Formation of the 4-H Movement
Will B. Otwell, newly elected President of Farm Institute, began organized corn growing contests for boys in Macoupin County, Illinois, in 1898. Frustrated by the lack of interest by farms in attending meetings (only one came), he made the decision to ignore parents and concentrate on farm young people. Writing to corn growers in Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana to secure the best, high-quality corn seed available, he then advertised locally for boys under the age of 19 to send in for a packet of seed corn. The boys were to raise the corn and then exhibit a sample for possible prizes at the second Farm Institute that fall. Some 500 boys sent in for the seed and the exhibits were a success. Some 500 people attended the Institute to see the boys' exhibits. The prizes offered by Otwell were a one dollar premium for the largest yield of corn.
With the success of this event, Otwell's program continued to grow. By 1901, more than 1,500 boys were enrolled in his corn growing program. These corn growing contests expanded to numerous states resulting in the development of Corn Clubs for boys.
Albert B. Graham, Superintendent of Schools for Springfield Township, Ohio, began talking with his students and teachers about the idea of organizing experimental clubs during out-of-school hours, in 1901. The following year, the first meeting of these clubs began with students focusing on projects that they could easily understand and finish. Graham had them testing the soil on their respective farms with litmus paper, selecting top-quality corn seed on family crops for future planting in test plots, and conducting science projects with a microscope for viewing mild droplets and other nature projects. This resulted in the organization of boys' and girls' clubs by Graham in Clark County, Ohio.
By 1907, Graham had demonstrated that young people would join organized clubs that exposed them to agricultural science and technology. Otwell had demonstrated the value of encouraging young people with incentives to compete. The merger of these two techniques formed the 4-H movement.
Involvement of the United States Department of Agriculture
Tomato Canning clubs for girls were first promoted in the early part of the twentieth century by the United States Department of Agriculture; however, the first club did not organize until 1910. Marie S. Cromer of Aiken County, South Carolina, organized the first Tomato Canning club with 46 girls each planting a tenth of an acre of tomatoes.
O.H. Benson, hired by USDA to work with youth, presented a talk in 1911 in which he stated that there should be four H's that stood for head, heart, hands, and hustle (the later having a different meaning than it does today, it meant "to get with it; to be busy at your work"). During this same time period, O.B. Marting, USDA Director of boys' and girls' clubs, suggested that an "H" should be placed on the petal of a four-leaf clover, and that the fourth "H" be changed from hustle to health. During the same year, the emblem was first used as badges for club members, as well as on labels of canned produce which the canning club members sold.
In 1914, with passage of the Smith-Lever Act by Congress, the Cooperative Extension Service was authorized in each state's land-grant college of agriculture. Extension staff were provided with funds for disseminating useful and practical information on agriculture, home economics, and related subjects to persons in the local counties. Extension personnel discovered that the most effective way to reach rural adults was through work with their children. Boys' and Girls' club work soon became an integral part of Extension's programming.
4-H in Virginia
Work with rural Virginia boys started in 1908 with the first boys corn clubs being organized. F.S. "Southall" Farrar was hired in October, 1907, and became the first club agent in the state. He spent the fall months of 1907 and the winter months of 1908 securing the interest and support of farmers in his group of counties. Starting his demonstrations in the spring 1908, the decision was made to start efforts in Virginia to support boys' corn clubs. Boys' corn clubs were organized by Farrar in 1909 with 100 boys in the counties of Dinwiddie (75 boys) and Chesterfield (25 boys), using the one boy-one acre corn plots. The next year, Ella G. Agnew, the first home agent in the state, worked with 46 girls in Halifax and Nottoway counties. This work was done individually, each girl growing 25 tomato plants and canning the fruit. These soon became known as "girls' canning clubs."
Lizzie A. Jenkins was appointed in May, 1913, at Hampton Institute, to begin demonstration work with African American families. Her assignment was to organize and conduct canning programs and organize canning clubs among African American girls in the counties of southeast Virginia. The first club work with African American boys in the Commonwealth began in 1915 at a meeting of African American agents at Hampton Institute. Field staff agent Jessie M. Jones presided at this meeting.
The first community club organized in Virginia was the Sunnyside Club in Dinwiddie County in 1913. In 1918, the policy of organizing boys and girls into the same clubs was supported and promoted statewide. Between the years 1918-1920, these clubs were know as agriculture and home economics clubs. Since 1920, however, they have become known as 4-H clubs. Today, 4-H clubs may be found in each of the 107 counties and cities of Virginia.
The first state office for demonstration work was located at Burkeville from 1907-1916. The headquarters for Extension work was moved to Virginia Tech in 1916 and has been located there since that time. In 1917, a state club department was added to the Extension organization.
4-H Program Areas
- State 4-H Staff
- State 4-H Office Directory and Primary Responsibilities (PDF)
- Questions about 4-H programs should be directed to your local Virginia Cooperative Extension Office.
- More contact information is available in the contact tab