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4-H and the Great Depression of the 1930s

A major national objective during the Depression years of the 1930's for the 4-H office at USDA and at the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work, in Chicago, was "to try to make life a little richer, a little more fun, for rural America."

With the dust bowls and lower prices for their commodities, life was tough for farming families. The National Committee published a National 4-H Songbook in 1929 which was widely used throughout the decade of the 1930's. They published a series of 4-H skits and plays, particularly adaptable to 4-H club meetings. Through both their radio programs and the National 4-H Club News magazine, hobby information and tips on inexpensive recreation were given major coverage and competitive sports and musical groups were encouraged for 4-H clubs. The National Committee ran contests and their sponsors or donors offered prizes for the best uplifting stories and poems.

House-bound, with little money for "just having a good time," rural America was grateful. While these efforts were not promoted extensively outside of the Extension System, they were heavily promoted through the 4-H Supply Service catalog, National 4-H Club News magazine and at 4-H events.

In October, 1930, Fannie R. Buchanan, who wrote several of the most famous 4-H songs, began writing a series of musical annotations for National Boys and Girls Club News as part of the overall national 4-H music appreciation efforts. Her first musical annotation, appearing in that October issue, was of "Amaryllis" which was used often when dancing the gavotte (danced in sets of several couples and with much formality). Miss Buchanan's second musical annotation was on "The Butterfly" by Norwegian composer Grieg. The third column was on Kreisler's version of Beethoven's Rondinos (commonly referred to as rounds), and the next one on Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 6 - Gypsy music! And, the one after that was on Largo - Dvorak's New World Symphony - A Masterpiece. While these annotations by Miss Buchanan may not be as enthusiastically received today as they were 80 years go, they indeed were popular among the magazine's readers and readily used as part of the musical program at many local club meetings. Fannie Buchanan's series ran for many issues in the National Club News magazine.

Wisconsin 4-H Orchestra and Chorus at State Fair in 1936.

Starting in the 1920s, and growing even stronger throughout the 1930s, many local 4-H clubs... or, at the county and state levels, had 4-H bands and orchestras. In a May 1930 survey to 25 states conducted by the National Boys and Girls Club News, asking about this subject, 14 reported that they had bona fide 4-H Club orchestras. Eleven states reported 4-H Club bands. A total of 42 orchestras and 21 4-H bands were reported. Kansas led in the number of musical 4-H organizations with 10 orchestras and 5 bands. Minnesota had 6 orchestras and two bands.

National 4-H Music Hour

Early during the 1930s the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work negotiated with the National Broadcasting Company to produce and air a monthly hour-long educational musical show on the NBC network. The programs were broadcast mid-day from 12:30 to 1:30 Eastern Standard Time - always on the first Saturday of each month.

Announcements for the shows, carried in the National 4-H Club News magazine for 4-H leaders, explained that the United States Marine Band would play the music and annotations relative to the songs and composers would be given. The Extension Office, USDA helped coordinate the programs, working with NBC staff and the conductor of the U.S. Marine Band. History documents that the programs were conducted by Miss Margaret M. Streeter, music appreciation teacher of the Chicago Musical College and nationally known lecturer on music appreciation, and announced by Mrs. Helen Stevens Fisher, widely read writer on children's subjects and popular radio speaker. However, it is believed that Ray A. Turner, 4-H USDA, soon took over the narration of the annotations and was the lead person coordinating the project throughout most of the decade.

Themes were selected for the entire year. For example, "Songs That Live" was the theme for the 1936 series of the National 4-H Music Hour. "A Musical Journey Around the World" was the theme for the 1938 series and "Stories Told by Music" was the focus of the series in 1939. The programs were intended to be both uplifting and entertaining, while also carrying a strong theme for music appreciation.

Following the 1935 theme of "The World's Best Known Operas," the National 4-H Music Hour series included: Tannehauser, The Bohemian Girl, Martha, Mignon, I Pagliacci, Faust, Die Meistersinger, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Aida, Samson and Delilah, Carmen, Lohengrin, The Magic Flute, Cavalleria Rusticana, Tales of Hoffman, William Tell, Ring of the Nibelungs, and Lucia di Lammermoor, together with such light operas as The Mikado, Pinafore, Robin Hood, El Capitan, The Desert Song, Rose Marie, and The Vagabond King. The U.S. Marine Corps Band played the compositions selected from these operas.

