In the early 1900’s, rural women were voicing their need for help with their homemaking problems by writing to the publishers of farm magazines that were sent to their husbands. At the behest of the publishers of these magazines, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) authorized a study to suggest ways in which the USDA could assist women in rural areas. Replies, over 2200 the first month, came in from all areas of the country. The women expressed the loneliness, isolation, and lack of social and economic opportunities they experienced living on a small rural farm. The survey, along with other information the USDA had, brought about a new service to farm families based on the needs found in the regions they lived. The result was the hiring of women to become Home Demonstration Agents (HDA).
The first HDA’s were well trained in home economics, but not in raising chickens, kitchen gardens, and milking cows. The USDA quickly switched to hiring local school teachers who were only employed at those times when their students were not needed in the fields. Teachers, it turns out, were a great choice as they were well aware of the needs of the local women and their daughters. A plus was that most rural teachers had, while growing up, developed a background in farming. Using their female students as an entry into the home, the teachers started off by teaching local women proper methods of canning their crops before they spoiled.
The Home Demonstration Agent program blossomed in the South. The Smith Lever Act in 1914 formalized funding for the program, but many Southern counties also chipped in to expand the program. The agents started with a simple “Farm to Live” goal. From there the program graduated to “Live at Home,” “Make a Garden,” and finally, “Get a Pig, a Sow, a Hen.”
Home demonstration work in the South was focused on how to contribute directly to the betterment of family living conditions as well as family income. An agricultural pioneer and founder of Farmer’s Cooperative Work Division of the USDA, Dr. Seaman A. Knapp, made sure the program was successful using a simple philosophy. He said, “Do not go before your people with an elaborate program.” “Your value lies in not what you can do, but in what you can get the other people to do.”
These were the days of the Jim Crow laws where separate but equal defined race relations. Consequently, there was also a separate “Negro Home Demonstration Agent” program. Here in Jacksonville and Cherokee County it started with the hiring of Lula Ragsdale on August 1, 1922.
Lula’s first goal was to increase food production and preservation. While we cannot confirm it specifically, the first canning lessons set up by most agents like Lula were large community canning productions. Generally, they were erected on the grounds of a church or local school. The operation consisted of two zinc tubs, a solid foundation, a zinc top with an elbow and two joints of stove pipe. It seems to have been a fairly efficient design with about 500 quarts being processed on any given day. Suddenly life became a little bit more secure. The program was so successful that USDA funding went from $146,000 in 1926 to $1,325,000 by 1950.
Additionally, the agents concentrated on improving the diet, health, and living conditions of their charges. They educated people on the benefits of better toilets, window screens, secure water supplies, and home gardens to help avoid paying higher prices for food in town.
Lula’s efforts resulted in real benefits to her community. By 1928 she was presiding over twelve girls clubs and twelve women’s clubs with a combined membership of over 1400 people. That year, Lula oversaw the canning of 8,750 quarts of pickles and the curing of over 17,000 pounds of meat. Her clubs made 3,800 dresses for distribution in their community and exactly 1,150 women were involved in club related home gardening projects. Her results with poultry that year were somewhat diminished by the “big rat plague,” but still she reported that, “In the spring time when the hens are cackling and rooster crowing you can see the club women and girls going around gathering up the eggs getting ready for market on Saturday.” “Some now have cars and can go and sell the eggs and butter by noon and then get back to do the work they planned.” During 1928, Lula visited all 403 homes that were signed up with her program, many, more than once. She spent only 59 days in her office and wrote 282 letters, many on behalf of those she served.
Lula had a male counterpart, Mr. J.C. Bradford, who was the Agricultural Demonstration Agent for Cherokee County. He was keen to replicate her efforts spending only 56 days in his office and wrote 196 letters. In 1928 he conducted almost 550 “Method and Result” demonstration meetings.
We invite you to stop by and learn more about Lula Ragsdale and other leaders of their community during Black History Month at your Vanishing Texana Museum. The museum is open every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Parking and admission at our 300 South Bolton location are free.