farmhouse kitchen neighbor books

Before there was all this virtual social media of today, farm women found a way to interact with each without leaving their busy homes.

Busy is hardly the correct description, unless one adds the word “extremely.” There were three hearty meals to prepare for a hardworking family and any hired help. Throw in a few morning and afternoon lunches (we’re talking more than just a coffee break).

But work didn’t stop in the kitchen. There was also laundry, house cleaning, plus a few outdoor chores which were not limited to gardening and chickens.

Many of these farm homes did not have the luxury of electricity in 1941. A war was raging in most of the world. Although the United States had not officially entered the war yet, it was ever-present on everyone’s minds. The effects of the 1930’s weather and concurring economic distress were still very vivid in memory and spending habits.

It was during those Great Depression years which made having a radio in the house a morale booster for these people that knew how to do without. Very few family members minded saving money to have a radio that would enliven their lives with comedy, drama, music and sports. It also gave them the current news and weather.

The daily chores, the expense of gasoline, owning and operating a vehicle kept many farm families isolated from the world. The radio — with its programs — added both mental stimulation and relaxation when newspapers and magazines did not fit in a tight budget.

It was on July 14 in 1941 that WNAX Radio — located in Yankton, S.D. introduced Wynn Hubler as The Neighbor Lady. Amazingly at her debut, she was a young single woman who had been working at the radio station. Her college major was in speech with a broadcasting emphasis. Her only apparent ties to agriculture was that she was born in Iowa.

Hubler was an instant success with her radio program which reached from Wyoming to Wisconsin, clear up north to Canada, and all the way down to Kansas. Her cheery voice became an expected visitor in both town and country homes. Her 15-minute show soon expanded to 50 minutes. At first she wrote a script, then somehow managed to do the longer programs live. It was as if she was a neighbor coming over for a cup of coffee to share a visit.

Since my grandmothers were regular listeners to this program, both my mother and mother-in-law grew up listening to The Neighbor Lady. My farmer and I remember hearing it too.

It was a forgotten memory until last year, when a friend gifted me with a dozen or so “Your Neighbor Lady Books” published by WNAX and The Neighbor Lady. Photos brought faces and names to the radio listeners. The books also contained recipes, of course.

The sense of neighborhood was established even more with letters, helpful advice, winners for a variety of contests (poems, the perfect meal), quotes radio neighbors had sent in. The names of those who were regular contributors became familiar.

The earliest book in my collection comes from 1945. The first photo in it is of Wynn Hubler (now Speece) cutting the wedding cake with her newlywed husband dressed in his sailor uniform. Yes, she was an important family member to her listeners as they shared in the experiences of her daily life. Everyone understood her frustration when she had the house all sparkly clean for guests, when in came muddy children from playing outdoors.

Her program was occasionally interrupted when weather warnings or major news happened. She was right in the middle of giving out a recipe when the news of Adolf Hitler’s death interrupted her show.

The last program was broadcasted in 2005 — two years before her she died at the age of 90.

The letters printed in the books reflect the importance of her program:

Dear Neighbor Lady,

I don’t have any problems to solve today, but I would like to make a very small request. Knowing the neighbor ladies like I do, I’m sure they would be willing to help out. Robert has a little cousin. She is nine years old, but she can’t walk, and does not go to public school. She does her school work at home every day. She can’t run and play with other children.

Would your neighbors like to help make this little girl happy this Christmas, by sending cards, letters, and any small gifts a nine-year old little girls would like. Let’s put joy in those long hours for this little girl this Christmas. ..

A response from the young girl:

My dear Neighbor Lady and Radio Friends:

I wish to say thanks and thanks again for the many lovely cards and gifts you sent me. I received over a hundred cards, besides gifts of books, hankies, candies, ribbons, puzzles, and many other things. My mother read every card to me and it made me very happy to hear from so many. It also made my mother happy and she gives her thanks to you all too. I can’t write to you all now, but I’ll try to write to everyone sometime soon. So thanks again from me and my mom to you all and my dear Aunt Louise.

The neighborhood grew. Just 10 years into her radio program, her book included correspondence from neighbors in Hammond, Mont.; Arcadia, Neb.; Belle Fourche, S.D.; Gladstone, N.D.; Currie, Minn.; Rolfe, Iowa; and many other locations in the Midwest.

Lives were made happier. Wynn Speece gave hints of her purpose in the many forwards she wrote in her books. “Let’s make our homemaking job an even greater happiness than it is, because it is done with love. God bless you, dear neighbor ladies, dear friends..

As I look through the “Your Neighbor Lady Books,” she still encourages me. There will be new recipes for me to try. I am seeing many helpful hints. One that I hope to remember came in from a listener in 1953 who lived near Bancroft, Neb.: for hard sugar, place in a pan and put in moderate oven. This will turn sugar into fine grain again.

The Neighbor Lady was not the only program for women; it just happened to be on a radio station that was in my area. I have a few cookbooks (1941) by Jessie S. Young. Her radio program was called “Homemaker’s Visit.” It was on the radio station KMA. I have also have one called “Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes Revised” (1931). Apparently, Uncle Sam has a wife — Aunt Sammy. She was created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Home Economics and Farm Radio Service. Her “Housekeeper Chats” programs began in 1926.

Renae B. Vander Schaaf is an independent writer, author and speaker. Contact her at (605) 530-0017 or agripen@live.com.        

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