A 1938 news clipping states:

"4-H Club members have the opportunity of listening to the National 4-H Music Hour broadcasts which are given the first Saturday of each month over the National Broadcasting network. The 1938 music hour will follow the them, "A Musical Journey Around the World," a program of music from a different country being presented on each broadcast. The music will be played by the United States Marine band under the leadership of Captain Taylor Branson. Ray A. Turner of the federal extension service will give short descriptive annotations to interpret the musical numbers.

"Music from Spain and France was presented on February 5; Italy, will be presented March 5; Austria, Holland, and Germany, April 2; Norway and Sweden, May 7; Russia and Poland, June 4; Asia and the Pacific Islands, July 2; South America, August 6; Central America, September 3; and the United States, October 1.

"The National 4-H Achievement program will be presented on November 5 in lieu of a musical program. The 1938 National 4-H Music Hour will conclude its yearly program on December 3 with a music memory contest. The band will play a selected list of compositions chosen from numbers played during the year. All 4-H Club members and their friends will be urged to identify these compositions as they are played by writing the name of the composition and the name of the composer. The correct list will be announced at the close of the broadcast."

A February 22, 1939 article in the Ellicottville Post newspaper (Ellicottville, NY), carries the headline:

"New 4-H Club Hour of Music To Reach 25 Million Listeners

"Celebrating 10 years of leadership in the musical education of America's rural youth, the National 4-H Club Music Hour is launching a new series of broadcasts which, it is estimated, will reach at least 25,000,000 listeners during 1939.

"The theme for the year is "Stories Told by Music," and the compositions to be played and described include such famous and beloved works as Mozart's "The Sleigh Ride," the second movement from Haydn's "Surprise Symphony," Pryor's "The Whistler and His Dog," "Anitra's Dance," by Grieg, and Mendelssohn's "Spring Song."

"Since it was begun 10 years ago, the National 4-H Club Music Hour - which is broadcast the first Saturday of each month between 12:30 and 1:30, E.S.T. over 976 stations of the National Broadcasting Co. - has become a powerful factor in advancing America toward the goal of being a musical nation.

"Each year a theme is chosen, and around it are built a dozen programs, each including a half dozen compositions. These are played by the U.S. Marine Band, assisted by soloists. Before each number, a talk on the composer and the composition is given by Ray A. Turner, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who has conducted the program since it was inaugurated.

"Fan mail shows that the program is listened to regularly by a majority of the 1,500,000 4-H Club members, as well as hundreds of thousands of others, adults as well as young people. Thirty-six states have built their own 4-H Club music programs around these broadcasts. Throughout the country there are bands, orchestras and choral groups which learn the compositions played on Mr. Turner's programs, and clubs which study the composers he discusses.

"Leaders in 4-H Club work believe the program has done much to raise the music tastes of America, and are particularly pleased that the program is heard in the most remote districts of the country. Since the invention of the air cell battery, it is possible for rural families with battery-powered radios to enjoy perfect radio reception at low cost.

"The 10th anniversary of the National 4-H Club Music Hour is also the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, which put the extension work of the Department of Agriculture, of which the music hour is a part, on a national basis."

It is believed that the National 4-H Music Hour continued until the beginning of World War II in 1941.

CBS's 4-H Radio Program

While the NBC National 4-H Music Hour perhaps was the best known network 4-H musical radio program, it was not the only one. The WLS network did regular radio shows and in early 1931 the Columbia Broadcasting System started a nationwide weekly 4-H radio program which aired from 12:35 to 12:55 Central Standard Time each Saturday. The program was presented by the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work in cooperation with the Columbia Broadcasting System.

The programs consisted of four parts. The first period was devoted to 4-H Club songs and music "which every club member should know." The second period gave the latest 4-H news flashes direct from the field, from county and state club leaders. Each program had a music appreciation period followed by an annotation of the composition selected and something about its composer, the selection played by the studio orchestra.

