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4-H and 1-Room Country Schools

Boys and Girls Club Work (4-H... or, 3-H) was an integral part of the public school system in many counties during the early 1900's.

While county school superintendents are credited with starting the 4-H program in many parts of the country, e.g. A. B. Graham started a boys and girls club in Ohio in January, 1902; O. H. Kern started a similar club program in Winnebago County, Illinois in February, 1902; other educational leaders across the country, often independent of one another, are credited with starting similar activities. These early pioneers would include J. C. Hetler in North Dakota; Oscar H. Benson, Cap Miller and Jessie Field in Iowa; J. F. Haines of Indiana and Louis R. Alderman of Oregon.

The land-grant colleges and the national educational groups were already on board since the 1890's, but for different reasons. The colleges wanted to disseminate their latest research and improved practices to the farmer by exposing and training their young sons and daughters to hybrid seed corn, milk sanitation, more safe canning procedures and so on. The educators wanted to involve teachers in teaching more than the 3 R's (reading, writing and arithmetic), involving more practical education and manual training.

In fact, M. Buisson of the French Ministry of Education, speaking at the International Congress of Education at Chicago on July 26, 1893, said: "Let the school teach, we say, what is most likely to prepare the child to be a good citizen, an intelligent and active man... Not by the means of the three R's, but rather by the means of the three H's - head, heart and hand - and make him fit for self-government, self control and self-help, a living, a thinking being." (Page 263 of the proceedings of the National Education Association for 1893).

Nearly a decade later, W. M. Beardshear, President of Iowa State College and President of the National Education Association, in his presidential address to the association at Minneapolis on July 10, 1902, said: "We are coming to embody Buisson's definition of education, and harmoniously build up the character of the child. The three H's take up history + science to discover what is true and false, to exalt the noble and dethrone the ignoble, to admire the beautiful and ignore the ugly. Their truest aim is to make an intelligent being still more intelligent. The hand is a twin to the brain... Whatever our youth expect to do in future life, the educational worth of the culture of the hands is comparable with that of any other form of education. The heart sees farther than the eyes, feels more deeply than the hand, and understands more profoundly than the brain. The heart is the seer in the kingdom of life. It knows devine writ in sky, in field, in friend and in God." (Excerpts from presidential address "The Three H's in Education, NEA 1902).

County school superintendents completely understood what both Buisson and Beardshear... and others like them, were saying. Schools had to merge practical "hands-on" education and experiences with the more formal education. But many of the superintendents saw in this yet another advantage. The budgets for rural country schools rested solely with the surrounding communities they served. From erecting the school building to hiring and paying a teacher to providing teaching materials - what the local community contributed financially defined the local school. If the more progressive teachings of practical education to the students would eventually channel upwards... and, please the parents, it could possibly help to increase the school's budget and community support in other ways.

There really was no prescribed program during the first decade of the 1900's. The superintendents had to use their own creativity and solicit support from wherever it might appear. The land-grant colleges were helpful in providing materials and training. As teachers and superintendents communicated among their peers, sharing success stories with one another, patterns began to merge from county to county and even across state lines.

Boys and girls Club Work very much became an integral part of the school program. The Public School Report Card, to the right, issued by the county superintendent in Des Moines County, Iowa and dated 1915 prominently displays the 3-H ear of corn design. Provided by Ted Hutchcroft, former staff member, National 4-H Foundation, this was his father, Paul Hutchcroft's report card. Also shown here, again with the ear of corn, is the head-heart-hand 3-leaf clover symbol as it appeared on a Winnebago County, Illinois Award of Honor Certificate dated May 1911 and signed by O. J. Kern, County Superintendent. This certificate was for public school teachers who had completed a course of professional work. Provided by Larry Krug, retired staff member, National 4-H Council, the certificate is made out to his grandmother, Violet H. Wilson, who was a 1-Room country school teacher.

One of the best explanations of this school and 4-H connection was written and distributed in 1952 when there was much coverage referring to the 50th anniversary of 4-H. On February 6th of that year, Kenneth H. Anderson, Associate Director, National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work, sent a letter out to state Extension Directors, State 4-H Club Leaders and State Extension Editors saying: "In view of the many questions which are being asked about the origins of 4-H work, the author of The 4-H Story, Mr. Franklin M. Reck, has prepared the enclosed statement. We hope this statement will prove helpful in answering requests from press, radio and other interests about the historical background of the 4-H movement."


