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Earliest National Event

Corn clubs and corn growing contests, which were among the earliest beginnings of club work, involved thousands of young people. These "Farmer Boys" parading in Macoupin County, Illinois, were organized by Will B. Otwell, early youth leader.

Otwell's Farmer Boys national roundup of corn growing contestants in 1905 in Carlinville, Illinois may not have been the first organized national event for farm boys and girls, but it perhaps was the most significant one to date.

This is the story of that event and all of the trials and tribulations that led up to it during the six preceding years.

Will B. Otwell had been active in the Macoupin County (Illinois) Farmers' Institute from the beginning in 1898. As a local nurseryman, he was elected secretary of the group in February of 1898. For their first Institute day, held later that same month, the officers engaged speakers of state-wide reputation to talk on farm subjects. Otwell promoted the institute extensively, advertising in 13 county papers and instructed the janitor of the courthouse to open the doors early to accommodate the crowd. But when the doors of the courthouse opened, the only ones to enter the hall were the officers and the chaplain.

The next year the officers changed their tactics. They decided to send out personal gilt-edged invitations to farmers, but the result wasn't much better. They found that few farmers seemed interested in attending meetings... perhaps two dozen at most. The officers were disgusted, the president resigned, and the secretary (Otwell) was elected president.

Otwell, now president of the Institute, decided that something drastic must be done to improve attendance. Fortunately, he was as resourceful as he was persistent. Consequently, he decided to ignore the parents and concentrate on farm young people. It was bold, original... and successful.

First, he wrote to leading corn growers in Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois and procured 12 samples of first-class seed corn. He then called 12 farmers into the parlors of a local bank and asked them to select the variety best adapted to the soil of Macoupin county. This done, he bought several bushels of the seed corn at $2 per bushel. Next, he solicited $40 in cash and divided it into $1 premiums. A plow company gave a two-horse plow for a sweepstakes premium. Otwell then published a notice in the county papers that every boy under 18 who would send in his name and address would receive a package of seed corn - all that could be mailed for one cent postage. The response was considerable; 500 young boys requested seed corn for the contest and during the summer these youthful contestants advertised the forthcoming Farmers' Institute as no other medium could have done. Otwell tells his own story of the result of his approach to farm youth:

"I decided not to advertise the Institute in the papers any more than just to give the dates. The farmers were politely told they could stay away if they preferred. When I reached the courthouse on the morning of the Institute, there were scores of boys waiting for the doors to open. They had their prize corn with them, some of it in boxes, some of it in coffee sacks, tied up with binder twine, shoe strings, bed cord... When I called the meeting to order at the appointed time, I was confronted by 500 farmers. And Professor Stevenson of Champaign, who scored the corn, said he had never seen a nicer display of yellow corn. I knew I had solved the problem..." (from 1904 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture)

By 1901 Otwell's annual corn growing contest had attracted 1,500 boys. Soon equipment manufacturers offered premiums to contest winners: a three-wheeled riding plow, a walking cultivator, fanning mill, a high-grade bicycle, a double harrow, a washing machine, a one-hole corn sheller, a box of 100 bars of soap, and even a windmill. The attendance in 1901 set a record and that of 1902 surpassed it, with the result that Otwell and his county Institute became known all over the state of Illinois.

The summer that followed was a dry one, and the president of the institute was fearful that the contest would not amount to much. But one of the objects for which he was striving had already been accomplished - the farmers of the county were interested. The fathers of the 1,500 boys donated the best spots on their farms for the growing of this corn - the hog lots, calf pastures, clover fields - and all the time the boys were studying deep and shallow cultivation and fertilizers of all kinds, and were becoming more interested in farming. When the time for the farmers' institute came there were 1,500 farmers in constant attendance and a display of corn which, according to the judge who distributed the prizes, was finer than any he had ever seen at State fairs in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas or Iowa.

Mr. Otwell says of this meeting:

Farmers who a short time before would not attend, and who boldly asserted that "they had forgotten more than these speakers would ever find out," were on the front seat and helping in every possible way. Besides the fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts, there were more than 300 farmer boys in attendance at this institute, and with no friction and the utmost enthusiasm and good will, we closed the largest and best farmers' institute I have ever attended. The corn was simply immense. And so were the boys. And when I mentioned the name of the poor little fellow in blue overalls, who lived on a thin, worn-out piece of white land, and who had carried water all through the long summer to water his corn, and had thereby been awarded the first prize (bicycle), no governor of the State of Illinois ever received a heartier ovation than he.

Over Otwell's protest, Governor Richard Yates gave the responsibility of creating an exhibit for Illinois at the great 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. The prospect appalled the farm-bred man from Carlinville. He knew that famed artists would create beautiful displays for other states. What could he do to match them?

Then he struck upon the idea of holding a boys' corn contest, this time state-wide. Otwell expanded the contest to include 50,000 entrants. In the fall of 1903, Otwell and his associates in Carlinville were busy opening 10-ear entries of corn, drying them out, and repacking them for shipment to the Agricultural Palace at St. Louis. They send down the best 1,250 samples from the contestants along with 600 photographs of the young farmers. This made up the bulk of the exhibit. Exhibition visitors came upon the sight of two huge pyramids of corn, one of yellow corn, the other of white, arranged neatly in 10-ear samples. Above the pyramids were signs reading: "Grown by the farmer boys of Illinois!" And, on a huge banner were the words: "8,000 Farm Boys in Contest." The fact that hundreds of the samples were adorned with the pictures of the boys who grew them added the personal touch. The result: the Illinois corn display literally stole the show from the other states.

Newspapermen at the World's Fair, learned that each morning Otwell was getting approximately a bushel basket full of mail from his youthful contestants, literally overwhelmed Otwell for stories.

The newspapers and magazines from around the country carried about 2,000 special articles about the pyramid of corn from Illinois. The display received so much attention that Otwell received offers from foreign countries to stage similar contests there.

Always "raising the bar," the next year, 1905, Otwell invited farm youth from anywhere in the country to Carlinville, Illinois, for a national roundup of corn growing contestants in his home town. Before this, he had held county roundups, but this one would include farm youngsters from anywhere in the United States.

Otwell broadcast his invitation, instructing his followers that they were to parade on horseback, the boys to wear a blue sash of crepe paper hanging from the shoulder, the girls to wear a sash of gold.

The results were astonishing; families migrated to Carlinville from 40 counties in eight states, their saddle horses hitched to their buggies. When the parade was formed, Otwell recalls in an interview with E. I. Pilchard, Illinois Extension, in 1927, that it measured four miles in length, four horsemen abreast.

Mounted on a black charger, Otwell led the Boys' Horseback Brigade past the reviewing stand. There proudly stood Illinois Governor Richard Yates. Along side Yates was the Vice President of the United States, Adlai Stevenson, watching as young men and women from mear and far paraded past the reviewing stand. Vice President Stevenson, with tears in his eyes, said it was the most inspiring sight he had ever seen.

Otwell's contests were not club work. He formed no local groups and required no regular meetings. He did, however, help create wide interest in better seed corn. Most important of all, from the standpoint of the future 4-H movement, he proved how wholeheartedly the hitherto neglected farm boy would respond to public recognition and encouragement.

[written primarily from "The 4-H Story" by Franklin Reck and "4-H: An American Idea 1900-1980, A History of 4-H" by Thomas Wessel and Marilyn Wessel and the 1904 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture feature, "Boys' Agricultural Clubs" by Dick J. Crosby]

Compiled by National 4-H History Preservation Team.

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