Savageton Homebuilders club turns 100

Mike Moore, Gillette News Record photo Verna Ann Gilbertz, 85, goes through one of the many old Savageton Homebuilders annual club booklets at the Rockpile Museum in Gillette. The group, which focused on connecting women in rural Wyoming communities, is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

GILLETTE — Like many things created 100 years ago, the precise origins of the Savageton Homebuilders may have been lost to time.

Of course, none of the original members from 1921 are alive to tell the tale.

Verna Ann Gilbertz, whose grandmother, Zelda Geer, was a founding member, remembers it having something to do with a baby shower. Several neighbors — in the loosest sense of the term, since they all lived miles apart — in the Savageton area gathered and word spread of a new program from the University of Wyoming in Laramie, some 250 miles down the road.

Apparently, it was a homebuilders — also known as homemaking — program meant to connect women throughout the rural vastness of their Wyoming communities. The program was for isolated homesteaders such as themselves.

From that word of mouth, the Savageton Homebuilders Club formed. One-hundred years later, the group is still going strong.

“I’m just very proud,” Gilbertz, 85, said. “The women have stuck to it.”

Gilbertz, whose mother Myra Howell also joined the club and is a third-generation Savageton Homebuilder, is one of about 20 women who continue to meet when they can and keep the early 20th century ranch and homestead tradition alive.

“It was really a part of the community and it was a lifeline for some of these women who had to stay home,” Gilbertz said. “They were really isolated.”

Homebuilders clubs in Campbell County were formed through a program from the University of Wyoming Extension Office, with the very first one in Campbell County forming in 1920.

That club, the Indian Paintbrush Homemakers Club, ended its 73-year run in 1993, with just seven remaining members of a roster that once ran 60 members deep.

In those years, new clubs popped up throughout parts of the county, serving the women who lived within a reasonable distance. New ones formed, some clubs changed names and by 1941, there were 16 different clubs in Campbell County, stretching to each corner of its rectangular borders and sprinkled throughout.

Old News Record clips are filled with details and anecdotes recalled by members of various groups as their clubs reached one milestone or another. In 1930, the Benefit Homemakers Club was established with a single nickel in the club coffers. The initial goal was to raise a dime per month to build some reserves.

Another old story shared an anecdote of a 1928 Savageton Homebuilders party. As the story goes, the group rallied 125 people in a three-bedroom house. It’s worth noting that at the time, plumbing consisted of an outhouse and the manual labor required in hauling buckets of water back and forth.

Throughout the years, many of the groups celebrated club anniversaries and passed down stories such as those. The clubs began with practical intentions and quickly evolved into something more meaningful.

At first, there was an educational purpose for the clubs to teach household and homestead skills among the members of the group. However, the meaning attached to those gatherings soon transcended that.

The monthly meetings often had a program, such as a guest speaker or some other featured visitor, to edify the group on one topic or another.

Many women already had a baseline of ranching, farming, parenting, cooking and other necessary skills. Homesteading and ranching were rough and could be unforgiving for ranchers and farmers, many of whom struggled to get by. To live was often to survive. There was no choice but to learn those skills.

Still, the members shared what they knew with each other. Many of the Savageton Homebuilders learned to can perishable foods and to sew clothing, including dresses.

Generations of women passed down the art of making soap, of making hominy as well as the tricks to mastering homemade butter and cottage cheese. The Savageton Homebuilders were apparently known for their homemade pies.

Some women who were new mothers sought tips for keeping their babies asleep, or settling his or her upset stomach.

“They didn’t know that,” Gilbertz said. “It was probably their first kid.”

Learning continued throughout the years, but eventually, it became beside the point.

Knowing how to turn their limited ingredients at the time — many of which were found on the ranch — into a new dish, or picking up tips on how to sustain a garden in the dry, unforgiving northeastern Wyoming soil had its value.

But it was the socialization that they could not create on their own.

Many of those women shared the common experiences of living alone on the ranch, without a neighbor in sight or a soul within earshot.

