History of 4-H

4-H, the current informal, educational program that promotes youth development began between 1890 and 1900. The educational climate of that decade saw educators for the first time recognize the needs of young people; educators began to stress that education should meet those needs. Then progressive educators in town and city schools also introduced nature study into the curriculum, and school gardens attracted attention in many places throughout the country. Rural educators, in response to a demand from farm people, introduced subjects that taught boys and girls to understand and appreciate rural life while emphasizing rural opportunities.

College educators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were reaching beyond the campus to teach. Agricultural college professors in nearly all states were organizing “farmers’ institutes” meetings to bring the latest scientific agricultural information to farmers and their wives. College educators soon recognized the need to also provide some agricultural instruction for farm boys and girls as well as instilling an appreciation for life in the country.

In many states organizers of farmers’ institutes cooperated with county school superintendents. Together they promoted various production contests, soil tests, and plant identification for young people.

From the cooperation of agricultural college professors and county school superintendents, a club structure emerged for agricultural education for youth. Credit for starting clubs with formal organization requirements is usually given to A. B. Graham, superintendent of schools in Clark County, Ohio. The model for a formally organized club was one he started in 1902. The boys’ and girls’ agricultural club he formed consisted of officers, projects, meetings, and recordkeeping requirements.

Several Iowa county school superintendents and local teachers were pioneers in the club organization movement. O. H. Benson in Wright County and Jessie Field Shambaugh in Page County taught farm topics in schools. Both became county school superintendents in 1906 and vigorously promoted “club” work.

Another Iowa county superintendent, Cap. E. Miller in Keokuk County, also pioneered in club organization. In 1904 he made plans and urged his teachers to promote clubs and teach farm subjects. He 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 – elected officers, educational programs, project  requirements, records, regular meetings, and exhibits.

In Iowa, the work with boys was called “Boys Agricultural Clubs” work. The boys exhibited corn and garden products and had livestock judging contests. With girls it was titled the “Girls Home Culture Clubs”; these clubs taught sewing, canning, and gardening.

From 1905 to 1914, clubs were started in nearly all states. Boys and girls usually were enrolled by mail, and most were not under the immediate direction of a leader. Literature and instructions were sent to members from the state Extension office

At about this time, Professor P.G. Holden, superintendent of Iowa Extension, gave A.U. Storms the job or organizing 4-H in schools. In 1911 E.C. Bishop, from Nebraska, was appointed the first full-time state club leader for Iowa. With the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914, county agents and local leaders began to organize 4-H clubs. Club meetings and projects were made major requirements

Club work for rural youth was organized several years before the term “4-H” or before the fourleaf clover emblem was used. O.H. Benson, Wright County school superintendent, reported a gesture of good will by Iowa school children that led to choosing the four-leaf clover as the emblem for 4-H throughout the world.The story goes: one sunny June morning in 1906 at a one-room country school near Clarion, Iowa, 11 pupils spent their recess outside searching for four-leaf clovers. They had plucked seven clovers when a visitor drove up. Their teacher recognized the guest as Superintendent Benson. At the teacher’s suggestion, the children surrendered their good luck charms and placed the seven clovers into the hands of Superintendent Benson.

He said, “I’m looking for an emblem for the agricultural clubs and the schools of the country, and you have just given me that emblem – the four-leaf clover; it will help explain to young and old the message of a four-square education.” The four main ideas for four-square education included educational development, fellowship development, physical development, and moral development.

In 1907 and 1908, Superintendents Benson and Shambaugh began to use an emblem of a three-leaf clover with an “H” on each leaf, one each for the head, heart, and hands. This was to be the membership badge for every boy and girl member of the Wright County Agricultural and Homemaking Clubs. Superintendent Benson said, “Out of the hearts, hands, and heads of these farm children was born the significant 4-H emblem. The emblem was used on placards, posters, literature, shields, caps, uniforms, badges, and labels. In 1909 he wrote that the first pins with the clover emblem came into use.

In 1911, O.H. Benson worked in Washington D.C. to help organize club work throughout the United States. He and others suggested ideas for a national emblem to represent the developing club program. The four-leaf clover emblem suggested by Benson was chosen. O.B. Martin, who was directing club work in the South, is credited with suggesting the fourth H to stand for Health.

The cooperation among colleges and communities away from campuses made it possible to offer education to young and adult citizens. The value of this cooperative relationship gained recognition when the United State Congress passed legislation to strengthen and perpetuate the college/community service to citizens. This legislation, known as the Smith-Lever Act, became law in 1914. One agricultural land-grant college in each state was designated as the institution to cooperate with local communities. In Iowa, this is Iowa State University at Ames. The Smith-Lever Act provided for the extension of factual information and technical assistance to people not attending colleges through the establishment of the Cooperative Extension Service. In 1914 Boys’ and Girls’ Club Work was included as a program of the Cooperative Extension Service, and 4-H remains there today.

4-H was not the name for these early youth groups, even thought the present 4-H emblem was adopted in 1911. The term “4-H” first was used in a 1918 federal publication written by Gertrude Warren. In the early 1920’s a group at a conference in Washington, D.C. discussed the need to give the boys’ and girls’ club work a distinctive name that could be used nationally. Several people favored “4-H” as the name for the organization; in 1924, “4-H” was adopted formally as the organization’s name.

As mentioned before, early youth club programs emphasized skills needed for farming and homemaking. With clubs established as a way to get information to youth, 4-H soon broadened the topics offered in these settings. For example, a 4-H health contest held at the 1922 Iowa State Fair introduced health as an activity for most clubs. Another expansion that Iowa 4-H pioneered was the addition of music, art, and recreation. Other topics emerged in the 4-H program; the variety of projects and activities developed over the years and continues to increase today in response to the interests and needs of youth. Though 4-H, leadership and citizenship activities are emphasized for youth and can spring from any 4-H topic that youth choose.

Contemporary 4-H and youth programs continue due to efforts of people concerned about the development of youth. Among these are Cooperative Extension Service professionals, paraprofessionals, and volunteer leaders who deliver educational experiences that help youth develop into contributing citizens.

Today young people may participate in 4-H community or project clubs, special interest groups, or school enrichment programs. 4-H is available in towns and cities as well as in rural areas.


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