Tracing the rich history of national 4-H


ARLINGTON, Va. – In 2002, the 4-H movement celebrates its centennial as America’s premier youth development organization.

4-H, which began in 1902, is a combination of the efforts of people concerned about young people and its early history is an example of its cooperative nature.

Turn-of-the-century. Throughout the 19th century, rural America set the social tone for the country. As the century turned, the rugged individualism, tempered by the obligations of neighborliness that characterized the settlement of America, was seen as a residue of the past.

Young people were moving to cities, drawn by the potential for jobs. They saw no future in laboring behind a plow. Rural America began to lose its young people.

Although agricultural prosperity was a characteristic of the turn of the century, the atmosphere of economic prosperity was darkened by the nagging concern for the future generation of rural children.

Contributing factors. It is important to note that there were two forces that generated the idea of 4-H work. One was the concern for education in rural areas.

The beginnings of the 4-H idea of practical or applied educational principles resulted from concern regarding the relevance of public schools to country life.

The Morrill Act of 1862 created the land-grant university system dedicated to general education and the improvement of agriculture and mechanical arts – a principle not then being used in public schools.

The second was concern for advancing agricultural technology. Agricultural production technology was being researched at experiment stations established as part of the land-grant system. The farming community did not readily accept new ideas and techniques.

An idea takes root. Unlike most of the popular and enduring ideas of the time, 4-H was not the result of an idea of a recognized national leader nor the result of a charismatic personality.

Here and there, among farm families, agricultural scientists, school teachers, administrators and concerned citizens scattered the seeds that took root as 4-H.

The following time line shows some of the people and experiences that shaped the 4-H movement:

Late 1890s

* Liberty Hyde Bailey at Cornell University linked youth to nature and the rural environment.

O. J. Kerns at the Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station founded Farmers’ Institutes to introduce farm and home topics and comparative classes for rural youth.

* Will B. Otwell, working Farmers’ Institutes in Illinois, offered premiums to boys for best corn yields.


* A.B. Graham, a school principal in Ohio, began to promote vocational agriculture in rural schools in out-of-school “clubs.”


* Graham formed a club of boys and girls with officers, projects, meetings, and record requirements. He sought assistance of the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station and Ohio State University.

* The club concept was adopted in Iowa by O.H. Benson in Wright County and Jessie Field Shambaugh in Page County.


* A.F. Meharg was hired as a demonstration agent at Mississippi State College by the General Education Board (a philanthropic arm of Standard Oil).

* William Hall Smith was hired by Meharg, who picked up the emerging youth programs in the Midwest to work with youth in the South.

Meharg was then “hired” to work for USDA, giving him the opportunity to use the franking privilege to provide educational materials, bulletins, and seed corn to Smith as he worked with young people.


* Cap. E. Miller in Keokuk County, Iowa, sponsored a county organization of boys and girls with officers and educational programs.

(Miller’s plans fostered many of the teaching tools of today’s 4-H program including life skills and learning-by-doing through projects, group meetings, and exhibits. Community service projects provided active learning interaction between youth and adults and encouraged youth to set and accomplish goals.)


* E.C. Bishop in Nebraska was encouraging work with corn growing, sewing, and baking projects in York County. He organized the work into: Nebraska Boys Agricultural Association and Nebraska Girls Domestic Science Association.

The purpose of the Nebraska Associations included a phrase that had come to symbolize the idea of agricultural clubs “…to educate the youth of the county, town, and city to a knowledge of their dependence on nature’s resources, and to the value of the fullest development of hand, head, and heart….”


* By this time the principle ingredients of 4-H work had been tested. Graham had shown how well young people would respond to organized clubs that introduced them to agricultural science and technology.


* The work of Meharg and Smith established an outline of a cooperative venture between county officials, the state land-grant college and the federal government. At the heart of this cooperative venture were agricultural products for young men and women.

