Extension group began lifelong friendships for rural Wilmont women

·4 min read

Oct. 13—WORTHINGTON — Being "friends forever" might be an ideal little girls dream of, but the women of the Extension Home Study Group of Nobles County have been building a friendship for at least 65 years now, and the group is still going strong.

Phyllis Schettler and Arlene Joens are charter members of the group, which began as an outreach program of University of Minnesota Extension. It was intended to bring farmwives together as a group so they wouldn't be isolated at home, and teach them useful skills, like baking bread, sewing a man's suit and refinishing furniture.

"Every township had an extension group," said Audrey Brake. There were 21 groups in Nobles County alone when they got started.

Typically, the county's Extension office would offer a class each month and all of the local clubs would send two of their members to take the lesson. Then those members would return to their own groups and pass their newfound knowledge on. Lesson titles for 1970, for example, included "Buymanship of Bedding" and "Selection & Use of Blender."

"It was very educational," said Leona Lewis, who recalled large groups of women bringing their sewing machines for a lesson, some of which were very complex. "Some groups... would skip the lesson. We never missed our lesson."

Norma Johanning and Lewis recalled making men's suits, including jackets, and Lewis said she'd worked so hard on hers she couldn't bear to give it away.

Lessons weren't just on the basics, either, but often included time-sensitive or trendy topics like tie-dye, kabobs or fondue.

"Anything new that came out, we were the first to try it," said Diane Green of Fulda.

"Anything that was modern," added Arlene Joens of Wilmont.

Brake still remembers a German food lesson involving red cabbage, which she didn't care for, but other recipes did stand the test of time, like the pie crust.

"I used that recipe for years," said Donna Menke, recalling its use of lard.

The pie crust meeting was memorable for other reasons as well.

Typically, each meeting would have a leader, who would give the lesson, and a hostess, who would provide lunch and space to meet in her own home.

"The hostess always did the mostest," Green shared.

There were occasional disasters, like the time someone put just-cooked hotdish on plates that had been sitting outside in wintry Minnesota weather, cracking the glass, or the time someone slipped, fell and broke her leg, but those incidents were rare.

"That was our day out, and our husbands had to take care of the kids," Schettler said. The husbands didn't mind doing it, at least partly because they loved the food the women were learning to make.

During planting time and harvest, however, the men had to focus on getting the crops either in or out of the fields, so the club members brought their kids with them if they were too little to go to school.

"I always remember that pie crust meeting," Menke said. "(The children) would track that flour all over the living room."

Extension stopped doing the lessons at some point, so now the group finds their own. Sometimes they bring outsiders in to speak or give a demonstration. Sometimes group members present something themselves, like Lewis's lesson on folding fancy napkins or the time Barbara Springman brought a video about the POW camp in Algona, Iowa.

"We made a necklace out of dominos," recalled Yvonne Sieve, the group's newest member.

They've also made birdhouses, windchimes and garden pavers.

Over the years membership has shifted, and current members think at least 50 women, mostly from the rural Wilmont area, have belonged to their group. Lorraine Hoffman of Wilmont and Linda Beerman of Fulda are current members too.

"It was limited to 16 members because our homes couldn't hold any more," Schettler recalled.

"If you get more, how do you fit them in your living room?" Green asked.

After taking a break due to COVID-19, the group recently started meeting again at Ecumen Meadows, where some of its members live.

"We have always started our meetings with the creed, and we still do," Schettler said.

As printed in a program from 2019, the creed reads as follows: "As an Extension Study Group member, I will strive to promote a better way of life for my family, my neighbor, and myself through continuing education, community service, and support to each other.

"I believe it is my privilege and responsibility to serve to the best of my ability and to continue to improve myself while helping others to develop their potential.

"May I always be willing to accept the challenges of the day by building on the strengths of the past and looking with optimism to the future."

"It was a nice way of knowing friends and neighbors, and to be able to meet once a month and get together," Lewis said.

"It's something to look forward to," Springman agreed.

"We're lifetime friends," Green added.

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