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Homemakers clubs change focus over 80 years

December 26, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

Alice Jones rolled into Washington County in the fall of 1917 armed with information about sewing, cooking and canning.

By the end of the year, the home demonstration agent from the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service had organized women in the county into three homemakers clubs. This year, the two surviving clubs, in Cavetown and Clear Spring, mark their 80th anniversaries.

Over the years, the organization has changed it name and focus. Homemaking skills have largely given way to community activism and awareness programs.

"We do touch on that a little bit, but not too much. As the times change, the purpose and everything have changed," said Darlene Semler, president of the Clear Spring club. The Washington County Homemakers now pursue a wide agenda ranging from an education campaign to preserve the Chesapeake Bay to providing low-interest loans to college students.

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Each local chapter has its own causes, too.

Clear Spring, for instance, raises money for the fight against muscular dystrophy and donates food to a local food bank, Semler said.

Semler said the club also sponsors periodic community outreach campaigns. This year, for instance, the club raised money for a local boy who was burned in a fire. Last year, the group helped stock the nurse's office at Clear Spring Elementary School.

"We try to do it in our own community," she said.

The homemakers clubs have changed so much because the country has, said Judy Willingham, former president of the county organization. When the first were formed in 1917, Washington County was far more rural and the role of women was radically different, she said.

An act of Congress in 1914 created cooperative extension services at the nation's land-grant universities, including the University of Maryland. Shortly afterward, the school sent demonstration agents throughout the state to teach women basic skills needed to run a household.

Chores like cooking and canning vegetables were much more complicated in an era before technological advances, Willingham said.

But as women began leaving the home in increasing numbers and became more active in the community, the club changed, Willingham said. The organization has taken up causes from seat belt laws to child abuse.

"You pick a topic and we've done it," she said.

For many years, county women would also travel to the University of Maryland for a week of in-depth study. The women would stay on campus for what was called "short course," Willingham said.

In 1922, the club changed its name to the Washington County Federation of Rural Women's Clubs, Willingham said. The organization changed its name several more times over the decades, she said.

But Semler said the group changed its name back to Washington County Homemakers two years ago when it broke away from the national organization. She said club members deaffiliated because they did not feel they were getting enough for their dues.

The changing times have also placed a strain on the clubs, however.

At one time, Willingham said there were more than 30 clubs and about 1,200 members throughout the county. Today, that number has dwindled to about 300 as clubs have disbanded.

"It's tough getting new members. The young ones are working away from the home. The young people are too busy," Winders said.

And Semler, who is 58, said she is among the younger members.

But Willingham expressed confidence that the clubs will continue to adapt and remain relevant.

"The interest has always been there. Just like any organization, membership falls off and comes back again," Willingham said.

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