If A.B. Graham is the ‘father’ of 4-H, who is the ‘mother?’


SALEM, Ohio – Ohio can make its claim to 4-H history by being the home of A.B. Graham, the school principal dubbed “Father of 4-H.” However, with each father, there is a mother. And this mother, the “Mother of 4-H,” lived just on the opposite end of the Corn Belt.

Jessie Field Shambaugh was born June 26, 1881, on a farm outside of Shenandoah, Iowa. After graduating from Shenandoah High School, she went Western Normal College before earning $33.50 per month teaching at Clarinda’s Goldenrod School in 1901.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Tabor College in 1903, she traveled to teach in Wisconsin and Montana. This is where she developed “Boys’ Corn Clubs” and “Girls’ Home Clubs,” similar to those she started at the Goldenrod School. She introduced clubs and competitions in modern agriculture, such as soil testing and corn judging, for both boys and girls.

New clubs. Three years later, she became Page County Superintendent of Schools, where she extended those clubs to the 130 schools in her jurisdiction.

When the school day ended, club members worked on various agriculture-related projects.

The club chose the three-leaf clover, which represented agriculture, as their emblem. The letter “H” on each of the three leaves represented head, heart and hand.

The students’ self confidence and pride in themselves and projects was enough for the National Educational Bulletin to acclaim that Page County had “The Best Rural Schools in America.”

Nationwide attention. The title brought superintendents from all over the state to visit the rural schools to learn about this new teaching method and took the ideas back to implement in their own schools.

By 1910, the idea had spread throughout the country. The three-leaf clover became a four-leaf clover when an additional “H,” representing health, was added to the emblem.

Her students had racked up many awards and honors at the local, state and even national levels and enjoyed their teacher’s farm camps she established to keep the learning going after school was not in session.

New books. In 1913, she moved to New York City where she became national YWCA secretary for rural work. While in New York, she wrote several textbooks, including The Country Girl’s Creed, which memorializes the 4-H movement.

Five years later, she met and fell in love with Ira William Shambaugh. Although he was 20 years older than her, they got married and returned to Clarinda, Iowa.

She lived out the rest of her days doing charity work, briefly having a her own radio show and raising a son and daughter.

She died of pneumonia in 1971 at age 90.

While her tombstone sits in Clarinda, Iowa, her legacy has sprawled across the country.


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!