The final 10 minutes of the program was turned over to the Cartwright family, consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright, and their two children, Edward and Jennie, who were both 4-H Club members. This family might have been from any part of continental America, but for convenience they are described as a farm family living on a 120-acre farm near Brookfield, Missouri. This is Edward's second year in 4-H Club work. He is interested in hogs so he is enrolled in a sow and litter project. This is Jennie's first year in club work and she has joined a newly organized girl's sewing club. "Tune in each week and hear the adventures, events, and the many interesting episodes in the life of the Cartwright family and those two lively 4-H'ers, Edward and Jennie" - perhaps 4-H's first radio soap opera!

National Boys and Girls Club News readers were encouraged to send in short stories to be used in the episodes of the Cartwright family. Each week those submitting the 20 top suggestions were offered an attractive prize.

Write a 4-H Song Contest

In March 1937, the National 4-H Club News magazine offered a "Write a 4-H Song" contest. The winning songs were to be played over NBC's National Farm and Home Hour and there were cash prizes of $100 for first place, $75 for second, $50 for third, $40 for fourth, $30 for fifth and $25 for sixth. The words and music must be original. The contest was open to both 4-H members and 4-H leaders. Song writers from over 30 states submitted compositions in the contest.

The top rankings songs were:

"4-H Pastoral," by Martha Ruth Mayo, West Helena, Arkansas; "4-H Pep Song," by Myrtle Carry, Footville, Wisconsin; "Stop, Look, Listen and Sing," by Ruth H. Williams, Morgan Park, Illinois; "4-H Pep Song," by Arla Ecklund, Gibson, Illinois; "4-H Hymn" by Conrad M. Thompson, Quarry, Wisconsin; "Achievement Song," by Vernon R. Miller, Athens, New York; "Hurrah for 4-H Club Work," by Alice Callison, Fall Creek, Oregon; "The Four-H Four Leaf Clover Way," by Ellen Payne Odom, Moultrie, Georgia; "Build Up the Farm," by Mrs. Stanley Beymer, Lebam, Washington and Miss Winnefred Lindstrom, Raymond, Washington; "4-H Club Spirit," by Jesse Barney, Rumney Depot, New Hampshire; "4-H Club Pledge Song," by Mrs. Elmer Babcock, Alden, Iowa; "Home Beautification Song," by Irl W. Poehlman, Cromwell, Minnesota.

RCA National 4-H Program on Social Progress

In July, 1936, while most of the country was still wrestling with the Great Depression, the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work, in partnership with the Extension System, announced a new awards program quite different from any that had preceded it. Called the National Program on Social Progress, the new program was sponsored by the Radio Corporation of America, through its services, RCA Victor and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).

Inspired by 4-H, the President of RCA, Mr. David Sarnoff, worked personally with 4-H to create the program to energize rural communities and simply help young boys and girls feel better about themselves and their future. It was a broad program encouraging community parties and cultural events where youth could expand their horizons. It promoted conservation activities, discussions and debates, volunteer programs and personal growth opportunities. The awards structure for the program was generous, including both individual and club awards along with county, state, sectional and national recognition. The top 4-H boy and girl in the United States were awarded $500 scholarships at National 4-H Congress, plus a trip to New York City (each with chaperon) to personally meet with Mr. Sarnoff and tour RCA and NBC facilities. Both an appreciation for music and the hands-on use of radio broadcasting were integral parts of the program.

The National 4-H Program on Social Progress was of great assistance in many rural communities which were experiencing low morale due to the Great Depression, and also was a highly visible program for 4-H. David Sarnoff served as a member of the board for the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work for a number of years.

More National Awards Programs Start in the 1930s

Most of the national 4-H awards programs that began during the 1920s continued on throughout the decade of the 30s. And, although times were also difficult for corporate America, new donor programs continued to emerge throughout the Depression years. Historically, some of the early leaders and supporters saw the club movement as a means for Extension and the land-grant colleges and universities to reach adults through their children.

Two new programs of the thirties advanced this viewpoint - the 4-H Farm Accounting program and the 4-H Rural Electrification program.

