BCYF home ec barn in good hands

By Deborah Rieth

Leader Publications Contributor

BERRIEN SPRINGS — If experience is the best teacher, Joanne Carlin has enough for a PhD.

The current superintendent of the home economics barn became an exhibitor at the Berrien County Youth Fair in Berrien Springs in the late 1950s as a young member of the Busy Bees 4H Club. She and her brother showed steers raised on their family farm in Oronoko Township.

The Busy Bees were called busy for a reason. Steering away from the steers, Carlin and the other 4H members had plenty of other activities and projects to exhibit at the fair.

The club was led by a group of women, including Carlin’s mother, who taught youngsters how to bake cookies, coffee cakes, pies, breads, sweet rolls and fancy decorated cakes. These women leaders passed on their knowledge of canning and preserving fruits, vegetables, jams and jellies.

There were home kitchen classes in how to make fudge, how to can peaches, how to bake and freeze the layers of a cake and then frost it into a masterpiece, days later.

Club members had the option to learn how to sew, knit, crochet, quilt, raise and arrange flowers, and grow and display fresh vegetables and fruits. There was even the added value of instruction in money management.

In other words, the entire scope of true home economics was shared with the next generation, Carlin said.

Carlin recalled entering canned green beans, packed in the jar just so, to avoid having them float to the top. Among the many baked goods she prepared, she entered a pineapple pie one year.

She spent quality time with her sewing machine, constructing dresses and ensembles. Her favorite was a beige skirt and suit coat, accessorized by a pillbox hat with green ribbon and matching green gloves, in the style of Jackie Kennedy.

“I loved that outfit,” she said with a sigh.

Carlin is now in her 16th year as superintendent of the home ec barn. Prior to that position, she served as assistant superintendent for several decades.

She worked full time during all those years as a special education teacher and administrator, spending 14 years as special education director for Cass County. In total, she spent 50 years in education, all while raising her own family of fair exhibitors in Niles Township, where she still resides.

Carlin retired from education in 2018, but did not retire from the fair.

“I just enjoy seeing the kids, especially when they win an award, or are entering something for the very first time,” she said.

Managing all the entries, preparing for the judging, monitoring the awards and trophies is a high-calorie job, with planning that takes place throughout the year with the barn’s committee of volunteers.

Speaking about the BCYF in general, Carlin said she is always amazed at the number of volunteers at the fair

“We couldn’t even begin to think about having the fair without them,” she said. “They give up their vacations to volunteer. It’s because people feel so strongly about what it does and what it stands for.”

So does Carlin still spend time in her own kitchen after all these years? You bet your bundt cake she does.

When her group of friends gets together for dinner, she is always asked to bring the dessert. She never brings the same thing twice.

“I really enjoy trying something new, because that’s part of the fun — and it almost always turns out OK,” she said.

While she does not have a favorite recipe, she is a pie lover blueberry, cherry, apple, pecan, with a homemade crust.

“I just cannot bring myself to buy a pie crust,” she said.

And just what is the favorite fair food of the Home Ec Barn superintendent? Could it be elephant ears? Deep fried twinkies? Perhaps corn dogs with a side of ketchup?

“I do like the salted pretzels,” Carlin said. “Their booth is right next to our building.”

Will all the downtime at home during the 2020 pandemic mean that the next generation of young people will have a greater interest in home baking and preserving? Sewing articles of clothing or for the home? Knitting and crocheting? 

Carlin cannot predict that, but as an educator and youth fair volunteer she said the county should be focused on teaching children real-life skills.

“Sometimes, I think we are so focused on the academic portion of education that we forget that we have to live in this real world, and that we don’t teach kids how to do that,” she said. “I hope it continues to be a joy to the kids. That’s why I do it. I know I truly benefitted from being a youth exhibitor myself.”

The Berrien County Youth Fair showcases more than 11,000 exhibits entered by more than 1,900 exhibitors. The first fair was hosted in 1945, with the 75th anniversary postponed from 2020 until 2021. Fair dates for this year are Aug. 16-21.

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