The History of 4-H

The first 4-H Club

In 1902, A. B. Graham, an Ohio school superintendent, organized a boys' and girls' club with a home project based on corn.

How and when was 4-H born?

In the late 1800s the idea of 4-H was born when one-acre corn contests were organized for boys in various parts of the nation. The first 4-H program that was affiliated with a University as we know it today began in Holmes County, Mississippi in 1907. A school superintendent organized 120 boys in a corn contest through sponsorship of the Mississippi State College of Agriculture. From this first venture of youth and university, the 4-H youth program has become an important part of the nationwide land-grant university Extension program.

The 4-H emblem

The first 4-H emblem was a three-leaf clover introduced by O. H. Benson some time between 1907 and 1908. The clover was used on placards, posters, badges, and canning labels. In 1908, pins with the clover emblem were introduced. The H's signified Head, Heart, and Hands. Benson cited the need for four H's rather than three, suggesting that they stand for head, heart, hands, and hustle. The present 4-H design was adopted when O. B. Martin, who was directing club work in the South, suggested that the 4-H's stand for Head, Heart, Hands, and Health.

4-H pledge

Otis Hall, state 4-H leader in Kansas, wrote the original 4-H pledge. When the Executive Committee of the Land-Grant College Association requested R. A. Pearson, president of Iowa State College, and Dr. A. C. True of the Federal Extension Service to write a pledge for 4-H, they submitted the pledge substantially written by Hall.

First 4-H-type programs

Florida’s youth began enjoying non-formal educational activities provided in cooperation with the state’s Land Grant Universities as early as 1909. The first 4-H-type programs were corn clubs for boys in Alachua, Baker, and Marion Counties. Girls tomato clubs were started in 1912 in 11 counties.

4-H becomes an Act of Congress

In 1914 Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, establishing the Extension Services of the Land-Grant Colleges of the nation. Extension and club work was thus placed on a firm foundation nationally. With the passage of the Smith-Lever Act by Congress in 1914, all Cooperative Extension work, including boys' and girls' clubs, became an official function of the United States Department of Agriculture directed through the land-grant college system. The second Morrill Act of 1890 established Extension at the black land-grant universities. The act was amended and then consolidated in 1953. Discussions on the floors of both houses of Congress on May 21, 1953, clearly established that Cooperative Extension was to continue conducting 4-H work.

History of Florida Leadership

Leadership for the Florida 4-H program was found in three major academic institutions. Separate programs were conducted for boys and girls as well as black and white youth. State 4-H Club agents were housed at the University of Florida and Florida State University. In addition, District Extension Agents working with 4-H programs for black youth were housed at Florida A&M University. Clubs met in the schools with agricultural agents teaching agricultural projects to boys while girls met with home economics agents to learn about projects associated with the home and family.

Supplementation of school club programs

The school club programs were supplemented with a number of out-of-school events and activities. County and regional fairs in Florida have a long tradition of providing opportunities for 4-Hers to publicly show their projects and compete for awards. Agricultural judging teams, organized in most counties, participated in regional, state, and national contests. Camping has also been a key component in the Florida 4-H program, with Camp Timpoochee in northwest Florida being one of the first 4-H residential camps in the country. Four additional camps located throughout the state provided very modest accommodations for this very important summer program.

Each university hosted a week-long summer leadership and project competitions event. The leadership programs included election of state 4-H officers for both the girls and boys components of the programs. With the leadership of national 4-H specialists at USDA and the support of the National 4-H Service Committee and National 4-H Foundation, Florida 4-Hers participated in a number of national events including National 4-H Congress, National 4-H Conference, and Citizenship Short Course. When the National 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, MD was established in the late 1940s, Florida 4-Hers raised about $50,000 through the sale of chocolate candy bars.

Major organizational changes in 1963

Major changes in the organizational structure supporting the Florida 4-H program occurred in 1963 when E.T.York provided leadership for the establishment of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS). Basically, this is the time that the Florida 4-H program was integrated; that is, programs for boys and girls as well as black and white youth were brought together into a single program.

Many changes were made rapidly at this time including the program’s primary delivery method. To deal with the new Federal regulations regarding integration, the school clubs were abandoned and replaced with volunteer-led community or project clubs.

