and poultry farm slaughter was instead encouraged to feed the family. Child wellness clinics and dental care stemmed from the efforts of these statewide clubs during the 1930s. By 1939, more than 8,500 women were enrolled in 308 community Home Demonstration groups.

This is a quilt that Nan made at least 55 years ago. She made the quilt from scraps of fabric. She was thrifty and didn’t waste a thing!

World War II posed more challenges and changes for Home Demonstration agents and groups. Emergency federal funds for food supplies were allocated, and it was the responsibility of agents to teach families how to economize by using available goods wisely. Self-sufficiency and readiness were the theme of meetings. Victory gardens were a major focus in those days.Three community canning kitchens in Vermont were created through the efforts of Home Demonstration clubs. Approximately 18,000 to 20,000 families were enrolled in the Victory Garden program before the war was over. The slogan of the Home Economics program became “Vermont Demonstration Clubs Take Their Place in the National War Effort”. Many items were rationed, such as sugar, meat, gasoline, and shoes. With many men on the frontlines of war, Home Demonstration agents encouraged women to get involved outside of the home by attending town meetings and involvement in town affairs. It was a time of organizing and rallying. 

After the war, the focus of the clubs changed to making improvements within communities and states. The Vermont Home Demonstration Council was formed with the intention of uniting the 300 existing clubs. School systems were a large focus for these women. Hot lunches, playgrounds, and better libraries were amongst the goals during this time. The Book Wagon Project was facilitated by the clubs. I can remember the excitement I would feel when the book wagon arrived at school, and I got to go aboard and choose a book to borrow. There were five book wagons in the state. Vermont was noted for having one of the best services in the country. Over 8,000 Home Dem club members contributed 10 cents per year to help fund this program.

In June of 1950, a group of Braintree women organized The Hearth and Heath Homemakers Club. Leaders for nutrition, clothing, home management, and recreation were assigned. Joyce Ferris, who was a life-time resident of Braintree was one of the founding members of the club. Mrs. Ferris recently passed away on July 5th 2022 at the age of 98. This Home Demonstration club organized with the specific intent to sponsor a hot lunch program in the Upper Branch school which has been successful. Another community service of this club was to serve hot meals at town meetings each year. In 1975, these women brought about road signage for the safety of Braintree residents during times of emergency. I naturally assumed that this club had disbanded years ago, but I have recently learned that monthly meetings still take place and there are about a dozen active members all of whom are over the age of sixty. I had the pleasure of talking with Lori Churchill of Brookfield who has been the club leader for a number of years. Mrs. Churchill tells me that they broke ties with UVM Extension years ago but continue to meet as a group. Aside from the monthly meetings which includes a potluck lunch they take a yearly trip and spend the day doing something educational based and fun. When I asked Mrs. Churchill about the club’s mission, she responded by telling me that the focus of the group is on community as it has always been. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending a card or some flowers to brighten the day of someone who is going through hard times. Larger goals such as revitalizing the kitchen area in the West Braintree Town Hall are accomplishments of the group. 

The Bull Run club was at its height during the 1960s. By the time I crossed paths with these ladies and was graciously given the cookbook, the club was no longer meeting. It appears that many of these clubs disbanded in the 1970s, and by the early 1980s, Home Dem clubs were a thing of the past. More women were working outside of the home and the world once again was changing direction. This spring, I had the privilege of interviewing a woman who is the last living member of the Bull Run Home Dem club. She is a delightfully vibrant woman with a clear, sharp mind and was an absolute joy to visit. We reminisced about the ladies of the club, and she told me about many of the members that I didn’t know. I am struck by the reality that the farms and houses that were home to so many of these ladies no longer exist, but I will always remember a time where they were prevalent and flourishing.

“Give the world the best that you have, and the best will come back to you.”

— Excerpt from the Bull Run Home Dem Cookbook

Like most vintage recipes, the directions are rather vague compared to recipes of today. I’ve rewritten the recipe to clarify a few points. This is an easy and delicious take on raspberry shortcake so I decided to include the recipe. The ingredients are simple and go together quickly. I’m baffled as to why this recipe is labeled as a pudding — A spoon cake would be far more appropriate in my opinion. 

Use a toothpick or the end of a sharp knife to test the center of the cake; if it comes out clean, it is done. The cake will also begin to pull away from the sides of the pan a bit indicating doneness. An 8” springform pan would be perfect to use as the cake is very attractive. The sugar crystallizes and forms a crust that swirls with the red raspberries making a lovely presentation free-standing on a platter. Don’t forget to whip up some cream!

M-m-m-m … raspberry pudding cake

Raspberry Pudding Cake 

1 ½ cups flour

2 tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

3 Tbsp. sugar

5 Tbsp. Butter, cut into cubes

½ cup milk

Raspberry Mixture

1 Tbsp. flour

½ cup sugar

2 Tbsp. melted butter

1 ½ cups raspberries

For the batter combine dry ingredients and cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or a fork.  Add the milk. Pat down the dough into an eight inch pan. 

For the raspberry mixture, combine and mix ingredients. Spread the raspberry mixture over the top of the dough. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until done. Serve with whipped cream.

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