“Some of them actually went crazy,” Gilbertz said. “The ones that came here, they were all actually in a sense starved for other women to talk woman-stuff.”

They found common ground on their shared, sometimes lonely, experiences while providing each other the interaction that remedied their lonesomeness.

“They may sit in their house for three months without seeing anybody but maybe a drifter who went by or stopped for supper,” Gilbertz said. “It was a hard country.”

Gilbertz grew up with that kind of a second family. With her grandmother and mother as members, Gilbertz sometimes attended meetings as a child. A UW Extension Office Annual Report from 1941 shows a black and white photograph of Gilbertz, about 5 years old at the time, standing with her mother and other homebuilders during a lighthearted meeting program.

For her, it was only natural she joined the group herself as an adult. After hopping around to a couple of other homebuilders groups many years ago, Gilberz settled as a Savagetown Homebuilder for life.

Savageton often held a noon meeting. The hosts served a main course and the other members would bring a complimentary side dish of some kind. They stood and pledged allegiance before a program. Guest speakers would sometimes make appearances.

All of the plans for the year ahead were carefully tracked in the club’s annual booklets. Each year, members of the group received a handmade booklet with the members names, various anniversaries, meeting times throughout the year and information on who the guest speakers would be.

Those booklets were common among the different clubs scattered across the county.

One old booklet from the Rozet Homemakers opened with the club’s creed, in typewritten font, which declared the club’s mission: “To insure the purity and sanitity of my home.”

The small handbooks were typed manually, which resulted in the occasional typo such as above. All these years later, it is unclear if it was meant to read “sanctity” or “sanity,” but both seem apropos of the time. There was no backspace then. Maybe the ambiguity was intentional.

It did not take long for the UW Extension Office homebuilders program to take hold among the women of Campbell County.

The friendship, community and knowledge that women found through homebuilders clubs in those first few decades carried its own significance. But the magic of those early years did not last forever. The groups continued to meet and continued to be a source of pride for their many members. But once again, their purpose shifted.

By sometime around the 1960s, change became apparent. At that time, many of the original members were 30 or 40 years older than when they began. Like Gilbertz’s mother, many had their daughters or other generations of family join their clubs.

But the world around them had changed.

The groups first helped give women the chance to socialize, and they continued to do that. In the 1920s, many of those homesteaders had little money to spare. A trip to town was more like a voyage.

Then came cars, paved roads, electricity, running water and many of the other luxuries at the time that most now couldn’t live without.

“Internet and paved highways and three or four cars and pickups — it’s a whole different world than when this began,” Gilbertz said.

Eventually, the energy industry wizened up to what was in the ground beneath those big open ranches. Suddenly money worries disappeared for some of those ranchers fortunate enough to own their own land and the minerals beneath it.

With cars to drive to town, phone lines to call one another and several decades of other economic and technological advancements, needing another person to relate to and talk with became less dire.

But it remained important. And there was a new generation of homebuilders, many of whom found the clubs through their own families, to carry on the tradition.

For decades, the world turned, presidents came and went, wars began and ended, America grew and all the while the homebuilders met.

And they still do.

Meetings now don’t involve the intensive hosting duties and years-out planning that they once did. Instead, the women often gather at a local restaurant and regale each other with stories of the past. There is no longer the same intention of practicality or education that there once was. For the most part, it is a reason to gather, talk and keep the club alive, which is as good of a reason as any.

The group even has some younger additions, some of whom are carrying on the homebuilder tradition from their own mothers and grandmothers.

“I think it needs to go on,” Gilbertz said. “I think they can still learn something.”

The Savageton Homebuilders have lasted 100 years, which is longer than many other entities once formed in the unincorporated community of Savageton.

One hundred years into its existence, the decades of Savagetown Homebuilders have simultaneously adapted to the times while keeping their history and purpose intact.

Who knows what the next year may hold, let alone the next 100.

All that remains certain is that as long as there are those interested in keeping the tradition and spirit of the homebuilders alive, the Savageton Homebuilders will be around to figure it out along the way.

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