At the turn of the last century, agriculturalists, through state Land Grant colleges and universities were beginning to discover new and better ways to produce food and fiber crops and to take care of livestock. As is the case with many new systems, adoption often lagged development.
The Cooperative Research, Education and Extension Service, an agency of the USDA research, economics and education mission, concluded that the best way to improve agriculture was to start early and focus on educating young people in rural America.
According to the 4-H Centennial Web Site, the agency established boys and girls clubs to meet this need. This community club model engaged youth through “learning by doing.” Most states organized clubs outside of schools with parents serving as volunteer leaders and educators providing appropriate educational materials.
No one individual is credited with originating the 4-H program; it was founded through collective efforts of several individuals over the course of few years.
In 1907 or 1908, O. H. Benson designed the first national emblem, a three-leaf clover. It stood for head, heart, and hands. In 1911, Benson suggested that the fourth H should be hustle, and the 4-H design was adopted. Later O. B. Martin suggested that health replace hustle. The 4-H emblem has stood for head, heart, hands, and health ever since.
In 1912, Benson established federal-state-county programs through cooperative agreements, which tied the three entities of Extension work together. Twenty-eight such cooperative agreements between the Office of Farmer Cooperative Demonstration Work and the land-grant colleges promoted youth club work.
Since its inception in 1902, 4-H has been known throughout the country for its strong programs in helping rural youth develop leadership and technical skills. Today, 4-H has 6.8 million members who participate in such projects as Citizenship and Civic Education, Communications and Expressive Arts, Consumer and Family Sciences, Environmental Education and Earth Sciences, Healthy Lifestyle Education, Personal Development and Leadership, Plants and Animals, and Science and Technology.
Lynn Pruitt, a retired extension specialist, says Tom Marks, a journalist and Extension agent in Jack County, Texas, established the first 4-H Corn Club in Jacksboro in 1907. Pruitt served the county from 1968 until her retirement in 1995 and was instrumental in creating an agricultural museum in the Tom Marks home. One room of the museum is devoted to the history of 4-H.
“We have an original blue ribbon from the corn club,” Pruitt says. An original certificate of achievement also hangs on the wall of the 4-H room.
“The program has gone through a lot of changes over the years,” she says. “Family involvement was always critical. Everyone was involved in the early days. It's still that way in a lot of our smaller counties.”
She says a significant part of the 4-H experience is that youngsters get to interact with older generations. “Older kids worked with younger ones and adult leaders provided instruction and support. It was a good way to teach youngsters to get along with people of different ages and learn from them.
“In later years, women went to work outside the home and parental involvement diminished, but a lot of grandparents carried on the traditions. Now, the first generation of adults whose parents both worked is coming along and we see less participation.”
Pruitt says 4-H offers youngsters unique opportunities to set goals and the experience and training to achieve them. “It also gives them a safe environment to try and fail.
“Today, many activities compete for kids' time, but 4-H opens a lot of doors for them.”