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For the better part of a century, local 4-H Clubs have provided the glue that united rural youth in Wisconsin and fostered their interest in pursuing careers in agriculture.

It was 4-H that allowed youngsters, boys and girls alike, to 'learn by doing,' guided by caring adult supervisors and assisted by their fellow club members. Today, they continue to play a key role in helping develop the leadership skills of the next generation of Wisconsin's agricultural leaders.

4-H traces its founding back to 1902, when an Ohio school principal set out to promote vocational agriculture via out-of-school 'clubs.' A. B. Graham's idea was a formal activity for both boys and girls with regular meetings, projects, officers and record requirements. At first, the new organization was called 'The Tomato Club' or the 'Corn Growing Club.' The more familiar name came into being around 1911, with the adoption of the four-leaf clover emblem. The national 4-H organization was formed in 1914.

4-H arrives

The beginning of what was to become 4-H in Wisconsin was initiated in the autumn of 1903, according to 'The Father of Wisconsin 4-H,' by Marjorie and William Gleason. That's when the son of wilderness settlers in Kewaunee, Ransom Asa Moore, who was also a farmer, lime kiln operator, rural school teacher, county school superintendent, agronomist and UW professor, set out to find some way to involve farm youth in better farming practices.

His idea was to get these youngsters to grow small plots with improved grain varieties on their home farms in order to demonstrate to their parents the potential economic advantages of growing better strains.

The 'hook,' if you will, was a contest open to farm boys under 20 years of age. All were given identical seed packets and encouraged to follow the growing instructions included. Grain from their plots was entered in the 'Great Youth Corn Growing Contest' held at the Richland County Fairgrounds, Sept. 27-30, 1904.

The fast-awakening interest in better farming practices among rural boys and girls was driven by several factors. The 1900-1910 period saw rising prices for farm commodities and, therefore, rising rural prosperity. Not only were farmers beginning to make more money, they also were emerging from frontier isolation. The crank telephone was becoming more common, rural free delivery was bringing the mail to their farms and even their milk was being picked up each morning.

Meanwhile, various county-sponsored agricultural fairs were soaring in popularity. By 1910, some $16,000 in cash prizes was awarded in corn-growing contests at 45 Wisconsin county fairs (that's the equivalent of nearly $390,000 in today's currency). The movement was succeeding beyond expectations, and the word quickly spread.

A local institution

4-H quickly became one of the most popular activities for children growing up on Wisconsin farms. The 4-H experiences of boys and girls in Couillardville, the small farming community a few miles west of Oconto along the Oconto River, were typical of the role that 4-H played for thousands of rural youth in every corner of the state.

Their activities are documented in 'Machine Shed Memories. A Chronicle of Rural Life in Wisconsin,' co-authored by Medford and Leon Janssen, himself a member of the Couillardville 4-H Club in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Though the Couillardville 4-H chapter wasn't founded until 1942, it immediately became a 'local institution' that introduced area youngsters to a variety of activities related to improving life on the farm. Both boys and girls actively pursued projects related to raising farm animals and the art of showing them to best advantage at the Oconto County Youth Fair in Gillett.

Many others developed presentations on improved agricultural techniques, food production and preparation, various crafts, and so on.

A favorite activity of all the kids was the annual performance and demonstration competitions, such as public speaking, tractor driving, caring for animals, personal hygiene lectures, music presentations, handicrafts, poster displays covering a great variety of other subjects and much more. Many also helped staff the food stand at the fair, serving guests and bussing the counter.

One year, the Couillardville 4-H youngsters won the Oconto County Youth Fair drama competition with a play written by one of their leaders and were invited to compete at the state level. Another group of local kids created a model of the State Capitol Building as a county fair window display that earned them an overnight trip to Madison.

Lifelong lessons

Beyond the 'how-to' experiences that their 4-H projects provided, the 4-H boys and girls also received practical lessons in developing leadership skills, whether in terms of organizing and conducting meetings, keeping record books of their activities, engaging their fellow club members in shared responsibilities. A measure of this success was the number of participants who went on to grow into 4-H junior, senior, and adult leadership roles.

4-H also was a great solution to summer activities for farm children. After the school year ended in May, local 4-H activities — meetings, softball games, project demonstrations, 4-H camp, preparing for the fair — turned summer into a learning and sharing experience.

Everyone had to have a project and could choose among the formal categories of gardening, livestock, poultry, food preservation, foods and nutrition and sewing. Recognition pins were awarded for projects completed and years in 4-H.

The Couillardville 4-H always presented great booths at the annual fair, ranging from such subjects as tips on how to take care of dairy calves to make them more productive as adults, to presenting various methods for preserving the garden harvest to enjoy year round. Such exhibits earned local 4-H members lots of blue ribbons and certificates.

In more recent years, the changing demographics of rural farm life has brought a regrettable end to many of the smaller Wisconsin 4-H Clubs, since smaller families have fewer children to participate. Though many local chapters have disbanded, 4-H continues to thrive in school-based clubs.

Just as their parents and grandparents before them, rural youngsters still enjoy such traditional activities as 4-H Camp, county-wide project education, community arts reviews, June Dairy Month window displays, community service scrapbooks, dairy promotion scrapbook contests, National 4-H window displays and, of course, the county fairs.

What's certain is that 4-H has long been an extremely important influence in the lives and careers of Wisconsin youth. Many of the Couillardville 4-Hers, for instance, went on to become successful farmers, merchants, industry leaders, educational leaders, bankers, boards of directors members in a range of enterprises and much more. And to a person, they would all credit their early experiences in 4-H as key contributors to their growth as leaders.

The remarkable story of life in a typical Wisconsin farming community is fully documented in 'Machine Shed Memories, A Chronicle of Rural Life in Wisconsin,' by Leon Janssen and Gene Medford. This 350-page book, which features over 500 illustrations, is available online at www.machineshedmemories.com.

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