One of the best explanations of this school and 4-H connection was written and distributed in 1952 when there was much coverage referring to the 50th anniversary of 4-H. On February 6th of that year, Kenneth H. Anderson, Associate Director, National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work, sent a letter out to state Extension Directors, State 4-H Club Leaders and State Extension Editors saying: "In view of the many questions which are being asked about the origins of 4-H work, the author of The 4-H Story, Mr. Franklin M. Reck, has prepared the enclosed statement. We hope this statement will prove helpful in answering requests from press, radio and other interests about the historical background of the 4-H movement."

The Origins of 4-H

In any publicity that goes out regarding 4-H, newspapers and magazines should be cautious about attributing the origin of the movement to any one man. There is a natural tendency to do this, since it makes for dramatic writing, but at best such a story would be an oversimplification.

In the early years of this century, a number of superintendents of rural schools encouraged their students in such projects as corn planting, gardening, sewing and cooking. They held school fairs at which exhibits were judged and ribbons placed. Most of these programs were conducted outside the classroom because the superintendents weren't sure their school boards would approve of such goings-on during regular school hours.

The 4-H Story, recently published, gives the story of a dozen of these forward-looking superintendents who carried on this work with their youngsters before 1905. No doubt, if there had been time, dozens of other examples could have been brought to light.

Why was all this activity going on at the turn of the century? The answer to this question will clearly show that 4-H didn't begin as the unique idea of any one man or several men, but as the result of a kind of ground swell that was arising all over rural America.

This is the answer: From the 1890's on, educators everywhere were conducting a campaign to broaden the curriculum of schools. They were trying to sell the public on what they then called "Industrial Education." They meant manual training. They meant domestic science. They meant crop growing.

Now this was a radical idea. Rural schools then were teaching little besides the three R's. This move for "Industrial Education" took a lot of selling, and a study of the educational society meetings that took place in the 1890's will reveal speech after speech calling for education of the "head, heart and hand" education closely related to environment in which the student lived... education about soil, farm animals, tools, cookery, housekeeping.

School superintendents, Farmer's Institutes, forward-looking individuals all over the country responded to this campaign by starting out-of-school project work with their boys and girls.

As they began these programs, they had help from the Land-Grant Colleges. By 1900 the college experiment stations were eager to get their new seeds, their new practices, soil testing and the like out to the farmer. They found allies in the school superintendents and the farm boys and girls. So the colleges offered seeds and printed material and the help of experts.

These twin incentives - the campaign of the educators and the practical help of the colleges - were the forces that created the beginnings of 4-H.

It is safe to say that none of the pioneers of project work for farm boys and girls visualized the modern 4-H program. They could hardly suspect that what they were doing would some day be a nationwide program in which boys and girls voluntarily engaged in activities outside of school, complete with clubs, fairs, achievement days, local fairs, State 4-H weeks, the National Congress and the National Camp.

Actually, the pioneers were thinking of something else. They wanted to get industrial education into the curriculum of the schools. They were trying to win over their school boards. They wanted to get stronger support from the taxpayer for the rural school.

Thus it must be clear to editors that no single pioneer can be tapped on the shoulder with the accolade, "He did it."

It didn't happen that way.

This interpretation of the origin of 4-H is offered in all good will as a guide to magazine and newspaper editors who will no doubt be bombarded during the coming year with stories more or less sensational about how 4-H started here, or there, or in some other specific place.

Franklin M. Reck

While there were similarities between the programs these educators were driving, no two were alike. Brief descriptions of a couple of them follow here, based on accounts from the Reck book.

School superintendent A. B. Graham sounded out teachers and students on the idea of forming a boys' and girls' experiment club in late 1901. The response was favorable and he was able to get a space to hold the meeting in the basement of the county building in Springfield, Ohio where he had his office. At the first meeting he showed the young participants some litmus paper brought from the drugstore, and suggested that they test the soil from various parts of their fathers' farms. He also suggested they might select the best corn from their fathers' crops and plant experimental plots. At later meetings he introduced rope splicing and knot tying and brought in a microscope with which he showed them the globules in milk and the circulation of blood in a frog's foot. The program that first year was experimental, and with the start of 1903 he decided to ask for outside help in working up a more permanent schedule of events. He appealed for help to Liberty Hyde Bailey at Cornell, who replied on January 21, 1903, that Cornell had done nothing along the line of boys' experiment clubs, though it had thousands of children engaged in "true nature study." Bailey recommended that Graham get in touch with O. J. Kern, superintendent of schools in Winnebago county, Illinois who was doing similar work, however Graham decided to look closer to home and sought help from the Agricultural Experiment Station at Wooster, Ohio. Assistance came in the form of sacks of four kinds of seed corn so that boys could compare yields of these varieties with the kind grown by their fathers. He also offered to supervise soil testing and report forms for both projects were devised. Graham added a vegetable garden project, using seeds provided free by the federal government. A fourth project was a flower garden activity developed principally for the girls. The parents of the children involved in the projects supported the program, as well as others in the communities involved that did not have children in the projects. Although these clubs were called "school agricultural clubs," they elected student officers and met more or less regularly outside of school. Club members conducted their projects at home and filled out regular reports on their work. Prizes were not stressed. There is no record that badges or membership cards were issued. The Ohio county-wide clubs began as the effort of one man to vitalize his one-room schools. They were supported by the College of Agriculture because they tied in with the educational aims of the institution.

