Women Agents Demonstrated their Importance to Texas History
AgriLife TODAY, March 8, 2012, by Paul Schattenberg
COLLEGE STATION – An important but often overlooked part of Texas history can be found by following the footsteps of early Extension educators — home demonstration agents who began teaching practical information and household management skills to Texas families a century ago this year, said Texas AgriLife Extension Service experts.
“We owe a great debt to educational pioneers like Edna Westbrook Trigg, who was hired in 1912 to bring hands-on instruction to people who otherwise would have had little or no access to it,” said Nancy Granovsky, AgriLife Extension family economics sp
ecialist in the family and consumer sciences program. “AgriLife Extension is an educational outreach agency of The Texas A&M University System. Today the agency and other system entities have hundreds of professionals and paraprofessionals who have followed in Trigg’s footsteps and now serve hundreds of thousands of Texas residents each year.”
Home demonstration agents started clubs across Texas to involve more women in bringing household-related skills and information primarily to rural families. Above is a group photo of a Girl’s Home Demonstration Club taken at the state fair in Dallas during an educational event in 1921. (Photo courtesy of TAMU Cushing Memorial Library and Archives)
The education Edna Trigg and other home demonstration agents and their successors provided toward improving the quality of life for Texas families is significant and fits perfectly with this year’s National Women’s History Month theme of Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment, she added.
Granovsky said the National Women’s History Project has designated March as National Women’s History Month. According to organization materials, the project is a “clearinghouse providing information and training in multicultural women’s history for educators, community organizations, and parents – for anyone wanting to expand their understanding of women’s contributions to U.S. history.”
“Through the first half of the 20th century, these home demonstration agents went to homes throughout rural Texas and provided practical demonstrations and advice on vegetable gardening, canning, sewing, cooking, household management, family health, poultry-raising and other aspects of daily life,” Granovsky said. “This all started with Edna Trigg, who served a the state’s first home demonstration agent.”
Granovsky said practical demonstrations in homes were often one of the only ways women in rural Texas could acquire the information and skills needed to improve their lives.
“In those days, women were not only responsible f
or maintaining the household and raising the children, but also taking care of other chores, maintaining family health, tending the vegetable garden, feeding the chickens and collecting the eggs,” she said. “Some women were able to apply skills they learned from home demonstrations toward starting a home-based business, like selling eggs, in order to supplement household income. This gave them an even greater sense of accomplishment and self-worth.”
Women in rural Texas were not only expected to raise the children, cook and do household chores; their “women’s work” also often included planting and tending the family vegetable garden, preserving the family’s food and raising poultry to sell or for the family table. (Photo courtesy of TAMU Cushing Memorial Library and Archives)
According to the Texas State Historical Association, Trigg, who passed away in 1946, was a teacher and principal of the small rural Liberty School when approached in 1911 by a representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to serve as a home demonstration agent for Milam County, west of Bryan.
The duties of the position, which would start the following year, were to be conducted during evenings and weekends in addition to her existing school responsibilities. Her salary would be $100 per month, out of which she would pay work-related expenses, including room and board.
“Much of Edna’s work involved traveling alone to remote areas of the county by horse and buggy and staying overnight in strangers’ farmhouses,” said Dr. Jennie Kitching, who retired as AgriLife Extension’s associate director for human sciences in 1998. “A lot of what she demonstrated was self-taught or came through personal experience.”
Kitching said over the years Trigg served as a role model for numerous home demonstration agents and their successors with the present-day Texas AgriLife Extension Service.
Trigg’s appointment as “collaborator” for Milam County was approved and signed by Dr. Bradford Knapp, who would later become president of T
exas Technological College, now Texas Tech University. Knapp was the son of Seaman K. Knapp, known as the architect of the national cooperative extension movement. Trigg’s appointment by the USDA and New York Board of Education preceded by two years the official establishment of the Cooperative Extension Service by an act of Congress – the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.
Her primary duty as collaborator was to coordinate, organize and supervise Girls’ Tomato Clubs throughout the county and put on practical demonstrations about the production and canning of tomatoes. Club members, consisting of girls 10-18 years of age, grew tomatoes on small plots of land and sold or canned them.
Over the years, Edna Trigg served as a role model for numerous home demonstration agents and their successors who have served the state’s residents through what is now the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.“ – Dr. Jennie Kitching, former associate director for human sciences at Texas A&M University, College Station
Initial efforts were so successful that in the summer of 1912 the Milam County girls’ clubs coordinated with area Boys’ Corn Clubs – both clubs precursors to present-day 4-H clubs – and presented the first-ever exhibit in Texas to show girls’ agricultural products, which included tin cans and glass jars of tomatoes and peaches. The exhibition drew more than 3,000 people, and the following year the girls exhibited their agricultural products at the state fair in Dallas, as well as at the Waco Cotton Palace.
“One of the biggest challenges for early home demonstration agents was being accepted by the families and the community,” Kitching said. “But since Edna Trigg was a married adult and a mother, as well as a school teacher a
nd principal, she was finally accepted as a respected and trustworthy individual.”
Kitching said demonstration agents also provided a social outlet for many women who lived in rural Texas by visiting their homes and forming home demonstration clubs and organizations in which women throughout the community could participate.
In 1918, Maggie Barry, an Extension specialist in rural women’s organizations developed the first clubs of home demonstration women. In 1926, club women attending a farmer’s short course at Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College, now Texas A&M University, formed the Texas Home Demonstration Association.
