Plains Folks: County Extension Work

Isern, Tom. "Plains Folks: County Extension Work." Grand Forks Herald, 20 December 2003, 4.

This week marks the retirement of a remarkable woman: Sharon D. Anderson, the first female director of the state Extension Service in the history of North Dakota. She was appointed in 1994 and took office in 1995, a development that seemed surprising at the time. Now that I've learned more about the history of Extension in the region, I'm surprised it took so long.

Some weeks ago I was writing about all sorts of odd things I was finding in old county agent files: construction of farm buildings, pest control campaigns, women's retreats and community celebrations. Since then I've put a talented gang of students, the Senior Seminar in History at North Dakota State University, to work in the same records, county agent files from west of the Missouri River. These are in the university archives.

The students have taught me a lot, not only about the story of Extension but also about grassroots community life on the northern plains. Here are some things I have learned.

Organizing county Extension agents was harder here than anywhere else in the country. In the 1920s and early 1930s, many counties declined to support county agents, or if they had them, voted them out. The reasons for the difficulty here than in other parts of the country. Historians of Extension generally portray this as a conflict between county agents, agents of modernity, and rural people, holders of tradition. Here on the northern plains, though, as in so many matters, ethnicity was key. Germans from Russia in particular, but also some other immigrant communities, were cool toward county agents. County agents too often were clueless about all this. Most all the early ones had Anglo-American surnames. They came from an agricultural college where most all the administrators and senior faculty had Anglo-American surnames. They came to counties full of ethnics and immediately commenced denouncing the "foreign element." Truth to tell, these guys deserved to be run out of the county, and that's what happened! Two things made it possible for Extension eventually to take root in the counties. First, there was the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt. To get into the commodity programs of 1933 and get those much-needed checks, you had to have at least an emergency agent in your county. Then, the agents learned that women and kids were more amenable to organizational work than men. Youth and Homemaker Clubs were the base of Extension organization. Work with the men was shaky.

This ethnic angle strikes me as something profound about community life and about the potential for community change. County agents with names like Newcomer, Eastgate, or Poe struggled and, as I read their reports, they felt besieged. In 1936, though, an agent named Buchli took over in Stark County, and immediately Extension youth groups sprang up all across the eastern townships, the German-Russian belt of the county.

The other memorable finding is the importance of women to Extension and, conversely, of Extension to women. There has been some trashing of Extension by rural historians who see Extension as part of the male dominance of women, as an enforcer of gender roles. Well, yes, gender roles were strict in those days, and Extension certainly reinforced social values along those lines, but within the woman's sphere, Extension encouraged personal development and community leadership that was constructive and sometimes startling.

A certain conclusion: without the Homemakers clubs, Extension would have been marginal at best.

Our appreciation is extended to Tom Isern for permission to publish this column.

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