“As the stream can flow no higher than its fountain, so no country can be better than its home.”
It was a favorite saying of one of the state’s pioneers in home economics, Nellie Kedzie Jones, whose belief in improving families by sharing homemaking skills with rural women inspired the development of an organization that continues to strengthen lives and communities in Wisconsin, and Door County, today.
That organization is the nonprofit Home and Community Education, whose deepest roots are found in the beginnings of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service. Then known as “home demonstration clubs,” they were an integral part of the extension service, which had been established in the early 20th century to address rural and agricultural issues through networking and outreach with the help of trained “agents.” While men learned agricultural best practices, women were taught how to garden, raise poultry, preserve meats, fruits and vegetables, refinish furniture, sew clothing and do home nursing – skills that kept families and communities alive during World War I and the Great Depression.
One of the nation’s most notable pioneers in home economics played an important role in the development of home demonstration clubs in Wisconsin. Nellie Kedzie Jones had already been making waves in home economics across the Midwest before arriving in Wisconsin in 1911, where she took up writing a column as “The Country Gentlewoman” for The Country Gentleman magazine, dispensing the basic principles of home economics to appreciative rural women across the country. In 1918, she was named Home Economics Extension leader at the University of Wisconsin, a role that brought her all over the state to meet and speak to women’s clubs and organize homemakers’ clubs (according to the Wisconsin Association for Home & Community Education, by 1932, she had organized 690 clubs in 43 counties). She also worked tirelessly to encourage each county to hire its own home agent, who would be responsible for disseminating educational information to county residents.
By 1940, a state Home Demonstration Council had been formed with the purpose of providing “representation of rural women on state committees concerned with issues which affect home and families in rural communities, develop an awareness of national and international interests and needs, develop leadership abilities of rural women, facilitate statewide acquaintances of rural women.”
Advancing technologies (goodbye canning, hello freezers!) and the availability of mass-produced clothing necessitated a change in the kinds of information the Home Demonstration Council was distributing. And as more women found work outside of the home, the home demonstration projects made way for lessons on strengthening families and managing resources.
It wasn’t just the organization’s information that changed, either. Its moniker has also evolved with the times, from the very earliest “home demonstration clubs” to, in the late 1960s, “Extension homemakers councils” and finally in the mid 1990s, the Association for Family and Community Education. In 1994, the Wisconsin association withdrew from the national organization and has since been known as the Wisconsin Association for Home and Community Education (HCE), a nonprofit organization that partners with UW-Extension Family Living Programs at the state and county level to bring educational programs to HCE members and communities.
Today’s membership is not designated solely for countryside housewives but is available to anyone interested, be they urban, rural, male or female. County Extension offices remain vital to the association’s continuation by providing program planning and leadership training, and its community service projects continue to inspire better homes and communities.
In Door County, approximately 60 members comprise eight HCE clubs that meet regularly to learn new things, make community-oriented projects and share a meal. Elizabeth LeClair is president of the countywide HCE and in recent years, has seen a renewed interest in learning the basics of keeping a home and garden.
“I think there’s been a generation of everybody going out to the grocery store. Everything is about the ease of not cooking, basically, and fast food,” LeClair said. “I think there is a growing awareness with the community gardens and I think with these community gardens there is a need to know how to preserve all your hard work that you’ve put into growing and reaping the benefits of your time and efforts. I think people are wanting to learn how to do that again.”
While LeClair admits it’s difficult for HCE to compete with the likes of YouTube demo videos, there is one thing those easily accessible forms of technology cannot replace: “it’s all about fellowship, of being with another group of women.”
“You can do all these kinds of things but to have women of experience give programs and be able to ask questions and get the answers you need is invaluable and when they’re gone, that knowledge is gone with them,” LeClair said.
That camaraderie extends to the greater community as well through outreach projects meant to help neighbors and educate people on the value of HCE clubs. On April 8, LeClair will join her Harborettes Club of Egg Harbor and Fish Creek for their first ever “Day of Mending” community project from 10 am – 2 pm in Jacksonport. The directive is simple: bring clothing items that need to be mended to the Jacksonport Town Hall and the Harborettes will take care of it free of charge (no zippers, please).
For community members insistent on giving back to the Harborettes, a bake sale will be held during the event to raise funds for their Wisconsin Bookworms project, a partnership between the Wisconsin HCE, UW-Extension Family Living Programs and Wisconsin Public Television that provides local volunteer readers, activities and free books to preschoolers across the state.
Longtime Harborette Teri Madden is the Northeast District coordinator for the Wisconsin Bookworms and has been reading to children at local daycares and Head Start programs for 16 years.
“The kids are just so excited to see us come,” Madden said. “They love the books, they love the feeling of the ‘grandmas’ coming in and reading, and they love the idea that they are able to take it home.”
This year, Madden ordered 56 sets of books to be read throughout the school year. Each set comes with eight books and costs $25 so the club holds brat frys and other fundraisers throughout the year to fund these purchases.
These philanthropic efforts touch all corners of the community, with local clubs inspired to benefit the elderly by sewing catheter, wheelchair and walker bags for local nursing home residents, making large heart pillows for area cancer patients, sponsoring community health education programs, funding scholarships and in the case of the Wisconsin/Nicaragua Partners Project, supporting families abroad by gathering school supplies, sports equipment, fabrics, sewing supplies, and donations.
Local clubs are advised by UW-Extension Family Living Educator Tenley Koehler but are given flexibility in deciding which projects they’d like to pursue. As Madden explains, HCE is really a way to establish and nurture relationships, learn new skills and contribute to the betterment of your community.
“One of the gals in our club always tells people that we’re do-gooders. We raise money so we can give it away, and that’s basically what we do,” Madden said.
“It’s using what you’ve got and everybody’s got something to give. That’s what we’re all about.”
For more on the Door County HCE or to learn how to start your own club, visit door.uwex.edu/family-living/hce.