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Half Century Club Gathers

June 28, 2000

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) _ Fifty years of memories will be on the agenda when the Half Century Homemakers Club gathers for the last time.

Current and former members will look at photos chronicling the club’s history. They’ll display minutes of meetings past. They’ll provide a short program for visitors.

Then the last Cooperative Extension Service club in Grant County will disband at its July 8 meeting in Revillo.

Membership has dwindled from more than 20 in the early years to eight as more women have entered the work force, said Secretary Delores Street, who joined the club when it formed in 1950.

``The whole situation has changed,″ Street said. ``When the clubs were formed, most of the young women were homemakers who weren’t working out of the home. Now, almost every young married woman is working someplace.″

In the middle of the century, Grant County had more than 20 of the clubs, said Val Braun, the county’s Extension educator. Even as recently as a decade ago, there were 14, Braun said.

Originally, the Extension Service provided lessons on topics such as cooking, sewing and crafts, Street said. Two or three members from each club would attend the seminars and return to share what they had learned. That was more practical than all the members _ there were more than 200 countywide at one time _ going to county seat Milbank en masse.

``They served a very valid educational purpose,″ Braun said.

Several factors contributed to the clubs’ demise. Because of the demands of their jobs and families, fewer women are involved in service groups these days, officials with the club’s state organization say.

``The state of our whole society is that young people just aren’t joining things,″ said Margaret Suhr, president of the state organization from 1997 to 1999. ``They’re just too worn out, really, to do one more thing.″

Also, the national organization recently enacted major dues increases and changed the group’s name from the South Dakota Association for Family and Community Education to the South Dakota Community and Family Extension Leaders. The name change and higher dues symbolized a new bureaucratic focus that did not sit well locally, Suhr said.

``We just couldn’t conform to that, and we lost a lot of members.″

Clubs across the state felt the same way, she said, and in September, the state organization severed ties to the national group. Several more states have done so, too.

Compounding the problem has been reduced funding in recent years that led to cutbacks in county-level programs, said Phyllis Roggenbuck, president and 15-year member of the Half Century Homemakers.

``Now we just do our own thing,″ she said. The group may invite a foreign exchange student to speak during the monthly meetings, for instance, or have a nurse provide health information.

But the groups were once part of the backbone of the state, said Suhr, who said she is crestfallen about the loss of members. The 1,200 members today compare with nearly 19,000 members in 1,340 clubs in 1958. Earlier in the century, membership in the state reached 36,000.

``It just breaks my heart because this has been such a grand organization throughout South Dakota,″ Suhr said. ``Sometimes you almost wish you could have been involved back then. It was the social outlet for isolated women.″

Larry Tidemann says the social dimension was key to the clubs’ early popularity.

``It became an outreach for the rural housewife who didn’t necessarily have the opportunities to see some of the things that the city dwellers had opportunities to go to,″ said Tidemann, state Cooperative Extension Service director. ``It gave them a chance to get out of the house and network.″

But that was only part of the picture, said Suhr, who farms with her husband in rural Aurora.

The clubs’ many service activities included playing an instrumental role in bringing the hot-lunch program to South Dakota schools. They have provided educational loans and scholarships since their beginnings in 1928. They have supported countless 4-H clubs. And more recently, they have bolstered the Character Counts program in schools.

``Our organization is sort of the silent volunteers of South Dakota,″ Suhr said. ``It’s just amazing when you go to area meetings and each county gives a report of what it has accomplished in the past year.″

The women give their time with little thought of reward, she said.

``It’s just that Midwest mentality of, ’Oh well, we’ve just always done that.‴

The loss of young members is unfortunate, both because it means volunteerism is waning and because the clubs provide a wealth of information relevant to young families, Suhr said.

``The young women who do join our organization as a general rule love it,″ she said. ``But our problem is, somehow we just can’t sell it to young people.″

Club members in Revillo wax reminiscent and a bit sad as they near the end of an era. All told, 86 women have been members during the group’s existence, including the 15 charter members.

But it does not spell the end of the friendships that have sustained the members for decades. After the July open house at the Revillo Town Hall, they likely will continue meeting socially, Street said.

The end was not exactly a bolt from the blue anyway.

``So many things have changed in the rural areas,″ Street said. ``We’ve been able to see it coming for quite a few years.″

Still, sticking around until 2000 seemed only right.

``It was going to be our 50th year, so we decided to hang on.″

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