Strong college support was also a factor in the growth of the Illinois clubs. On February 22, 1902, about a month after Graham reports having held his first meeting for boys in Springfield, Ohio, O. J. Kern, county superintendent of schools in Winnebago County, Illinois assembled 37 boys in his office in Rockford. These boys, no doubt glad to get out of class, must have wondered what was in the wind as they listened to brief talks from Prof. C. A. Shamel of Illinois College of Agriculture and Superintendent Fred Rankin of the College Extension Work. Shamel and Rankin were carrying the banner of better seed corn. Under Prof. Perry G. Holden, Cyril G. Hopkins and Shamel, Illinois had made great strides in the scientific breeding of corn. Kern himself was more interested in the development of his students. "Along with his study of the kangaroo, the bamboo and the cockatoo, why not study the animals on the farm and a proper feeding standard for them?" he asked. Kern was also running into difficulty of interesting the farmer in his local school... the rural school had done little more than teach his children the three R's, and the farmer was inclined to keep it going on that basis, without spending any more on it. Kern believed the farmers must be met on their own grounds. It was not enough to tell them of the shortcomings of the country schools, one must be able to tell them what is better... So Kern welcomed the support of the college of agriculture and the Farmers' Institutes in forming a boys' experiment club as a means of helping the boy and interesting the parent at the same time. That first year, each boy corn grower received 500 grains of selected seed corn from the local Farmers' Institute and raised what he called "Institute corn." The college experiment station also sent each boy a quantity of sugar beet seed in a campaign to discover whether sugar beets could be profitably raised in northern Illinois. Circulars and forms were mailed to the boys and rural teachers supervised the work firsthand. In June, club members, their parents and other interested folks took an excursion down state to Urbana, 280 strong, to study scientific agriculture. The boys also did activities relating to surveying oats for smut. They kept diligent records and reports on all their projects. In February, 1903, the annual meeting of the county Farmers' Institute devoted a half-day session to the boys, during which members of the experiment club gave their reports. After the reports, the fathers readily volunteered to help with the program, as did the teachers. The work with boys resulted in a clamor for a similar organization for girls, with result that a Girls' Home Culture Club was organized in September, 1903 with a membership of 216. These girls carried on projects in needlework and bread-making and exhibited achievements at the next Farmers' Institute. Kern lost few opportunities to promote his program. With an appropriation from the county board of supervisors, he arranged a lecture course that included such speakers as Perry G. Holden of Iowa State College [formerly of Illinois State College], Dean Henry of Wisconsin College of Agriculture, and Dean Davenport of Illinois. He organized excursions of his club members and their parents to all three state land-grant college campuses in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.

While many examples more or less follow the Graham-Kern pattern of a local leader - usually a county school superintendent - heading the program, a few came from the top down. One example is the Farm Boys' and Girls Progressive League formed in Texas in 1903. This was a crusade, by the "Farm and Ranch" magazine, published in Dallas, "to relieve the narrowness of farm life for our young people and to dignify and ennoble the agriculture of the future." The magazine offered free seed and one thousand dollars in cash prizes for crops grown and butter made by young people between the ages of fourteen and twenty. The Texas Farmers' Institute suggested a state-wide organization, to be formed during the meeting of the Farmers' Congress at College Station on July 8, 1903. The plan was to encourage rural school teachers to supervise crop growing and domestic science work. The League was formed in July and thrived for a number of years, its membership reaching 1,200 the second year. The A&M College provided free bulletins and the "Farm and Ranch" promoted the program.

