4-H was founded over a hundred years ago, in a world that was just about to see the first Ford automobiles made. Orville and Wilbur Wright were about to fly their first airplane. The world 4-H was born into was a very different world than the one we see around us today with our cellphones, internet, and social media. 4-H has always been about engaging youth and helping them reach their full potential, but what that looked like in the early 1900’s is very different than what it looks like in today’s world. So let’s explore how 4-H began and how it has evolved for over a century into what we know and understand 4-H to be today.
In the late 1800’s, new agricultural developments were taking place on university campuses, but the adults in rural farming communities did not readily except these new technologies. So researchers turned to the more open-minded youth. They knew that if they could reach them with these new developments, the children would bring these ideas home to their parents and farming practices would improve for the next generation. They connected with the youth though the public school system, and began clubs where they taught them in practical, hands-on ways how to solve the agricultural problems in their own communities.
4-H really started taking root in 1902, when A.B. Graham started 4-H clubs in Clark County, Ohio. The first clubs were called “The Tomato Club” and “The Corn-Growing Club”. In 1910, 4-Hers in Colorado were already being instructed by college agricultural agents like they are today. By this time, the clover had come to be used as the 4-H emblem, but it did not look exactly like it does now. Before 1911, the clover only had 3 H’s, which stood for Head, Heart, and Hands. In 1911, club leaders met and discussed the need of a fourth H on the clover. One of the words considered for the fourth H was Hustle, but that was rejected, and they unanimously decided on Health instead. Head, Heart, Hands, and Health have been universally used ever since.
1914 marked the beginning of a National 4-H with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, creating the Cooperative Extension System at USDA which provided funding for 4-H. Although different activities were originally emphasized for girls and boys, 4-H stands out as one of the first youth organizations to give equal attention to both genders. Girls would have been taught how to safely preserve food, and other homemaking skills. Boys were instructed in better farming practices.
4-H kept it’s focus on rural agricultural areas for nearly half a century, but by the 1960’s, that started to change. While man was taking his first steps on the moon and programs like Star Trek were airing on television, 4-H started to look to a new frontier as well. This one would include activities for all youth, whether they lived on rural farms, in suburbs, or in the big cities. Clubs no longer focused only on agriculture, but also on personal development and other non-agricultural projects. In 1974, 4-H started airing a show called “ Mulligan Stew” on television and also showing it in schools. The show taught children about healthy nutritional habits. It became widely popular, and 4-H membership rocketed to an all-time high.
From the 1960’s until the present, 4-H has focused on many areas outside of agriculture. Although most of the public still sees 4-H as it was originally with its primary focus on agriculture, 4-H is quickly moving beyond its agricultural roots to focus more on leadership, citizenship, healthy living, and STEM-related activities. In Tennessee, 4-H projects not directly involving agricultural outnumber ag-related projects 17 to 10.
While a broadening horizon is a good thing, I do hope that 4-H will not leave its roots of the past. As a 4-Her that loves agriculture and has raised goats, sheep, cows, and chickens, I believe agriculture still has a lot to offer youth. Farmers are the ones that feed the world, and that sounds like a pretty important job to continue encouraging youth to be involved in. So while all these new project areas are good, let’s not forget how 4-H began. As long as there are still people that need to eat, agriculture will never become obsolete!
What 4-H is today is not what it was when it began over a hundred years ago. It has grown and evolved along with a quickly-changing world. If 4-H had stayed the same, then chances are it would have disappeared and been forgotten along with the telegraph and the horse-drawn carriage. But it has survived and is thriving. It has been able to adapt to a new frontier of technology that children in the Corn and Tomato clubs could have never imagined. That different world has not stopped 4-H from continuing the same mission of engaging youth and helping them to reach their full potential, whatever that may be. A new and diverse generation of 4-Hers are rising up to lead the world in fields ranging from robotics and leadership to agriculture and food science. 4-H has stood the test of time and is here to stay. Who knows if one day in the future we will even be starting 4-H clubs on Mars. Because when an organization’s motto is to make the best better, the sky’s not even the limit!