Ah, the days of the Home Demonstration Club meetings

The front cover of the 1947 Home Demonstration Club Program shows a map of Cocke County and the locations of the clubs.

When I was a lad, back in the 1950s and early 1960s, my mother was an active member of Sinking Creek Home Demonstration Club.

Recently a program book from 1947 for Cocke County’s local clubs surfaced in some estate papers. In looking over the program, I learned quite a bit about this integral part of my mother’s life.

The front cover of the book features a Cocke County map and the communities. Several of the community names are marked with an asterisk, and I’m assuming these meant that area boasted a home demonstration club.

Those identified in this way were Salem, Forest Hills, Long Creek, Del Rio, Newport, Bridgeport, Bogard, English Creek, and Rankin. Communities lacking an asterisk were Talley Memorial (Point Pleasant), Ravens Branch, Hartford, Liberty (Upper Cosby), and Cosby.

The home demonstration clubs were overseen by the state extension service. In 1947, according to the book, C.E. Brehm was Agricultural Extension Service Director, and B.M. Elrod was the District County Agricultural Agent. Miss Oma Worley served as District Home Agent, and would have been the connection between the state agency and the local clubs.

Here in Cocke County, in 1947, J. Merrill Bird was County Agricultural Agent, C.A. Flowers was Assistant County Agent, Miss Ruth Tate was Home Demonstration Agent, and Miss Elizabeth Cureton was County Extension Secretary.

There was also a County Council with the following officers: Mrs. Robert Hickey, president; Mrs. Conard Neas, vice-president, and Mrs. Voyle Maloy, secretary-treasurer. The yearbook committee was composed of Mrs. C.E. Ottinger, Miss Elizabeth Stokley, and Mrs. Voyle Maloy. (These were the days when married ladies were identified by their husband’s names.)

Another ten years would pass before my memories of the home demonstration club started. By that time, Hugh Russell was County Agent, Raymond Sutton, was Assistant County Agent, Miss Mary Louise Horton was the Home Agent, and, I believe, Bettye Jo Carroll was office secretary.

My mother was a member of Sinking Creek Home Demonstration Club. Although it took its name from the stream which flows near our home and by the country fairgrounds, club members haled from various parts of the county. The club met monthly in members’ homes.

I have vivid memories of two days the club gathered at the home of Ida Strange. The earliest came when I was about three or four years old, and Ida’s daughter Sue and Libbye had the tasked of watching me while the ladies met in another room. We were outside and somehow I fell in a mudhole. I still remember them filling a dishpan with hot, sudsy water and cleaning me up. I don’t think the adults were ever told of the incident.

On the second occasion, I was about 12 years old. My mother didn’t drive, and somehow I was allowed to take the family’s 1959 Buick (the car of the big fins) and take her to the club meeting. Big stuff!

When it came time for my mother to host the group, a massive cleaning operation was conducted. She was always an immaculate housekeeper, but when the “ladies of the club” were coming, surgery could have been performed anywhere in the house.

Some time ago, Tommy Bible and I were talking about our mothers and their love of the club. His mother, Juanita, was also a member of Sinking Creek, and he said when they were headed down Bybee way, he was tasked with washing the baseboards!

When the ladies convened at our home, I was told to make myself scarce. Sometimes my dad took me with him to the Co-op for an afternoon of unsupervised pleasure, or we might go to our “Edwina farm” for several hours.

Each member prided herself as a hostess. Great care was taken in deciding on how to arrange the chairs, having a bouquet or two of fresh flowers, and, of course, refreshments.

Do you remember the days of the “sandwich sets,” pretty glass plates with an inset corner for a matching punch cup? Usually these were called into play on meeting day. I can almost guarantee that the day’s menu featured Jell-o in some form, perhaps molded and probably with the addition of fruit, either cottage or cream cheese, and, if the budget allowed, chopped walnuts.

Each meeting featured a program devoted to homemaking and/or personal development. Sometimes a visiting speaker presented a program on topics such as personal development or a new food preservation technique.

Many, but not all, of the members were farm wives and looked forward to June Dairy Month. Each year members held a recipe contest devoted to dairy products: milk and cheese, for example. Club winners then vied for the title of county winner, and from there to the district and state levels.

