LUSK – Node Homemakers Club President Heather Polen can rattle off ingredients and measurements corresponding to each of the organization’s signature pies from memory.
Etta Patterson, a first year pie maker, listens to Polen’s instructions, kneading butter, peanut butter and powdered sugar for a Reese’s pie with gloved hands, wearing an apron and a smile.
The duo spent Monday evening preparing for the impending Node Homemakers Club Day at the Niobrara County Fair, during which they would sell 16 pies and lunch food like hot dogs and loaded french fries topped with cheese, sour cream and bacon.
Like Homemakers Clubs themselves, pie making is based in tradition. Clubs have been gathering in the fairgrounds kitchen since the 1950s to sell the desserts and raise money for the club and whatever causes they support, Polen said.
“Pie was always a traditional dessert at any gathering,” Polen said.
Each of Niobrara County’s three Homemakers Clubs – Node, Indian Creek and Road Runners – has a designated day at the fair. Funds raised by all three clubs are combined and divided evenly amongst them. That way, there’s not a sense of competition, according to Polen.
“There’s no ‘my day was better than your day,’’ Polen said.
Is pie a ‘thing’ at the Niobrara County Fair?
“Definitely,” said Donna Hanson, 38-year member of Indian Creek Homemakers. She said Niobrara County has its pies, whereas Rapid City in South Dakota, for example, boasts its creampuffs.
Carrie Olson is known for her rhubarb pie. Fairgoers can count on Hanson to come bearing her pecan pie.
“Everybody has a favorite,” Polen said.
This year, the Fair kitchen accommodated fewer of the Node Homemakers than it has in previous years, partly due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The 11 member club includes a number of women deemed high risk, so Polen and Patterson were responsible for what Polen referred to as “the pie making marathon.”
Pies containing dairy must be made in a commercial kitchen to adhere to food safety measures, Polen said, so their candy and cream pies are made in-house while members are free to bake fruit and other non-dairy pies from home.
Polen and Patterson know to talk to one another in raised voices to adapt to the roar of the gas oven and the whine of the industrial-sized air conditioner.
Patterson carefully halves Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and dices Mini Snickers Bars and sprinkles them atop their respective candy pies. She said she doesn’t yet consider herself a pie maker, but her fellow club members are showing her the ropes.
“All these ladies have information that needs to be passed down,” Patterson said. “I do have a sour cream raisin pie recipe that came from a friend’s grandmother.”
‘We have to shift focus’
Homemakers Clubs are ‘a dying breed,’ according to Hanson.
The organizations, also referred to as Home Demonstration Clubs, were created by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Extension Service in the opening days of the 20th century. The goal of the extension service is to improve the lives of farm families, according to The Home Demonstration Agent, published by the USDA in July 1951.
“To do this, [the extension service] must take to these families not only the science of agriculture but that of homemaking as well,” wrote M.L. Wilson, former Director of Extension Work.
By definition, a homemaker is a person, usually a woman, who manages their family’s household, which involves activities like sewing, cooking, baking and gardening.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women’s participation in the U.S. labor force has climbed since World War II, from 32.7% in 1948 to 56.8% in 2016.
“Before almost every wife worked out [of the home], they wanted some way to entertain themselves and homemaking was a much bigger deal than it is now,” Hanson said. “It got started as a way to socialize.”
Polen said pioneer women and ranch wives living in rural communities when these clubs originated would relish meetings, or “club days.” Living on farms with neighbors few and far between, they were often secluded from other women. Sometimes, they would trudge through piles of snow to meet with their friends.
“Club day might be the only time you see another lady,” Polen said.
Homemakers Clubs have evolved with women themselves, now adapting their own missions and acting as “more than a social club,” according to Polen.
The Node Homemakers fundraise and advocate for Operation Underground Railroad, an organization that assists law enforcement in rescuing victims of sex trafficking. Polen said she takes pride in the fact a small group of women in Wyoming can help this cause by donating and educating the community about their work.
Hanson said the Indian Creek Homemakers make bereavement teddy bears for community members who’ve lost loved ones. Since they started, they’ve distributed 895 bears.
They also host programs for children and teens, who don’t typically have skills common to Homemakers in the 21st century, Hanson said.
“We’ve had kids come in and we’ve shown them how to make homemade butter and homemade jams and biscuits, things like that,” Hanson said.
Patterson said her daughters ask her about Node Homemakers Club since it’s started working with OUR.
“We have to shift the focus of Homemakers if we want to continue,” Polen said.
When Homemakers Clubs were originally created, women joined those within their respective communities. With more transportation and ability to travel between towns, they can now join any of the county’s three organizations, regardless of their address.
As a “homeschooling mom,” Polen said she needed “lady connections.” She opted to join Node Homemakers in particular, because she wanted to develop a closer friendship with one of its members.
Years later, she recruited Patterson while visiting her thrift store, The Cramped Closet.
Node Homemakers Club is “a sisterhood,” Polen said. Many club members are widowed, divorced, helping loved ones battling illnesses or battling illnesses themselves.
“All different women from all walks of life,” Patterson added.
Their relationships go beyond their monthly meetings and pie making marathons. For Polen, the group formed in order to take care of each other’s needs.
“Sometimes life can be bumpy, and you need the girls,” Polen said.
Life has been bumpy navigating COVID-19, especially for some of the high-risk members of this organization, Polen said. The women have stayed connected via texts and phone calls, in addition to a socially distanced meeting outside of Polen’s house to coordinate Fair kitchen plans.
“We had to get our ducks in a row when we found out Fair was happening,” Polen said.
Patterson and Polen make six pies in just an hour and a half: two Reese’s, two Snickers and two coconut cream. How many they make of each flavor is decided on the fly, determined by which ingredients remain.
“The pie marathon is a fixture,” Polen said. “After a couple of hours, you’re all set and ready to go for the morning.”
The remaining pies arrive with club members the day of the sale, including pumpkin chiffon, triple berry, dutch apple, rhubarb and banana cream.
According to Polen, Node Homemakers sold more than 40 slices of pie in 2019.
“We have all hands on deck for Club Day,” Polen said.
Before the rest of the club arrives early the next morning to prepare for their 11-2 lunch timeslot, Patterson and Polen make sure to proudly hang the club’s centennial banner outside the kitchen area, where guests will later hold out their hands awaiting their favorite slices of pie. Printed on vinyl designed to look like woodwork, the banner reads “Happy 100th Anniversary Node Homemakers Nov. 10, 2018” for all to see.
The Node club members’ pies were available Tuesday, but the other clubs will be providing their confections today (Wednesday) through Friday at the Extension building on the Niobrara County Fairgrounds.