For an entire century, young people from across Wisconsin have been 4-H members. While the number of 4-H members today who live in town outnumbers those who live on farms, that wasn't the case in 1914. 4-H started in rural areas and on farms.
In fact, according to Mary Kaye Merwin, retired Extension educator, historian and 4-H member, 4-H is deeply "rooted" in Wisconsin agriculture.
In the beginning
"It really started in 1904 when Ransom Asa Moore held the first Countywide Roundup Corn Show in Richland Center," Merwin says. "He was the head of the UW Farm Short Course in Madison. He had been a superintendent of schools in Kewaunee County and he started teaching at short course in 1895. Around 1900, Moore started distributing seeds to school children. The university was having a hard time getting farmers to plant corn hybrids. Moore got the idea that if they gave the seed corn to school children and the children planted the seeds alongside their father's corn, they would see how much better the hybrids were."
By 1910 corn hybrids were catching on and the university held 45 contests at county fairs across the state and Moore distributed $65,000 in prize money.
"In 1914, the University of Wisconsin added another staff person -- Thomas L. Bewick, who was the first state 4-H leader," Merwin explains. "His charge was in organizing these young people in these corn clubs into groups."
On Oct. 30, 1914, Bewick visited the home of Mrs. Mae Hatch in Linn Township in Walworth County. "That evening he established a club of young people there which was the first 4-H club," Merwin explains.
"There were seven 4-H members there including four boys and three girls. If you grew up on a farm, it didn't matter if you were a boy or girl, you helped on the farm. This was right at the start of World War I."
The Linn 4-H Club began holding its meetings at the Linn Township Hall in 1914 which is still where the club meets today, Merwin says.
"In 1917, Elizabeth Amery was hired as the assistant state 4-H leader," says Ginny Hall, retired Walworth County Extension home economist. "Ms. Amery was the first home economist on the staff at the university. This was a part of the war effort," Merwin notes. "The kids worked under the pledge that says, "My head, my heart, my hands and my health for food production and conservation to help with the war and peace."
According to Hall, "The goal for that year was for every member to preserve at least five pints of fruit and five pints of vegetables. The next year, the goal was 10 pints of each. That's really how the girls' projects evolved." The boys branched out into animal projects.
"Then simultaneously, they began holding State 4-H Camp which was the forerunner of State 4-H Conference at University of Wisconsin," Merwin says. "They stayed in tents and studied different things throughout the week just like they do now. The kids in the Linn 4-H Club wrote a book detailing the fun they had at the camp. From what we can tell, they stayed at what is now the Picnic Point area along Lake Mendota on the campus."
"The whole idea of Extension -- extending education to all corners of the state -- is part of the Smith-Lever Act," Merwin says. (See sidebar below). "The intent was to bring the research and knowledge base of the university to the people. There were junior farmers' groups and Homemakers Clubs. These were the first social farm groups."
4-H is still going strong, Merwin says. "I think if you look around Wisconsin, especially in the rural areas, you will find most of the leadership in the state has its roots in 4-H."
Merwin and Hall co-chair the 4-H Centennial Committee in Walworth County and the history portion of the Wisconsin 4-H Celebration.
A native of Walworth County, Merwin was a member of the Linn 4-H Club, the state's first 4-H club.
"My father was a member of the club in the early 1930s," she says. "He told me the only reason he was in 4-H was so he could play softball at the state fair. But he was in the sheep project and beef project.
Her father graduated from UW-Madison in 1940 with a bachelor's degree in agronomy. Following graduation, he returned to the family farm in Linn Township.
"My parents were the general leaders of the club in the '50s and '60s," Merwin says. "My brother and his wife were general leaders from the '70s to the '90s. Our family has been involved in the club from nearly its beginning."
A bold move
Merwin graduated from Stout State College (UW-Stout) in 1964, with a degree in home economics education and from UW Madison with master's degree in 1969. After working as the summer agent in Rock County in 1963, she was hired as the 4-H home economist in Waukesha County in 1964. Three years later, she made a bold move.
"In 1967, I went to Rock County and Rock County took a giant step forward and hired a woman as their 4-H agent," Merwin says. "My biggest challenge was convincing the county board that a woman could do the job. I had been a 4-H dairy project member. I had shown the grand champion cow at the Walworth County Fair, so I knew about dairy cows. Rock County had the winning national 4-H dairy judging team two or three times in the '60s. They wanted to make sure that continued and it did."
Merwin worked in Rock County from 1967 to 1973.
"In 1973, I took a position as a state 4-H specialist with Texas A&M University where I worked from1973 to 1978," Merwin says. "In 1978, I moved to the National 4-H Center in Washington in their programs division and ultimately I was the director of programs at the National 4-H Council. That included National 4-H Club Congress, Citizenship Washington Focus, National 4-H Leader Forums and the National training programs for all state 4-H staff.
She stayed there until 1987 when she moved to Cornell University in New York where she became the director of all Extension programs in Nassau County. She retired from there and moved back to Walworth County in 2006.
Merwin stays busy as a member of the Wisconsin 4-H Foundation Board of Directors. She also serves as a citizen member of the Ag, Extension and Education Committee on the Walworth County Board and numerous other boards and community service activities.
Hall started in 4-H in 1944 in Calumet County. She was a member of the New Holstein Hilltoppers 4-H Club. She graduated in 1956 from UW-Madison with a bachelor's degree in home economics education. She received her master's degree in 1978.
"I became the 4-H home agent in Sheboygan County in 1956," Hall says. I was there until 1962 and then I became the Walworth County home agent. I had 4-H responsibilities. I did that until 1968." Then
for three years she was the District Program Leader for the southwest and the west districts.
"I worked with the home economists in 24 counties. Then I got married and my old job in Walworth County was open again," Hall says. "I had all of the 4-H home economics responsibilities except food."
She retired in 1989 and lives in Walworth County.
"I help with the Walworth County Home Economists group," Hall says. "I'm busy researching the history of Walworth County. I've developed 12 different auto tour guides and 15 walking tour guides in the county. And for the past 12 years, I have written a weekly column in the "County Shopper". You find out when you retire you have to stay busy. Life is better that way."