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National 4-H Engineering Events

Originally called the Eastern and the Central and Western U.S. Tractor Operators' Contests, together these two popular annual events drew participants from most of the states. Today, the event is called the National 4-H Engineering Challenge.

The Eastern U.S. Tractors Operators' Contest began in 1950. A brief article in the November 1958 National Committee Comments, the newsletter of the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work, reported that the Eastern Regional Contest had been held for the eighth consecutive year during the Atlantic Rural Exposition in Richmond, Virginia, drawing some 40 4-H boys from 21 states. The sponsor was American Oil Company, donor of 4-H tractor awards in the Eastern Seaboard area, in cooperation with the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work and the Virginia Extension Service, Farm Equipment Association, and State Fair Board.

Besides 4-H contestants, there were approximately 80 adults attending - state 4-H staff members and Extension engineers, county Extension agents, volunteer 4-H leaders, parents, and representatives of the sponsoring groups.

According to the article, colored golf balls on top of wooden stakes in a driving course was part of a unique competition found only in 4-H Club work... and something new this year. This new device may set the pattern for future scoring of tractor operations, in which the object is to pilot the tractor and its trailer through an intricate course without dislodging the balls from their position.

The following weekend - still in 1958 - a similar competition was held at the State Fair Grounds (Springfield) and New Salem Lodge in Illinois, with boys from 17 states in the Midwest participating. This was its second year, with the contest rotating among the central states and slated to be held in Missouri in 1959 and Michigan in 1960. Tractor award sponsors cooperating with Illinois Extension and the National 4-H Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work on the 1958 event were Standard Oil Foundation (Chicago), along with Standard Oil (Kentucky), Standard Oil (Ohio), and Humble Oil and Refining Company. This event was referred to as the Central and Western U.S. Tractor Operators' Contest.

Record attendance was seen at the 1962 tractor driving events. A total of 44 states were represented at the two regional tractor contests that fall - the highest participation in history.

At both events 4-H members had an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of tractor maintenance and skill in operation. Every effort was made to simulate actual farm conditions and to stress safety at all times. And through these educational competitions, more effective leadership and thorough tractor programs were being developed at the state and local levels.

The Central and Western U.S. Contest, held September 9-11, 1962 at Ohio State University, Columbus, drew 4-H contestants from 24 states. Cooperating hosts were the Ohio Extension Service, Columbus Tractor & Implement Club, National 4-H Service Committee and the Tractor sponsors for that area: Standard Oil Foundation (Chicago); Standard Oil Company (Kentucky); The Standard Oil Company (Ohio); and Humble Oil & Refining Company.

On September 23-26, 1962, two weeks later, 4-H'ers from 20 seaboard and southern states competed in the Eastern U.S. Contest, at the Virginia State Fair, Richmond - the 12th year for this event. Sponsors included the Virginia Extension Service, State Fair, and Farm Equipment Association, plus the American Oil Company and Foundation, and the National 4-H Service Committee.

By 1965, the Central and Western U.S. Contest was simply called the Western U.S. 4-H Tractor Operators' Contest. The 1966 Western Contest was held in connection with the Dairy Cattle Congress at Waterloo, Iowa with Stanley Davidson and Dale O. Hull, Iowa State University faculty, serving as co-chairmen. The astern U.S. 4-H Tractor Operators' Contest remained at the Virginia State Fair with William Turner and Easley Smith, VPI staff, co-chairing the event.

The Fall 1972 National 4-H Service Committee COMMENTS newsletter carried an article on the Eastern and Western 4-H Tractor Operators events.

In the East, Ronald Van Aken, 17, of Stone Ridge, New York, was declared the top 4-H tractor operator in the 22nd annual Eastern U.S. 4-H Tractor Operators' Contest held during the Virginia State Fair in Richmond. Ron received the Guy W. Gienger trophy in recognition of his winning low score of 276.

Dulius Nichols, 17, of Fayette, Alabama, took second place with 333 points. Charles R. McMillan, Jr., 15, from Bamberg County, South Carolina, scored 336 to earn third place and John Green, 17, of Dowagiac, Michigan, earned fourth place with 382 points. The 17 contestants from as many states toured Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown during the event.

During both the Eastern and Western contests the specific events included a written test, over-all safety and a demonstration of driving ability with a two- and a four-wheel implement attached. In addition, the Western contest also included a practical examination of a contestant's ability to spot faulty and malfunctioning parts. Therefore, their scores were higher.

Larry Korte, 17, of Belknap, Illinois, earned top place honors in the 16th annual Western U.S. 4-H Tractor Operators' Contest held during the Tulsa state Fair in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Larry received a trophy and other recognition for his winning low score of 517.