Starting around the first of April, my mother would start working on her entry with my father and me as her guinea pigs. Each year’s theme was devoted to a certain course of a meal: an appetizer, a salad, a main course, or a dessert. I always enjoyed the years when a dessert recipe was the requirement.

One month’s program was usually devoted to sewing.

Now my mother was left-handed and loathed anything to do with a needle and thread. She once told me that when her mother, a superior seamstress, tried to show her how to sew both became very frustrated because Mama did everything backwards.

After the nursing home opened on College Street, the club met at the home of Mary Hurst and spent the day making lap robes for the residents. Knowing my mother’s abhorrence of sewing, I asked her, “Just what did you contribute to the cause?”

She laughed and said, “Mostly I stayed in the kitchen and did my best to keep the conversation flowing.”

Club members also gathered countywide for their annual “Dress Review,” where they modeled their creations and prizes were awarded. Needless to say my mother found other things to do that day!

The broadening of one’s mind was also a focus. At least one club meeting called for members to share reviews of a recently read book. This was right down my mother’s alley, for she loved to read and enjoyed several genres. I still remember how moved she was after reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

Each September, when the Tennessee-Carolina Fair opened on Labor Day, club members worked diligently to prepare a club booth. First prize was $40, quite a sum in those days. Competition was my mother’s middle name, and she plotted and planned with the best of them to come up with a catchy theme. One year, she and other members met at the fairgrounds on Saturday and painted their booth an eye-catching green. The following day, another club, whose members had younger children, gathered to work on their booth and allowed their children to climb into and run around the newly painted adjacent booth. Dusty footprints abounded. I’m sure some of those mothers still remember my mother’s firm admonition and insistence on her club’s booth being repainted.

Two other special events in the club year were the club picnic each summer and the Christmas party.

Husbands and/or significant others, children, and guests were invited to the picnic. It was usually held in August at the Waterville Picnic Pavilion.

Members provided all of the food and drinks, and most ladies took this responsibility seriously. There were usually just the three of us—my parents and I—and occasionally a friend of mine tagged along. My mother’s idea of taking a “covered dish” stretched to a full picnic hamper, plus a Pyrex dish or two, and a cooler of drinks. Fried chicken and ham, deviled eggs, pickled beans, pimento cheese sandwiches, a relish tray with pickles, onions, olives, radishes, carrots, and other fresh vegetables, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, corn on the cob, fried okra, and freshly baked cornbread. She filled the cooler with three or four kinds of soft drinks and plenty of ice.

She prided herself on her desserts, a specialty being Cherry Delight.

She believed in taking enough food for every member of her party with leftovers for the other guests to enjoy. She always feared a shortage of food.

Eddie Walker and I still chuckle about the year one member arrived with a total of seven people in her party and only brought, as my mother sniffed, “a little dish of carrots.”

Maude O’Neil was NOT amused.

The annual Christmas party brought the year to a successful close. Rather than meet in a private home, the members usually gathered at the Newport Restaurant of the Coffee Pot for a sit-down meal prepared and served by someone else.

It was an evening affair. Again husbands, children, and guests were invited. The dress code called for Sunday best. I believe my mother put as much thought into her attire for the meeting as a Hollywood actress headed to the Oscars. Everything had to match: dress, purse, hat, gloves, purse, and shoes.

I always had a good time, but quite frankly it wasn’t as much fun as the picnic. The evening also included the singing of Christmas carols, without accompaniment. I’ll just say it, without malice in my heart: no one in the club would have made the cut on America’s Got Talent. But what they lacked in harmony, they made up for with gusto.

The identities of the year’s Secret Pals were revealed, and presents were exchanged.

The next day found the telephones humming as members discussed the evening, critiquing other members choice of attire and vowing “I wouldn’t tell this to ANYONE but you, but I wouldn’t be caught dead in an outfit like that!”

As I recall, in my mother’s day, the active clubs were Salem, Forest Hills, Newport, Town & Country, and Sinking Creek. As such, they are all gone today, the matrons who worked so diligently on their many projects and programs now deceased.

But the wonderful memories remain.

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