Plains Folk

No Sewing Machines

The records come to me in good order, reflecting the modernizing bureaucracy that generated them. Every folder I open up, however, spills out the homely details of life in the countryside of the northern plains during generations past. For months I spent at least one evening every week reading the annual reports of county extension agents from southwestern North Dakota.

From the beginnings of extension on the county level in the 1920s, every agent was supposed to file an annual report—one copy to Fargo, another to Washington, and one retained locally. Unfortunately, the National Archives destroyed the federal copies many years ago. They microfilmed them first, but the destruction of the originals was stupid anyway, because they were full of original photographs that the county agents took and pasted in as illustrations. Fortunately, in North Dakota the state extension service preserved the state copies, which now repose in the North Dakota State University Archives. Repose, except when I’m rummaging through them, that is.

Certainly repose was not what most early extension workers had in mind for the farm folk of the West River. For example, in 1931 Julia E. Brekke, Extension Specialist in Clothing, backed up with a personal appearance by State Home Demonstration Leader Grace DeLong, commenced an ambitious clothing project in Bowman County. This culminated on 15 June 1933 with an Achievement Day convened at the Moonlight Pavilion, near Scranton. Some 1200 people attended.

By this time Miss Brekke was able to report that 92 sewing machines had been cleaned and adjusted, 292 aprons had been made, 519 garments had been made over, 334 wash dresses had been made, and 106 of the 112 women enrolled in the clothing program had completed a major sewing project.

Now for the Achievement Day. “The main feature of the afternoon’s program,” reported the newspaper in Bowman, “was the presentation in pageant form of the Folklore and Costumes of many lands,” with participants dancing to Victrola music. Oh yes, here are the fine photos documenting each folklore group in procession—English, Norwegian, Spanish, Dutch, Colonial, and Early Frontier. Women play all the parts, of course, and so some have to dress as men. In the Spanish group most are outfitted in dark lace and veils, but some are wearing matador pants and sashes.

The climax of the pageant was a patriotic group featuring Uncle Sam and Miss Columbia. Uncle Sam looks rather feminine, while Miss Columbia looks like she would make a pretty good threshing hand.

Clearly, these Bowman County women were energized by extension. Elsewhere, however, county staff recognized that what country women most needed was some time off. Adams, Bowman, Stark, Grant, and Hettinger counties went together to organize a “women’s vacation camp” at the old H.T. Ranch.

“The camp gave the women an opportunity to completely forget household duties,” intoned the Adams County agent in 1930, “as the meals were prepared for them and the dishes washed. There were no children to worry about as they were left at home with the rest of the worries.”

The camp was not simple idleness. There were some talks and demonstrations, and calisthenics (done to Victrola music). But there also were sings, walks, movies shown in the log ranch house, and a roaring bonfire outside.

“All of the women present voted for a similar camp next year,” wrote the agent. “Several have written a word of appreciation for the pleasant time they had while in camp.” I should think. No sewing machines.

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