After 100 years, 4-H still helps families stay connected

Posted: Sunday, August 11, 2002

In the dawning years of the 20th century, the world was a different place than it is today. Though the times have changed, 4-H , which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2002, has remained a constant for generations of children.

"It's always been a good organization. I'm always amazed at how it seems to have stayed true to its causes," said Jed Watkins, a Kenai resident and grandson of the "Mother of 4-H," Jessie Field Shambaugh.

Jed's grandmother is one of several people credited with founding the 4-H clubs. And despite contradicting stories detailing the club's early years, which have created a rivalry between different towns and regions, the people of Clarinda, Iowa, are very strong in their convictions.

Clarinda is the county seat for Page County, a section of southwest Iowa where Jessie got her first teaching job at age 18. It also is the town that claims the true 100th anniversary of 4-H is already a year past.


Hannah Watkins, right, works on a painting and her brother James prepares a batch of peanut butter cookies as a third sibling, Molly, not pictured, works on a quilt in another room. The projects will be entered in the fair at Ninilchik later this month.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The beginning of a legacy

In 2001, Clarinda celebrated 100 years of 4-H clubs in commemoration of the first Boys Corn Club and Girls Home Club started by Jessie in a little one-room schoolhouse called Goldenrod School in Page County.

"What happened is it was sort of a rolling start with 4-H," Jed said of the beginning years for the club that is now controlled through state university Cooperative Extension Services in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Corn clubs kind of evolved into 4-H."

According to Jed's family, after teaching at Goldenrod School for a few years, the young teacher went off to Helena, Mont., for another teaching position and did not return to her home county until she was elected as the superintendent for the region.


Blair Martin poses at the Palmer State Fair with one of his champion steers in this 1981 photo.

Photo courtesy of 4-H Cooprative Extension Services

What she saw when she returned home frustrated her, Jed said.

"She went back to Page County to be the superintendent," he said. "She realized the country children kind of considered themselves second-class citizens. She started the Corn Club for boys and the Home Club for girls to get them to start taking pride in where they were from."

The clubs spread and prospered throughout the county. Jessie organized competitions, camps and demonstrations for her pupils all to help them see the importance agriculture and, in turn, each one of them played in the life of their county, state and country.

"To her, the cause of the club was more important than who or where it started," Jed said. "4-H is more about the spirit. I don't want to say morality, but it encompasses the whole person."


Ruth Watkins, center, is congratulated on her 1944 graduation from the University of Iowa by her mother, 4-H founder Jessie Fields Shambaugh, 54 and her father, Ira Sahmbaugh, 84.

Photo courtesy of 4-H Cooperative Extension Services

In 1912, his grandmother went off to New York to work for the Young Women's Christian Association. She was wooed into returning to Clarinda by "the town's most eligible bachelor," Ira Shambaugh, who was 20 years her senior, Jed said.

Once she arrived back in Clarinda, the new bride did not take an active role in the blossoming clubs.

"Mainly, she just kind of settled into the community as a pillar of the community. She really believed in children, in youth," said Jed, whose family moved back to the family farm when he was 10 and his grandmother was 88.

Although she died a year later, in 1971 at the age of 89, Jed had spent every summer of his youth in Iowa with his grandmother and he remembers her clearly.

"She was very quiet. She still loved to garden up to her very last summer. People always described her as considerate."

Making their own tradition

Jed and his wife, Chris, continue in the family tradition of spending at least a portion of their summer in Iowa every year with their four children.

"That's their favorite place to go," said Chris, adding the children were so upset when their parents decided to go to Hawaii one year instead of Iowa that the family ended up making the trip at Christmas. "We move it so much, that's our home base. We always have a home there."

So, although Jed, Chris and their children are not currently involved in 4-H, they have been in the past -- Jed as a member in his youth, Chris as a leader and their daughters as members -- and for them, 4-H is more of a piece of who they are than an activity in which they participate.

It doesn't seem to matter to the family, any more than it did to Jessie herself, whether they are credited with the founding of 4-H.

"Once when I asked her why she didn't dispute men getting credit for what she'd done, she gave me a little lesson in wiseness by smiling and saying, 'Its important for men to feel like they are the first or the best,'" said Ruth Watkins, Jessie's daughter and Jed's mother, who still lives in Clarinda.

"I used to say if the 4-H founding fathers were called together on some heavenly hillside, sitting quietly among them would the founding mother," Ruth said in an interview for an article printed in the Springfield News-Sun in 1999.

For the kids

For Jessie, 4-H was about the children and the way of life in the country. To the organization's credit, not much seems to have changed.

The group's motto is "to make the best better" and its slogan is "learn by doing." Like they were in Jessie's day, both ideals continue to form the cornerstones of life in 4-H.