On February 20, 1904, J. F. Haines, school superintendent of Hamilton county, Indiana, sent out a circular letter to his teachers asking them to announce to their classes that in April there would be a meeting for boys who would agree to raise a patch of corn from seed furnished them. When the day arrived, 93 boys were present and received 1,200 grains of corn each. Township trusts and merchants provided cash and merchandise for prizes, and a show was held in December. From this familiar beginning, the rural counties in Indiana introduced agriculture, domestic science and manual training into their smaller schools, not as classroom subjects but home projects. Exhibits and prizes were incentives that made the work thrive. G. I. Christie, later superintendent of Extension for Indiana, observed the following results: "These contests have not only interested the boys and girls and the teachers in industrial subjects, but they have secured the support of the patrons for the school work in general. The result of all this work is better schools, better pay for the teachers, more interested boys and girls, better farming, better homes, and a better country life."

In Iowa, "Uncle Henry" Wallace, publisher of "Wallace's Farmer," distributed superior seed corn to farm boys as early as 1904, instructing them to bring exhibits to the State Farm Institute in Des Moines, where prizes would be awarded. Also in 1904, Cap E. Miller, a county superintendent of schools in Keokuk county, Iowa announced to his students and teachers that they would organize a boys' agricultural club and a girls' home culture club. Miller had been experimenting before that time with spelling and essay contests but Professor Perry G. Holden of the agronomy department at Iowa State College, who was then crusading for better seed corn, encouraged Miller to try the club concept. At Cap Miller's announced meeting in the spring of 1904, he invited each boy and girl to grow some plant - any plant - and write a report on it entitled, "An Interesting Plant." The best of these reports were to be given at a township meeting and the supervisors were to come to the big "county educational feast" in December. The girls, he said, would compete with exhibits of sewing, canned fruit, bread and butter. Miller's program was so broad that one might well doubt whether it would succeed. He invited youngsters to collect samples of rock, soils, woods, and minerals, to draw maps of their districts locating farms, roads, creeks and woodlands; to take livestock censuses, to make records of farm products sold over a given period. It was almost a blanket ticket to the students and teachers to observe their surroundings and write up their findings. The state never saw anything quite like the fair that fall. Professor Holden, who was there to hold corn judging classes, estimated that there were almost 4,000 exhibits of all kinds. There were over 100 exhibits of wood specimens, one collection containing 47 different kinds of wood. The program was studded with youthful oration on "Corn," "Sweet Pea," "Cabbage," "Aster," "Peanut," "Watermelon." The idea of youngsters exclaiming before a crowd-packed hall on such subjects, greatly intrigued one Des Moines editor, Joe S. Trigg, who wrote: "When a girl becomes eloquent over cabbages, peanuts, corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, or sweet peas, something valuable has been added to that girl's experience." Uncle Henry Wallace's comment was: "This is teaching agriculture in the public school on right lines. If the superintendents in the state wake up and follow the example... agriculture will be taught in the most effective way possible in every county in the state... Agriculture in the public schools will come in not as something from the outside... but in the only way in which they can be taught effectively, and that is by the boys and girls themselves." In June, Miller obtained excursion rates to take his students and their families to Iowa State College, at Ames. He told the railroad that they might expect 400, but before train time 1,500 had bought tickets. Here was another case of a county being set afire through the inspired program of a teacher, giving new outlets to the energies of rural boys and girls.

Chapter II in Reck's book, "The 4-H Story," which deals with "New Life in Rural Schools," and Chapter III, "Years of the Valiant Pioneers," together give 25 pages of excellent history of the relationship between schools and 4-H... between county school superintendents and the state colleges in support of more practical education for the rural youth of America. There is really little need to rewrite what has already been so well done in Reck's book. This book is digitized and can be found in the books archive on this 4-H history website.

Another book, "Among Country Schools" written by O. J. Kern in 1906, relates heavily in several chapters to his experiences in Winnebago County, Illinois and the beginning of boys' agricultural clubs and girls' home culture clubs. Again, this book is available in digital format on this website.

A pamphlet entitled "Rural School Agriculture... The Boys' and Girls' Experiment Club and the Agricultural Student Union of Ohio," tells the story of A. B. Graham and his work in Clark County, Ohio. It was written by Thomas F. Hunt, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Domestic Science, Ohio State University, in 1903. This, too, is available in digital format on the Internet.

"A. B. Graham, County Schoolmaster and Extension Pioneer" was written in 1984 by Virginia and Robert McCormick and is available through bookstores.

"One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin" is another resource which does an excellent job of discussing the importance of education from the rural one-room country schools. Written by Jerry Apps, professor emeritus of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the 240 page book was published in 2004 and is readily available at book stores.

Principal author: Larry L. Krug

Compiled by National 4-H History Preservation Team.

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