The Florida 4-H Foundation, Inc. was also founded during this period to bring private resource development activities together from both Universities including support for operations of the camp.

Major leadership changes in 1963

Leadership for the Florida 4-H program also changed in 1963. The state 4-H agents from the University of Florida and Florida State University were brought together in a new academic unit named the Department of 4-H and Other Youth Programs. County and state faculty alike had to learn many new skills with the introduction of volunteers into the program’s delivery strategy.

It is interesting to note that between 1964 and 1981, the number of 4-H volunteers had grown to about 4,000 adults. The involvement of youth in teen leadership roles was very slow to develop in the Florida program.

Another change at this time was the establishment of one State 4-H Council composed of both boys and girls.

New programs added in the '70's

During the 1970s, a number of new programs and new delivery methods were added, again including the public schools in school enrichment programming. The Florida 4-H Legislature, a mock youth legislature conducted in Tallahassee in the State Capitol, was added during this period.

Greater focus was also given to making the 4-H program more accessible to all youth regardless of racial, economic, or rural/urban status. The 4-H Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program became one of the key delivery methods for inner-city youth.

Further development of volunteer system & camp improvements in the 80's

During the 1980s, considerable attention was given to development of the 4-H volunteer system that grew to nearly 20,000 adults and youth. Fund raising during the 1980s focused primarily on support for development of the 4-H camp facilities. Private funds were instrumental in making major improvements in three of the four camps.

The '90's bring another decade of change and growth.

Strategic planning for Florida 4-H in 1991-92 was the first in a decade of change. More than 1,500 youth and adults from across the state plus representatives from county and state faculty, the Foundation Board, and cooperating agencies and organizations were involved. The plan served as a guide in program planning and organizational development activities.

Simultaneously, the program began experiencing budget constraints, and changes in 4-H began at both state and national levels. Reductions and changes in staff occurred continually in the 1990s including the merger of the Florida 4-H Faculty into a new Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences and creating the existing unit as the Florida 4-H Youth Development Office.

A 4-H Program Review took place following this organizational shift in 1998 to review and refocus the future directions. Despite this decade of change, the program has continued to grow and now serves more than a quarter million Florida youth.

4-H challenges

With the onset of the 21st century, changing trends in the state's demographics, economy, and resources will continually challenge 4-H. Although resources are scarce, 4-H is attempting to serve a more diverse audience. Personnel are continually examining and redesigning programs and projects to meet the needs of an ever-changing society.

4-H reaches around the world.

Although 4-H is flexible and should be adapted to the needs and interests of individuals and the local situation, it is also a national program. All 50 states, U.S. Territories and more than 80 countries throughout the world are actively involved in 4-H or 4-H-type organizations. When youth become involved in 4-H, they have a connection with their counterparts in all 3,150 counties across the nation.

Resources and Historical Readings in 4-H

  • Cooper, J. F. (Ed.). (1976). Dimensions in history: Recounting Florida Cooperative Extension Service progress, 1909-76. Gainesville, FL: Alpha Delta Chapter, Epsilon Sigma Phi.
  • Erickson, T. A. (1956). My sixty years with rural youth. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • McCormick, V. E., & McCormick, R. W. (1984). A. B. Graham: Country schoolmaster and Extension pioneer. Worthington, OH: Cottonwood Publications.
  • Rasmussen, W. (1989). Taking the university to the people: Seventy-five years of Cooperative Extension. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
  • Reck, F. M. (1951). The 4-H story: A history of 4-H club work. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.
  • Reeder, R. L. (1979). The people and the profession: Selected memories of veteran Extension workers. Epsilon Sigma Phi.
  • Wessel, T., & Wessel, M. (1982). 4-H: An American idea 1900-1980. Chevy Chase, MD: National 4-H Council.
  • Van Horn, B. E., Flanagan, C. A., & Thomson, J. S. (1998). The first fifty years of the 4-H program (Part 1). Journal of Extension, 36(6). Available: http://www.joe.org/joe/1998december/comm2.html
  • Excerpts taken from "Florida 4-H Program Handbook, November 1999. University of Florida, Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Gainesville, Florida.