April 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 2 // Tools of the Trade // 2TOT1

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

County Agent–A Book Review

County Agent, a book published more than 30 years ago, tells the story of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of home economics graduate Lisa Merrill, as she grows into her position as a "home demonstration agent" in a rural county in the Adirondacks. Although originally intended as a "career romance for young moderns," the is more interesting today for what it might tell us about the evolving image of Extension and of women in popular culture

Jan Scholl
Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania
Internet Address: jscholl@psu.edu

While some of us were reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, Virginia McDonnell was writing County Agent, a "career romance for young moderns."

Designed as a career aid for young people, County Agent centers around Lisa Merrill, a home economics senior at Cornell University who considers a position opening in a rural county in the Adirondacks as a favor to her advisor. A city girl, she would train with the experienced "home demonstration agent," Emily Briggs, and the county agricultural agent, Randy Drake.


During Lisa's first visit to Warner County, the car stalls in the mountains, and she narrowly escapes a massive flood that washes out the main bridge and the community's main source of income, a paper mill. Lisa is very hesitant to take the assignment–until she discovers how useful she is in the disaster's aftermath. Then, as luck would have it, the university retracts the offer, hoping to fill the vacancy with someone more experienced.

Lisa finishes her coursework, graduates, and makes a case for the position. Unfortunately, the training period is cut short when Miss Briggs dies–the result of a head-on automobile collision.

But Lisa persists, establishing a home health care team, allowing women to train her in cleaning techniques while she teaches them food budgeting and leadership skills. She sends out several newsletters, writes a news column, and hosts a television show–all while managing a "swirl" of visitors, telephone calls, 4-H club meetings, and appointments.

Lisa finds ways to help the people in her community survive until a new business is attracted to the area. Though it is not apparent at first, she realizes the true source of influence in the community. In the end, Lisa comes "full circle" (the title of the last chapter), risking her reputation and her life, allowing the community to both rescue her and itself from demise.


McDonell skillfully incorporates several definitions of Cooperative Extension and includes a fairly complete Plan of Work with both long- and short-term goals. Ethel W. Samson, an Associate Professor of Cornell Cooperative Extension and personnel leader at the time of the book's publication, provided the technical background for the book.

Veteran Extension educators (Family and Consumer Science agents, especially) may identify with Lisa's early experiences and concerns. She is continually compared to the previous agent and matched up with Randy Drake. She is told how to cook on several occasions by several women in the community. The secretary is continually taking situations into her own hands, and the members of the Extension board threaten to quit nearly every week. One of her co-workers remarks, "It takes time for them (the people) to change their ways. Sometimes it is pretty discouraging. Sometimes I wonder if I am making any progress at all or if I am a complete failure."

Young people may not choose to read the book because of its dated career aspects, but the romantic aspects of the book and its discussion of making difficult decisions and gaining independence from family and schoolmates are interesting.

Though it may be difficult to purchase County Agent, which was printed more than 30 years ago, it is still possible to through interlibrary loan from your community or university library. It's not only an interesting read, it's potentially a significant one, allowing us some insight into the evolving image of Extension and of women in popular culture.


McDonnell, V. (1968). County Agent. New York, NY: Julian Messner.