In the late 1800s, agricultural discoveries at some of the large land-grant universities, such as the University of Minnesota, were often ignored by immigrant farmers who imported their agricultural techniques from Europe that had been passed down for generations. Frustrated researchers fed up with backwards-thinking peasants turned to young people who had much more open minds to experiment with some of these new techniques. Thus youth agricultural programs took root.
Although Ohio is often given the moniker as the birthplace of 4-H, a Minnesota group began a youth farming program the very same year as the Ohioan club in 1902. A group of about 30 boys in Excelsior formed a tomato-growing club in 1911 that eventually merged with the rest of these 4-H groups. Typically the 4-H clubs had different divisions for boys and girls, but the forward-thinking Hennepin County group integrated them from the beginning.
The Excelsior club didn’t use the classic four-leaf symbol when it first formed. A preliminary three-leaf clover design was adopted in Ohio in 1907 with the three H’s being “head,” “heart” and “hands.” However, everyone knows that a four-leaf clover is much better luck, so the symbol’s designer recommended “hustle” to fill the void. By 1911, “health” replaced it for the final four.
Once the U.S. Congress officially recognized these farm clubs in 1914, the groups—including the Hennepin County one—united under the 4-H banner when it passed the Cooperative Extension System. Just as 4-H offered opportunities early on to both young men and women, this extension system was administered through land-grant universities that had to be open to all races. Most southern states have two land-grant universities since they didn’t allow blacks. The University of Minnesota, however, never had that policy.
4-H broke away from the one-room schoolhouse and was an early proponent for experiential learning so young people could learn by putting their ideas into practice. This educational philosophy has since been widely lauded as much more effective than lectures and rote learning.
During WWII, as part of its “Food for Freedom” campaign, 4-H clubs were instrumental in establishing “Victory Gardens” to augment food production on the home front. Some 4-H groups collected scrap metal to help the U.S. build ballistics, and many clubs invested in war bonds.
In 2011, the 4-H club that began in Excelsior celebrated its 100-year anniversary at the Hennepin County Fair in Corcoran, Minnesota. Today, 4-H boasts more than six million members nationwide with alumni such as Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter and Al Gore.
Before retiring in 2002, Bill Svendsgaard worked for 26 years as the extension educator for the Hennepin County 4-H. Now Svendsgaard is busy compiling a book about the history of 4-H in the county following its anniversary. He told the Star Tribune that, “I grew up in northern Minnesota on a farm and was a 4-H club member there for 13 years. So it’s in my blood.”
While this worldwide nonprofit may have started with a “Corn Growing Club” and by planting tomato seeds, it has branched out beyond farming and animal husbandry to science and technology groups, engineering, nutrition and civics. A trip to the 4-H Building at the Minnesota State Fair shows each county’s handiwork, with Hennepin County’s 4-H entries ranging from Modular Origami to a Duct Tape Dress.
Although formed along the shores of Lake Minnetonka, the Hennepin County 4-H looks back to its roots and is based out of the extension program at the University of Minnesota so young people can learn about the latest experiments and apply them in the field.
Do you have a 4-H story to share? If so, contact Bill Svendsgaard at 952.546.2850. Your story may be included in his forthcoming book on the topic.