Allan Vyhnalek, 17, of Dorchester, Nebraska, placed second with 684 points. Tom Rowntre, 17, of Kansasville, Wisconsin, earned third place with his score of 701, and fourth place honors went to Dick Winkler, 19, of Creston, Iowa, who had 734 points. The 15 contestants toured points of interest in the Tulsa area and viewed exhibits and activities at the state fair.

Contestants in both events were guests of American Oil Foundation, sponsor. Other hosts were the Cooperative Extension Service of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the State Fair of Virginia, Virginia Farm and Industrial Equipment Association, the Cooperative Extension Service of Oklahoma State University, Tulsa State Fair, Oklahoma tractor and machinery dealers and the National 4-H Service Committee.

Some time between 1973 and 1976 there were major changes made in the two events. No longer called Tractor events, they were now known as the Western and the Eastern U.S. Engineering events. Besides tractors, there were contests for automotive and for small engines. And, no longer were the events exclusively for boys... girls also competed. It is believed that the Automotive Care and Safety Contest, which had been held annually, sponsored by The Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, became a part of the two Engineering events and Firestone became an additional sponsor at both events.

A National Committee COMMENTS feature in the Fall 1976 issue reports on both the Western and Eastern U.s. 4-H Engineering Events.

Missouri had the top team and winning girl in automotive and the first place tractor operator, with Wisconsin taking top honors in the boys' auto event and Colorado placing first in the small engines event at the 20th Annual Western U.S. 4-H Engineering Event, September 23-25, 1976, at Ak-Sar-Ben, Omaha, Nebraska. Oklahoma took second place honors in the team and girls' automotive events with South Dakota second in the boys' event. Nebraska placed second in the tractor operators' vent as did North Dakota in the small engines event. Winners were among some 40 4-H members representing 15 states who participated in the three-day educational event designed to test their skills and knowledge as they were scored on written examinations and practical exercises emphasizing safety and operator skills.

Some 60 4-H members representing 20 states in the 26th Annual Eastern U.S. 4-H Engineering Event, September 27-29, 1976, held in conjunction with the Virginia State Fair, Richmond, where Arkansas had top automotive team, with Florida first in the boys' and Pennsylvania first in the girls' automotive event. New York took top honors in the tractor operators' event as did Louisiana in the small engines event. Second place honors went to Arkansas in both the boys' and the girls' automotive events and tractor operators' event with Maryland taking second in the small engines event.

The U.S. 4-H Engineering Events in 1976 were sponsored by the Cooperative Extension Service; The University of Nebraska; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Amoco Foundation Inc,, donor in the 4-H Petroleum Power awards program; The Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, donor in the 4-H Automotive awards program; National 4-H Service Committee; Ak-Sar-Ben; Nebraska farm equipment dealers; State Fair of Virginia; Virginia Farm and Industrial Equipment Dealers Association, and farm machinery manufacturers.

In 1979 the Omaha Western event was held September 20-22 at AK-SAR-BEN. 4-H'ers competed in tractor driving and skills competition, small engines skills, and automotive driving skills contests. The Oklahoma team of Stephen Cook and Janelle Vickery placed first in automotive. Brian Costello of Wisconsin won the tractor event, while Alan Javornik of Colorado won in small engines. The Western event was highlighted by an evening at the AK-SAR-BEN rodeo, and breakfast with Roy Rogers, who credited 4-H with having changed his life. He owes it all, he told the 4-H'ers, to a Poland China pig named Evangeline, and a 4-H agent who cared about building responsibility in youth.

The 1979 Eastern event was held September 24-26 in Richmond, in conjunction with the Virginia State Fair. David Klett of New York won the tractor competition, Jeffrey Coleman of North Carolina placed first in small engines and Kenneth Wantulak of Arkansas took first in automotive competition. The Amoco Foundation, sponsor of the National 4-H Petroleum Power program sponsored the small engines and tractor competitions at both events, while the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, sponsor of the National 4-H Automotive Program, sponsored the automotive events.

The two regional U.S. 4-H Engineering Events each featured something special in 1980. At the Western Engineering Event in Omaha, Nebraska September 18-20, the 43 delegates from 15 states and their parents met country music recording star Tom T. Hall. Addressing the delegates at an awards breakfast, he said, "Those of us in the country music business enjoy working with 4-H'ers because they are enthusiastic and they're working toward a goal."

The Eastern Event, held in Richmond, Virginia September 22-24, 1980, marked its 30th anniversary with a special banquet. Sixty-four delegates from 20 states joined parents and guests in listening to Jim Patterson of Standard Oil Company (Indiana), one of the event's founders. He said, "The key to success is to believe in what you're doing and to like it. I know 4-H is successful because those involved demonstrate these qualities every time I meet them." Special recognition was also given to Easley Smith for his 25 years as chairman of the event. Event winners in both competitions received shares of stock from The Firestone Tire & Rubber Company for automotive, and U.S. Savings Bonds from Amoco Foundation, Inc. for small engines and tractor competitions.

