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Hilltop Project Group: 63 years of learning, friendships

Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe Members of the Hilltop Project Group include Kathryn Schmidt (front, from left), Audrey Slone, Kathy Harberts and Bonnie Rogers. Row two: Lois Rogers, Dolores Kingery, Lyla Hieronimus and Lois Harberts.1 / 3
Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe This is the jewelry tree made by Lyla Hieronimus. Each member of the Hilltop Project Group made her own jewelry tree during a program in 1990.2 / 3
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RUSHMORE -- The days of Extension educators leading Project groups for local women may be a thing of the past, but for a group of ladies in Wilmont, Reading, Rushmore and Worthington, getting together once a month for Project is a tradition they don't plan to give up anytime soon.

As they sat around the dining room table recently at the home of Lois Harberts in rural Rushmore, they reminisced about the Project club's history, the lessons they learned and the recipes of which their husbands and kids weren't overly fond. The egg coffee was poured by hostess Harberts, and the giggles started to rise as the stories were shared.

Project, they said, was an opportunity for them to get out of the house one afternoon a month when they were homemakers. They usually learned a new craft, had programs on health, government and how to decorate their homes, and they always had time for visiting over lunch and a steaming cup of coffee.

The latter -- the socialization with friends and neighbors -- is a large part of the reason why the group of eight women continues to meet, despite the decline in new lessons provided by Extension.

"I look forward to meeting with these ladies once a month," said Kathy Harberts of Worthington, a 23-year-member of the group. "Most of them I don't see at any other time. It's fun to get together and visit one afternoon a month."

The Reading Hilltop Project Group was established Nov. 9, 1950, as an off-shoot from the West End Elk Project Group, after the West End Elk group grew too large to host meetings in member homes. Three women split from West End Elk to start the Reading Hilltop group, including Kathryn Schmidt of Reading. Schmidt isn't just a charter member of the club, she's also the oldest -- she'll celebrate her 94th birthday on Sunday.

Ten members signed up during the first meeting of the Reading Hilltop Project Group. The group's name was chosen because of Reading's notoriety as the highest point in Nobles County. The small, unincorporated town sits on the divide of the Mississippi and Missouri river basins.

"When I first joined, I was not a new bride, but pretty close," confided Schmidt.

The lessons she learned at Project were useful to any woman running a home and raising a family.

"I enjoyed learning to make different things," she said. "We learned to do different things that we didn't know how to do."

That first year of existence for the Reading Hilltop club included lessons on washing and ironing clothes -- back then the clothes were washed in the wringer washing machine by hand (coveralls and chore clothes went in last, of course), and just about every article of clothing was ironed.

In the years that followed, lessons included everything from sewing in a zipper and patching a pair of overalls to use of color in the home, deep-fat frying, needle arts, gardening and even use of household cleaning products.

The one lesson that got a hearty laugh from the group as they reminisced was from 1965 on the "selection and care of foundation garments."

By the 1980s, it was evident the times were changing. Lessons provided by Extension shifted from some of the more homemaker-based discussions to programs on self-defense, fast food, the role of grandparents and foster parents, time pressures, money matters and being community-involved citizens.

"Now, we don't have the help of Extension to do that (planning)," said Lois Harberts, the newest member of the group. She joined last September.

These days, the group comes up with their own lesson plans, oftentimes revolving around holiday events. They make favors for area nursing homes for both Thanksgiving and Christmas; make Valentines to share with each other; and do a small gift exchange at Christmas. At this particular meeting, they worked together to prepare a meal and planned an afternoon playing Bingo.

"I like making the stuff at Christmas time or Thanksgiving," said Audrey Slone, adding that the group has also made tie blankets for Sunset Hospice Cottage in Worthington.

Slone, of Reading, has been a member of the Hilltop Project Group since 1974, and while her fellow Project members will joke that she likes the lunch best, she laughed and said she likes being with her friends.

"I like to get out once a month to see the ladies, she said.

"Otherwise, I sit at home with my husband," she added, tongue-in-cheek. "I need female companionship."

As the ladies let out another peal of laughter, they agreed that getting together is just so much fun.

"It's getting together with friends that you don't see that often," said Dolores Kingery, of Reading, a member of Hilltop since 1967. "We all get along well."

The Wilmont contingent includes Bonnie Rogers, who joined in 1956, Lois Rogers, added to the roll in 1981, and Lyla Hieronimus, a member since 1982.

"I think the social part is what we enjoy -- and the food," Lois Rogers said.

"We're all good cooks," added Lois Harberts with a laugh. "It's good to taste somebody else's cooking."

Back when Extension provided lesson plans, Lois Rogers said they would take new recipes home and try them out on their family. It got to the point that her husband and kids asked when she returned home if her meeting included another meal plan.

"I remember the one thing the guys used to hate was ... these food lessons," said Hieronimus, as other women around the table would nod their head in agreement.

Lest one think the recipes were all bad, that was certainly not the case.

"I always enjoyed the cooking lessons the most," said Kathy Harberts. "They used to give us a lot of different ideas for recipes and cooking. We still come up with some cooking ideas."

The guys weren't always the guinea pigs for new recipes, however. Each year at Christmas time, the guys were invited along with their women to an evening out for supper.

"Our husbands pretty much knew each other and enjoyed the visiting, too, when they had an opportunity to be involved," said Kathy Harberts.

When Project groups formed, they had a meeting schedule that extended from October through April -- after harvest and before spring planting, as many of the members were farm wives. The once-a-month meetings are scheduled in the afternoon and have occasionally included tours, although primarily there has been a program, a craft or game and time to visit over lunch.

"When this started, it was the idea to teach women how to do things," said Lois Rogers.

The mission statement of Project was:

As an Extension Home Study Group member, I will strive to promote a better way of life for my family, my neighbor and myself through continuing education, community service and support to each other.

"I believe it is my privilege and responsibility to serve to the best of my ability and to continue to improve myself while helping others to develop to their full potential.

"May I always be willing to accept the challenges of the day by building on the strengths of the past and looking with optimism to the future.

While the mission of Project gave the women a footing through education and training, the women created a strong foundation of friendship over the years.

"Back then, the women were at home, a lot of them, and (Project) was your way to be out and socialize," said Bonnie Rogers. "You'd go visiting, and you'd have kids around, depending on what was going on."

These days, with so many women working out of the home and busy running kids from one place to another, they really don't have time to gather for something like a Project club, said Hieronimus. Still, their group has no plans to stop meeting.

"We enjoy being together," Hieronimus said, adding that they will continue to meet "until we can't move -- until we can't drive anymore."

"It keeps you young," chimed in Bonnie Rogers.

The Reading Hilltop Project group may be the last remaining project group in Nobles County that continues to meet on a monthly basis.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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