AUGUSTA, Maine — “If you live in a home, you are a homemaker,” Deborah Killam declared Wednesday afternoon at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show.
There to spread the gospel of what it means to make a home in 2016, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator laid out a plan to assist farm families, homesteaders and urbanites alike in the dailiness of hearth and home.
“There appears to be a resurgence of interest in learning how to manage one’s household or home better. People are trying to connect with others to learn, share and work together to live better lives and to contribute to their communities in meaningful ways,” Killam said.
What sprung from the 4-H circuit in the 1940s, moved into female territory and fell victim to bracketing stereotypes. A topic once reserved for women’s groups is now ready for a remake.
The Maine Extension Homemakers Program seeks to extend the university’s resources beyond the classroom and into the communities.
“It’s a structure to support learning,” Killam said, whether that’s “gardening, cooking or the leisure arts.” The idea is to share skills, improve community and nurture leaders.
What’s on the agenda? Whatever the group decides is right. Who’s invited? “Anyone who is interested in learning new information to improve their personal, family and community life,” according to the Maine Extension Homemakers.
At heart, the volunteer program is rudimentary.
“You enlist the help of a person and share ideas with others,” Killam said.
But there is a structure. Starting out locally, homemakers assist at food pantries or with the elderly, for example. If interest builds, they can form a county group, which is usually led by a council.
Yet, for homesteaders such as Letti Harvey of Newcastle, breaking from tending to her chickens, fixing her roof and taking long walks in the woods is not easy.
“I am not a joiner,” said the former sales representative, who set out to “get back to something more real and authentic,” tied to the rhythms of nature.
Though technology keeps her connected to friends and family, it also isolates.
“We need to connect. I miss the hugs, I miss getting together,” she told those gathered.
Quilting, bees, garden and bridge clubs, churches and grange halls — rowdy barn dances — these formed a social glue of a bygone era fading across the state. Emerging homemaker networks could fill the gap.
The groups are designed to strengthen human bonds outside and inside the home.
“Whether you want to learn how to cook, make cheese, soap, lip balm, start a home-based business … this is a vehicle to do what you want to do,” Killam said.
In the audience was Ron Clark, 62, of Leeds. The new farmer knows that traditional roles of homemaking have shifted. His wife, Jeanne, a former paralegal, uses draft horses, cuts wood with a chainsaw and relies on her husband for some grunt work, but she is mostly self-reliant. The Connecticut transplants enjoy restoring antiques and raising chickens, but could use help with both.
“There is a gap between real homesteading and breaking into even the smallest commercial sales,” said the retired postal worker, who would like to start a cranberry operation. “There is a need for information on specific topics.”
And fewer places to find it.
When Harvey, an eighth-generation Mainer, grew up in Belfast, she wasn’t interested in learning to knit, cook or other self-reliant skills. Now she wants to learn to make beeswax candles and goat soap. She suspects the program could help.
“I think it’s fabulous. The people that knew how to do things with their hands are dying off with the Greatest Generation,” Harvey said. “It sounds like a good resource for networking and to learn from people who already do it.”