University of Maryland Extension

History of 4-H

The History of 4-H

Since its humble beginnings more than 100 years ago, 4-H has grown to become the nation’s largest youth development organization. The 4-H idea is simple: help young people and their families gain the skills they need to be proactive forces in their communities’ and develop ideas for a more innovative economy. That idea was the catalyst to begin the 4-H movement, and those values continue today.

As one of the first youth development organizations in America, 4-H opened the door for young people to learn leadership skills and explore ways to give back. 4-H revolutionized how youth connected to practical, hands-on learning experiences while outside of the classroom.

During the late 1800's, researchers at public universities saw that adults in the farming community did not readily accept the new agricultural discoveries being developed on university campuses. However, they found that young people were open to new thinking and would "experiment" with new ideas and share their experiences and successes with adults. In this way, rural youth programs became an innovative way to introduce new agriculture technology to their communities.

The seed of the 4-H idea of practical and "hands-on" learning came from the desire to make public school education more connected to country life. Early programs tied both public and private resources together for the purpose of helping rural youth. Building community clubs to help solve these agricultural challenges was a first step toward youth learning more about the industries in their community.

A. B. Graham started one such youth program in Clark County, Ohio, in 1902, which is considered the birth of the 4-H program in the United States. The first club was called "The Tomato Club" or the "Corn Growing Club". T.A. "Dad" Erickson of Douglas County, Minnesota, started local agricultural after-school clubs and fairs also in 1902. Jessie Field Shambaugh developed the clover pin with an H on each leaf in 1910, and by 1912 they were called 4-H clubs.

When Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 and created the Cooperative Extension System at USDA, it included work of various boys' and girls' clubs involved with agriculture, home economics and related subjects, which effectively nationalized the 4-H organization. By 1924, these clubs became organized as 4-H clubs, and the clover emblem was adopted.

The Cooperative Extension System is a unique partnership of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the 109 land-grant universities (in every state and territory) and more than 3,000 county offices.

As a publicly funded, non-formal collaborative national educational network, Cooperative Extension combines the expertise and resources of federal, state, and local governments. Cooperative Extension is designed to meet the need for research, knowledge and educational programs that enable people to make practical decisions.

Through the local county and state offices, Extension staff provides research-based information, non-formal educational programs and technical advice directly to individuals, families and communities that enable them to be self reliant and improve their lives. Historically, these efforts have been described in various ways - as major projects, programs, areas or core programs.

Today, 4-H has an expansive reach, serving youth in rural, urban, and suburban communities in every state across the nation. Youth currently in 4-H are tackling the nation’s top issues, from global food security, climate change and sustainable energy to childhood obesity and food safety. 4-H out-of-school programming, in-school enrichment programs, clubs and camps also offer a wide variety of science, engineering, technology and applied math educational opportunities – from agricultural and animal sciences to rocketry, robotics, environmental protection and computer science – to improve the nation’s ability to compete in key scientific fields and take on the leading challenges of the 21st century.

4-H also has an expanded global presence through the development of the International Farm Youth Exchange. The Exchange helped to develop similar 4-H programs in more than 80 countries throughout the world.

As 4-H grew, so has the American economy. Companies in the areas of agriculture, manufacturing, technology, education seek out 4-H youth to join the ranks of their most successful employees. In addition, you will find 4-H Distinguished Alumni in many different fields such as business & industry, communications, education, entertainment, sports and public service.  

Thanks to 4-h.org for this information.

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