Karen Dodge Tolstrup. “If Maine Had a Queen”: The Life of Brownie Schrumpf

Karen Dodge Tolstrup. “If Maine Had a Queen”: The Life of Brownie Schrumpf. Orono, ME: The Maine Folklife Center, 2008. Pp. 96, black and white photographs, appendix of recipes. $15.00 paper.

 Danielle Quales
Indiana University

Tolstrup’s very accessible and readable book chronicles the life of famous Mainer, Mildred Greeley Brown Schrumpf.  Schrumpf truly seemed to be a woman ahead of her time in the early to mid-twentieth century.  Known by her family, friends, and readers as simply “Brownie,” she was perhaps best known for her weekly newspaper column that ran from 1951 to 1994 in the Bangor Daily News.  Following her popular columns, her readers became familiar with her rural upbringing (to which many eagerly made connections with fond memories of their own childhoods).  They also received homemaking tips from her, and generally came to feel a real affinity for the writer.  Tolstrup shows how Brownie was a popular, relatable personality for so many women of her time because she was a role model for women successfully balancing domestic and professional or community interests.

The book explains that Brownie was born and raised on a farm in rural Maine, and enjoyed the all of the typical activities (and then some) of a girl of her time.  Brownie’s father Fred Brown was a very important influence in her life, and it was his often his vision that allowed Brownie more opportunity than her female contemporaries.  Though a farmer and worker in other seasonal trades by occupation, Fred Brown’s worldview seemed to extend beyond his rural Maine surround.  The book shows that he clearly saw the value in higher education for his children—even for his daughters—despite his not having had the opportunity to attend school past the elementary grades.  Fred Brown was especially open to new ideas and organizations that came into their area, such as the newly founded 4-H Club that he insisted that all of his children join.  Fred Brown’s having embraced such new ideas runs counter to many people’s perceptions of rural people, who are often portrayed as close-minded.  Due to her father’s encouragement and her own curiosity for learning about the world, Brownie was the first member of her family to attend college, and her years spent at the University of Maine in the early 1920s were very influential on the rest of her life.

The next section of the book details Brownie’s college years at the University of Maine, where she majored in Home Economics and quickly developed a keen interest in various foodways and cultures.  Tolstrup explains how this newfound interest would be an area that Brownie would further pursue in her newspaper columns.  Out of college, her first long-term job was as Assistant 4-H Club leader, an organization with which she had been affiliated throughout her childhood and teenage years.  In this job, which was based on the campus of the University of Maine, Brownie traveled around the state giving homemaking demonstrations to women of all backgrounds that helped spread the latest developments in cooking, canning, cleaning, and other domestic activities.  Tolstrup explains how with the combination of growing up on a farm and being formally educated in Home Economics, Brownie could effortlessly relate and communicate to a wide range of women and therefore excelled in this position for several years. Unfortunately, when she married Bill Schrumpf, an instructor in the University of Maine’s Agriculture Department, she had to resign from this job due to Depression-era regulations that prevented married couples from both being employed at the University.

The next section of the book turns to Brownie’s life as it unfolded after leaving her position at the University.  After leaving the only full-time job she would ever have, Brownie found plenty to keep her busy in her later life.  She volunteered for many community organizations, was periodically contracted by the Maine Department of Agriculture to speak about native Maine foodways, and undertook many projects that helped to ease life for people living in the Depression, such as adaptations in cooking in times of food rationing.  Also, of course, Brownie wrote her weekly newspaper column.  One of her favorite topics on which to educate her readers were recipes from different cultures, and she always included contextual information.  Brownie was interested not only in the food of other peoples, but in the people themselves and how they viewed food as important in their specific culture.  As a result of the collection of many recipes over the years, Brownie also compiled and wrote two popular cookbooks.

Tolstrup’s book would be interesting to people who are interested in Maine culture and history, New England culture and history, notable American women, and people who are researching homemaking or the historical role of women in American society.  There are a number of black and white photographs of Brownie and her family and friends that are included behind the text of this book that help bring the story to life.  There is also a short appendix of recipes in the book that includes some traditional Maine recipes, as well as some specific to Brownie’s family.  Brownie Schrumpf was certainly an interesting character and her impact on the lives of countless Mainers of the mid-twentieth century continues to be felt in this poignant biography by Karen Dodge Tolstrup.

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