The National 4-H Club Farm Accounting program, sponsored by International Harvester Company, encouraged youth of the "dust bowl era" to work with their parents in a more business-like approach to farming. It promoted sons and fathers, working together, to set goals, keep track of expenses and profits and to maintain accurate farm accounting record books... in many cases it point bluntly meant "save the farm." The grand prize offered by IH in this contest was a choice of: 1)a new International Half-ton truck, 2)a new McCormick-Deering Farmall tractor, or 3)a $500 merchandise certificate.

A companion program to the IH Farm Accounting program, started in 1931, was the new National 4-H Club Contest on farm management and farm records, sponsored by the Parker Pen Company.

The Rural Electrification program, supported by Westinghouse Electric Corporation, enabled young and old to intelligently participate in the era of rural electrification expansion.

In 4-H electrification, Westinghouse pioneered in gaining local support for a nationwide program. In addition to making its own resources available nationally in the form of educational awards and printed materials for leaders, the corporation encouraged local power suppliers to serve as resource people and to train volunteer 4-H leaders in their communities. The sound philosophy of "youth programs flourish best with local support from a good neighbor in the community," has expanded over the years. The Westinghouse model of encouraging key local business leaders in supporting national 4-H programs, have assisted county groups in securing support from other local businessmen for local programs.

The National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work also helped 4-H emphasize the "Heart H". It encouraged club members in their groups to work for community betterment. Incentives were provided in a National 4-H County Progress Contest sponsored by Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1934. Three counties received $1,000 cash awards to further improve their communities and St. Louis County, Minnesota, received the top award - the construction of a new $10,000 4-H Club building. The new building is located on Lake Eshquaguma, near the center of the county. The building will serve the 3,400 4-H Club members in the county which stretches for 120 miles from Duluth to the Canadian border.

Another one-time contest offered in 1934 was a National 4-H Story Contest sponsored by Chrysler Motors Corporation. The requirements were simple - Fill out a coupon with your complete name and address and on the reverse side state how you would use a Plymouth car to advance the 4-H Club program. Then deposit the coupon at the Chrysler Motors Building when you visit the 1934 Century of Progress World's Fair in Chicago. There were five winners... three 4-H Club members and two 4-H local leaders, each receiving a 4-door De Luxe Plymouth sedan.

In 1938, Mrs. Myrtle Walgreen of Chicago, personally accepted sponsorship of a National 4-H Beautification of Home Grounds program... a relationship which was to continue for 25 years. At that time, Mrs. Walgreen, co-founder of the Walgreen Drug Store chain with her husband, Charles, and Mrs. Ruth Kerr, widow of Alexander Kerr who founded Kerr Glass Manufacturing Corporation, were the only women serving on the board of the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work. Kerr Glass was the sponsor of the National 4-H Food Preservation Awards Program.

Throughout the decade there were contests offered for best demonstrations, for radio plays and scripts and a variety of other opportunities to keep the boys and girls busy and challenged in positive ways. Successful Farming offered award for the best 6-months 4-H diaries in 1937, with cash prizes. In a contest centering on submitting essays on the value of rubber tires for farm equipment in 1936, Paul Schaff, 4-H'er from Comanche, Iowa, won the contest which was presented by the Goodrich Silvertown Tire Company. In May 1938, Armour and Company announced a contest whereby 4-H Club boys and girls could send in letters telling what they thought were the best methods of producing and marketing either hogs, cattle, calves or lambs. In no more than 300 words, the youths could explain, in their opinion, about methods that would help solve the meat industry's problems.

While the music component was a major addition to the 4-H activities of the decade of the 1930's, there were other areas which also saw strong growth. Three of these were: 1) the major increase in competitive project demonstrations, 2) the expansion and strengthening of county and state 4-H camps for summer activities, and 3) organized sports teams and competitions at the club level, particularly in baseball and basketball. All of these, plus the nationally sponsored awards programs, seemed to help keep older youth involved and participating in 4-H activities.

Whereas the decade may have been a challenge, there were many positives with new opportunities arriving at the local, state and national levels throughout these years. Rather than downsizing during the Depression years, 4-H and Extension leadership... and corporate support through the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work, increased the offerings... the opportunities every year.


Principal author: Larry L. Krug








Compiled by National 4-H History Preservation Team.


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