Menoken Rural Sisterhood

Members of the Menoken Homemakers Club: women who were the movers and shakers in my rural North Dakota childhood community; wives of hard-working farmers and laborers who toiled from sunup to sundown earning an honest living on the prairie; mothers of my school mates.

What is a homemakers club you might ask? Let me delight you with a little history. Homemakers clubs partnered with their county extension offices and began to appear in this country in the 1920s. The goal was to strengthen individuals and families to improve their quality of living through continuing education, leadership development, and community service. Homemakers might be neighbors, friends, or even relatives.

I think of what a profound effect the homemakers in my small rural community of Menoken had as they grouped together to make a positive impact on our locale! Individually, they were cooks and bakers who could create filling meals with simple ingredients. Banded together as a group, they were the “official” Menoken restaurant (no payment required) wherever they set up shop, serving food across the gamut of life from local baby showers and wedding receptions to post-funeral meals.

In that mid-20th Century era when it was common to home sew clothing, many of these talented homemakers studied pattern books and fabrics to economically create garments for themselves and their family members. In my family, the cabinet lid on the treadle sewing machine was never closed as the machine sat in readiness to help mold thread and fabric into a new dress or blouse . My mom had the creative talent to look at a garment pictured in the treasure chest, known to my sister and me as the Montgomery Ward or Sears catalog, and recreate that article of clothing while sitting at her Singer.

Women of this rural sisterhood were helpmates to their husbands in growing food for their families. Raising a plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables in gardens weeded frequently with a sturdy hoe was part of their rural lifestyle.
Not only were these women caregivers to their families but also to grieving families in the community with a heartfelt outreach of sympathy and sustenance to those in need.

These active volunteers were the citizenry of the approximately ten-square-mile farming area who served as the self-appointed Menoken Chamber of Commerce, charity fund drive organizers, community betterment group, and social chairwomen. And to top it all off, they could do-se-do at the monthly square dance gathering in the Menoken Town Hall with the best of the big-city square dancers. They brought femininity to the prairie and proudly helped their husbands develop the rural population into a progressive village.

Dear Readers, let me chat with you about my little-girl, mouse-in-the-corner experiences with the members of the Menoken Homemakers Club.

When the calendar on the kitchen wall noted it was Mom’s turn to hostess the monthly homemakers’ meeting, it was a day of excitement for this tot!

My sister and I vacuumed and dusted the house and eventually set up a circle of chairs around the perimeter of the living room using every chair we owned in anticipation of every member’s attendance.

Mom baked a beautiful dessert, set out the rarely used china and silver flatware, and started the club-owned, multi-cup coffee pot to “perking.” She garbed herself in a clean, well-pressed cotton dress, high heels, and tangee lipstick purchased at Woolworth’s (definitely the fashionable lip color of the era). The frilly but impractical “company” apron that often laid in repose in the bedroom chest of drawers came out of retirement for this event. This apron was made of sheer organza that was beautiful but really didn’t do much to protect the skirt underneath. Its always-present pocket, suitable to hold a flower-embroidered hankie used to capture a dainty “kerchoo,” was stitched appropriately within hand’s reach. Dear Reader, does this bring back memories for you?

After the neighborhood homemakers came toodling up our driveway in their Fords and Chevys and knocked on our door, Mom graciously greeted each and every one of them into our home as if they were homemaking royalty.

At the top of the hour, the club’s president called the meeting to order. When the monthly business meeting began, using parliamentary procedure, of course, local officers and committee women officially directed the business at hand. It just might be that time of year to organize the preparation and serving of the November Election Day supper or the Halloween party for local little ghosts and goblins both held at the town hall sans running water or indoor plumbing. It did have electricity and a coal-fed furnace that kept the building alive and jumping when events were held there, though. (Who needed indoor plumbing when a quick trip to the sub-zero outhouse was just a sprint away!)

The homemakers’ planned New Year’s Eve progressive supper was always a lot of fun! How should I know, you might ask? We had the only fairly new house in the community with a cement floor in the basement, so our house was always the last stop on the progressive supper circuit. Why this was perfect for dancing off those previously consumed calories! I shyly watched as homemakers and their dates for the evening (their husbands) “cut a rug,” dancing to the sounds of the 50s as the turntable on our 45 rpm record player went round and round for hours.

Now, about the subject of food…let’s talk candy, Dear Readers! My absolutely favorite event planned by the homemakers club was the Christmas candy exchange! (In later years, cookies were added to this sweet event.) I could hardly wait to see all of the colorful homemade candies perfectly positioned on pristine white paper plates. My little fingers anxiously awaited surrounding multiple new candies as my taste buds began to salivate! Now, homemaker Marge sometimes made candy using mashed potatoes. With outside edges dipped in chocolate, the candy’s center was tinted a jolly Christmas green. Just the thought of potatoes being an ingredient in this little sweet caused consternation in my young taste-testing mind. But, it was delish! Oh, there was absolutely angel-like divinity, creamy brown sugar caramel squares, and beautifully hand-dipped chocolate covered fondants just to name a few. Traditionally, Mom would get out the heavy aluminum kettle and make Dad’s favorite smooth and creamy Peanut Butter Fudge. Dad doted on the sweet inch-squares of sugary peanut butter flavor, but he only got to savor them at Christmas time when Mom had made an extra batch for the candy exchange.

As the holiday season approaches, are you attending a candy exchange, Dear Readers? Perhaps you need a time-honored recipe to captivate the sweet taste buds of friends and family. I take delight in sharing the recipe for Dad’s favorite homemade candy.

Oh…and yes, additionally at the monthly meetings, the homemakers were educated in ways to improve family life via lessons offered by the county extension office. But to this little junior homemaker, it was all about observing neighbors joining hands with neighbors in a rural sisterhood to make our little Menoken community a terrific place to live… and the homemade Christmas candy, of course!

DAD’S FAVORITE PEANUT BUTTER FUDGE

INGREDIENTS:
1 c. brown sugar
1 c. granulated sugar
1 c. sour cream
1/8 t. salt
1 c. peanut butter
½ t. vanilla

PROCEDURE: In a heavy saucepan, mix sugars, salt, and cream. Bring to a boil without stirring. Cook to a soft ball stage. (A candy thermometer should reach 235 degrees. Or test the mixture by dropping a bit of it into cold water. It will form a soft ball when gently manipulated with a finger.) Cool to lukewarm. Beat until creamy. Fold in peanut butter and vanilla. Line a 9-inch square pan with aluminum foil. Brush a very thin coating of butter over the bottom and sides of the foil. Pour the candy mixture into pan. Cool and cut into 1-inch squares.

Miss NiNi