A new exhibit and accompanying brochure were developed in 1984 to give greater visibility to the two national 4-H engineering events. The tabletop display was adaptable to promote either the eastern or western regional event, or both events. The brochure described the various competitive events scheduled, prizes awarded, and the sponsors of each event. The materials were developed through funds from The Firestone Tire & Rubber Company and Amoco Foundation, Inc., sponsors of the engineering events. The Toro Company, Schwinn Bicycle Company and Westinghouse Electric Corporation also supported activities at the events.

More than 120 youth demonstrated their skills and competed for honors at the two regional 4-H events in 1984 at Omaha and Richmond. Amoco Foundation, sponsor of the 4-H Petroleum Power awards program, donated awards in tractor and small engine competitions at the engineering events. The Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, sponsor of the national 4-H Automotive awards program, provided awards in automotive driving competition. A bicycle contest was sponsored by the Schwinn Bicycle Company and a compact tractor contest was sponsored by The Toro Company, both supporters of the learn to earn program. Westinghouse Electric Corporation, sponsors of the national 4-H electric energy program, provided awards for an electrical energy contest.

At the 1988 Eastern and Western National 4-H Engineering Events, several new activities were offered for the first time. As in past years, state-level winners in the 4-H petroleum power and bicycle programs tested their knowledge and skills at both events, held in September in Richmond, Virginia and Omaha, Nebraska. At the Western event, held at AK-SAR-BEN, participants competed in tractor, small engine, automotive, electric energy and bicycle contests. Computer and engineering bowl contests were added to the same program of activities at the Eastern event, held at the Virginia State Fair. The events gave 4-H'ers the opportunity to earn national recognition, as well as the chance, as one contestant said, "to learn how to get along with people you don't know and have just met." Both engineering events were sponsored by Amoco Foundation, Inc., Firestone Trust Fund and The Toro Company. In 1988 a special all-terrain vehicle (ATV) workshop, which placed each contestant on a 4-wheel ATV for friendly competition in time-trial and safety, was held at each event. Yamaha Motor Corporation, U.S.A. joined the events' other sponsors as support of these workshops.

The 2012 National 4-H Engineering Event was held in West Lafayette, Indiana on September 23-25. Most of the contests taking place at the Tippecanoe County Fairgrounds or on the Purdue University campus.

(The history of the national 4-H engineering-type events between approximately 1990-2010 needs to be added... but historical data has not yet been located or documented. We need your help.)

Competitive contests and educational experiences were offered in a variety of subject areas: aerospace, bicycle, computer, electric, engineering bowl, lawn tractor, robotics, small engine, tractor and welding.

There were "hands-on" workshops available to the participants again in 2012. Popular workshops have included the disassembly and re-assembly of a 2-cycle engine with an examination of why each of the engine components was engineered in a particular way; design and construction of a (audio) speaker using paper plates; construction of pneumatic circuits using valves, cylinders, and other components including solving equations related to pressure and flow; and construction of a "Jeopardy" tie-breaker circuit constructed from electrical components.

The National 4-H Engineering Challenge is the premier event within the National 4-H program that allows talented youth from around the country to assemble together to showcase their knowledge and skills in a variety of individual and team-based engineering contests and activities. While this event has become increasingly focused on engineering, traditional events such as tractor operation have been retained and continue to play a big part in the challenge. By incorporating new technologies, such as GPS, the tractor operation event will begin to take on more of an engineering focus over time.

The National 4-H Engineering Challenge currently consists of the following challenge areas:

  • Aerospace
  • Bicycle
  • Computer
  • Electric
  • Engineering Bowl
  • Lawn Tractor
  • Robotics
  • Small Engine
  • Tractor
  • Welding

The Engineering Challenge is held over a three day period each fall in West Lafayette, Indiana, with Purdue University being host to the event. In addition to the competitive events and challenges, in keeping with the engineering theme, tours of industry are provided where the participants are able to see in practice various engineering principles as they relate to design, manufacturing, or other types of production of goods and services. On one day the group also visits the campus of Purdue University. After the campus tour, contest youth divide into groups and participate in hands-on educational programs related to engineering at several locations on campus.

Contemporary History

To learn more about the National 4-H Enginering Challenge, visit the website at For additional information on the National 4-H Engineering Challenge visit the website:

Note that this website used Flash technology and may not display properly in your browser.

Compiled by National 4-H History Preservation Team.

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