* A report of the Country Life Commission strongly urged Congress to authorize Agricultural Extension Service through the land grant university system. Although Congress ignored the recommendation, the movement started on its own.

1905 to 1914

* Clubs were started in nearly all states.


* Passage of the Smith-Lever Act created the Cooperative Extension System. County agents and local leaders began to organize 4-H clubs. Club meetings and projects were made major requirements.


* One of the most important meetings in the history of the 4-H movement was held in Kansas City. The general structure of local clubs was firmly established, an expansion of projects was encouraged, relations between club work and vocational education in the schools were defined, and the general principle of local initiative was ratified.


* Formation of the National Committee on Boys’ and Girls’ Club Work for the purpose of obtaining private support for club work. Private support provided trips, awards, and events outside the scope of public funding.

Girl’s Programs

While much of the work being done with young people focused on boys and the corn clubs, work with girls focused on home skills like sewing and baking.

Knapp was not opposed to girls clubs, but was leery of dissipating the limited resources available. He did authorize work modeled after the corn clubs with focus on a single project.

In 1909, Martin advocated and outlined a proposal for establishing tomato canning clubs.

In 1910, Marie S. Cromer of Aiken County, S.C., organized a club, using material supplied by the USDA.

At the same time, Ella G. Agnew was establishing girls’ canning clubs in Virginia. She was the first woman agent appointed by USDA for farmers’ cooperative demonstration work.

By 1912, 23,000 canning clubs had been organized.

The establishment of girls’ clubs raised philosophical questions about club work conducted up to that time. The principle emphasis in boys’ club work until 1910 had been on finding a means of conveying new agricultural techniques from the experiment stations and land-grant colleges to farm operation.

Girls’ clubs, confined to canning, sewing, baking, and the like, had no such technological goals. Teaching safe and efficient methods of preserving food was a sufficient goal in itself.

However, the canning clubs quickly took on a character different from boys’ corn clubs. Girls began as demonstrators of canning techniques, but soon looked at the entire role of women in the home and community.

Girls’ clubs worked to help women develop self confidence and a sense of community responsibility, an idea later incorporated into all clubs’ work.

Additions to Club Work

From the beginning of 4-H, out-of-state trips have been a great attraction to members. Trips have been used for many years to reward 4-H’ers for their hard work and effort.

Trips also serve the 4-H program to help participants gain knowledge, information, and ideas, then bring those attributes back to benefit the home community.

In 1911 and 1912, several winners in corn, garden, and canning clubs were awarded trips to Washington, D.C. In 1915, 43 county winners and one state winner in corn clubs each won a trip to the Panama Pacific Exposition at San Francisco.

A team of Iowa Canning Club girls won a national canning contest in 1922. For their achievements, they were awarded a trip to France where they gave canning demonstrations.

Exchanges became a part of the educational experience. In 1940, a group of New York City high school youth visited Iowa for a week.

The primary purpose was to give the city youth an insight into farm life and to broaden their outlook on the need for rural-urban relations.

In 1948, a group of American young people went to Europe and a group of Europeans came to the United States on the first International Farm Youth Exchange.


In recent years, the 4-H program has been experiencing two significant trends. One involves a more precise recognition that the basic purpose of 4-H centers on personal growth of the member.

By using 4-H projects as important vehicles for achievements and growth, 4-Hers are able to build life skills they can use the rest of their lives.

4-H educational experiences are built around life skills that center on positive self-esteem, communication, and decision-making. Citizenship and leadership skills, learning how to learn, and the ability to cope with change also are an important part of 4-H educational. programs.

The second trend was toward program and organizational coordination, combining the girls’ 4-H organization and the boys’ 4-H organization into a single integrated program.

Today, 4-H programs are found in rural and urban areas throughout the world. The program is instrumental in building life skills in youth and making our communities better places to live and work.

4-H will continue to grow and develop with the head, heart, hands, and health of youth around the world.

(This centennial celebration article is one in a monthly series that will provide a closer look at the history of 4-H.)


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