At their peak around 1940, there were more than 57,000 women belonging to about 3,000 women’s demonstration clubs throughout the state. The clubs often provided a social outlet for women in rural areas in addition to their educational mission. (Photo courtesy of TAMU Cushing Memorial Library an
The home demonstration association was reorganized in 1931 with the mission to promote and provide community instruction on diet and health, food production and preservation, landscaping, fitting garments, poultry production, millinery and sewing. According to Humanities Texas, at their zenith around 1940, these clubs boasted more than 57,000 women in almost 3,000 clubs statewide.
Kitching noted that early home demonstration agents were often viewed as community role models due to their knowledge and self-sufficiency.
“They did the same thing today’s family and consumer sciences county agents do, which is to teach families how to make the most of their time, money and resources,” she said. “But they had to do it by themselves, independently, and often under difficult circumstances. For example, Edna Trigg was also raising a family while traveling and providing home demonstrations and classes, some of which took her away from home the entire week.”
The role of Trigg and other early home demonstration agents was highlighted in a traveling exhibit called “Rural Texas Women at Work: 1930-1960,” which was displayed in museums, universities and other venues across Texa
s for several years. The display, which used archival information and photographs from AgriLife Extension, was developed through the Cushing Memorial Library at Texas A&M and funded by Humanities Texas.
“Mrs. Trigg also was a proponent of education, frequently encouraging Girl’s Tomato Club members to start college savings funds and look for scholarship opportunities at colleges and universities,” Kitching said. Historical documentation notes that after Trigg’s first year of working with these clubs, four members started bank accounts and began saving for their education. All four received their degrees and became teachers, and two held important positions at Texas universities.
Trigg’s daughters also took her advice about education, and one of them, Eloise Trigg Johnson, followed in her mother’s footsteps by becoming a home demonstration agent in Eastland County. In her 20-plus year Extension career, Johnson also served as a family life education specialist at Texas A&M headquarters.
In 1915, funding ran out for the Milam County position. In 1916, Trigg was hired by Extension as a home demonstration agent for Denton County, at which time she relinquished her additional duties at the Liberty School.
Some of Trigg’s most important work in Denton County was during World War I, when she played a key role in helping make the county agriculturally self-sufficient by working with area farmers to grow more vegetables. She also did in-home demonstrations and held canning schools to show rural residents how to properly preserve and protect the food they had grown.
During the Depression, it became even more necessary for women to produce and preserve their own food. Trigg’s pioneering educational work in the area of safe canning was beneficial to numerous rural Texas families during difficult times. Home demonstration agents also were frequently at the forefront of various community improvement efforts. (Photo courtesy of TAMU Cushing Memorial Library and Archives)
Trigg later added nutrition education to her efforts, developing a fill-in card that allowed women with limited resources to schedule the foods they planned to serve to ensure their children received adequate nutrition.
“During the 1920s and ‘30s, proper nutrition was a problem for many rural Texas families,” Kitching said. “By the mid-1930s, home demonstration agents also started providing information and instruction on parenting, family resource management, child development and family life. As society and conditions changed, Mrs. Trigg and other home demonstration agents adapted and taught the knowledge and skills needed to help families function more effectively and efficiently using their own resources and strengths.”
Kitching added that home demonstration agents also helped rural Texans get through The Depression when more families were forced to produce and preserve more of their own food, stretch their financial resources and make their own clothes.
“During World War II, they were often out in the community helping with scrap drives and assisting with establishing home victory gardens, food budgeting and promoting sound nutrition,” she said. “In the 1960s, they were in the forefront of addressing senior issues and helped start many community groups and partnerships with the objective of improving senior care.”
Kitching said home demonstration agents also frequently obtained books, pamphlets and other educational materials and made them available to rural residents through county offices, which often served as ad hoc community lending libraries working in cooperation with local mail carriers.
“Today, AgriLife Extension family and consumer sciences agents still do some of the same things Edna Trigg did in her day, including working with youth, providing food preservation and safety programming and nutrition education,” said Cheryl Walker, the current AgriLife Extension family and consumer sciences agent for Milan County, where Trigg began her career.
“We also provide instruction on diabetes awareness and education, child vehicle passenger safety instruction, parenting, financial literacy and a variety of other family-centered topics,” Walker said.
Walker said today’s AgriLife Extension programs are designed for both rural and urban audiences but still focus primarily on community-based, small-group learning. Most programming is done in community centers, churches, schools, businesses and at AgriLife Extension county offices, but also through webinars and other means of distance learning.
She added that even though Extension education has changed and expanded over the years, the profession will always owe a great debt to Trigg.
“Edna Trigg set the pattern for other home demonstration agents and those of us in the family and consumer sciences profession who came after them, setting the bar pretty high for the rest of us,” Walker said.
Edna Westbrook Trigg, hired in 1912, was the first home demonstration agent in Texas. Trigg set the standard for many other professionals and paraprofessionals who served — and continue to serve — residents of the state. The above photo shows Trigg during the latter part of her career. (Photo courtesy of TAMU Cushing Memorial Library and Archives)
According to current data, there are 169 AgriLife Extension family and consumer sciences agents in counties throughout the state who serve both rural and urban communities, as well as dozens more associated specialists and paraprofessionals within agency. In addition, the Texas Extension Education Association, formerly the Texas Home Demonstration Association, has more than 3,700 members statewide and are a key group among the 100,000 trained volunteers who today help extend the reach of AgriLife Extension agents.
“In my opinion, the value of the home demonstration agent to Texas history cannot be calculated,” Kitching said. “They were instrumental in the development of a middle class in the state, as their work was vital in showing families how to improve their everyday lives. You also can’t underestimate their self-confidence in traveling alone to rural areas to bring information, social contact and a better way of living to women and families throughout the state.”
In October 1970, ceremonies were held at the Milan County Courthouse to dedicate a historical marker commemorating Trigg as the first home demonstration agent. In December 1991, Trigg was inducted into America’s Agricultural Hall of Fame.