"That's pretty much what 4-H is all about, to educate young people into caring adults," said Nancy Veal, the 4-H agent in charge of all Kenai Peninsula clubs.

"Any project that you're interested in, you can do. It's having fun, but doing some good learning while you're at it. 4-H is a wonderful thing to be what you want to be. I guess one thing I like about it is you can be as individualized as you want to be," she said.

"I was in 4-H when I was a kid. We have definitely had to change a lot of emphases because of the way our country has changed. I loved it as a kid so much that I knew I wanted my kids involved, if possible."

Bridging the gap

Those are exactly the sentiments shared by the Martin family of Kalifornsky Beach Road. They have been involved in 4-H for four generations, stretching from great-grandmother, Vada, to 9-year-old DeAnne.

"The steer that DeAnne has is the direct descendent of a 4-H project that I had over 50 years ago," said grandfather Carrol Martin.

Carrol grew up on the family ranch in Colorado, and when he and his wife, JoAnne, decided they wanted to move their family to Alaska, the farm came with them. They bought a tugboat and came up the Inside Passage with four horses and six cows.

The rough water combined with a small, old boat was enough to land the family's milk cow, Snowball, overboard. After some maneuvering, Carrol led the Ayshire to shore and got her back on the tugboat.

In spite of the mishap, the family landed safely in Juneau where they lived until moving to the 180-plus acres they now live on, off Kalifornsky Beach Road near Bridge Access.

From Carrol's son Blair's home on the acreage his father and mother have lived on for the past 28 years, the living room window lets in a view that stretches across miles of the Kenai River flats past the river itself, to where it dumps in Cook Inlet.

Even on a cloudy day, it is still possible to make out the volcanoes in the distance.

Three generations of Martins live on this land. While the 130 cows they once had has dwindled to around 30, they still have pigs, horses, chickens and even some llamas to keep the love for farming and animals alive.

Involvement in 4-H also has truly bridged the generation gap for the family.

"The bonding that has happened, seeing those two work together raising that steer, is the neatest thing," Blair said of his father and daughter.

"It certainly is more fun now than it ever was," Carrol said, referring to the time he has spent with his granddaughter helping her learn the ropes of raising her steer, Whiz Kid.

Although she is his family, Carrol didn't give her preferential treatment when it came to selecting a calf. DeAnne had to wait until everyone else who had asked Carrol for a steer made their selection and then she got the one that was left.

"I told her they are all so near the same anyway that it is how you raise it and feed it that makes a prime, grade-A quality steer," he said.

DeAnne has had to do the work like everyone else. Everyday she has to feed him, tend to his stall and exercise him. Even cattle need exercise.

DeAnne and her father or grandfather take the 1,600-pound animal for walks every day to ensure he doesn't get too fat a belly and lose his bulky muscle.

"He's pretty gentle," Carrol said. "She can lead him around."

In fact, DeAnne used to ride her steer around, but he took to bucking her off.

"He's really big," she said. "Cows backs are really square so I had to brace my legs."

Seeing the tiny, 80-pound girl, it is almost comical to imagine her leading around a beast almost 20 times her size. But she does have a command over the lumbering animal, who at 7 months already is larger than his predecessors that earned DeAnne's father titles of grand champion back in his 4-H days.

"He was bigger in the middle of May when we weighed him than any other steer that I ever raised," said Blair, who was raised in the 4-H tradition, just like his father and his grandmother before him.

He knew he wanted his children to also be involved.

"Before she was born, I knew she would do it because it's so educational. From the beginning to end, the process of putting that project together, you can't really measure the benefits," he said. "The whole program is learn, learn, learn. Older kids can help younger ones."

Life's lessons learned

One tangible lesson children learn through 4-H is that of the reality of the food chain.

When asked how she deals with the slaughter of animals she has named and befriended, DeAnne shared a simple story with the logic only a 9-year-old can manage.

"We had a goat and we named her Heidi, and she was my favorite goat," she said, adding that one day Heidi got into the cow's stable and broke a leg.

"She was really good," DeAnne said nonchalantly, explaining that the family decided to slaughter Heidi and eat her instead of letting her suffer only to be killed eventually anyway.

"Farm kids learn what city kids don't," Carrol said. "They can still grow emotionally attached and keep their mind sorted. She knows where meat comes from."

Blair agreed.

"We turned it into an educational experience. It keeps them in touch with reality," he said.

4-H also keeps children in touch with the business side of farming. DeAnne has been keeping a log book with notations for how much and how often she feeds her steer. She also is responsible for paying all of the costs incurred in raising her animal.

Those costs are offset at the end of the summer at the 4-H Junior Livestock Auction, held annually at the Kenai Peninsula Fair in Ninilchik. Considering that fair market value for the quality of beef DeAnne's steer should produce at least $2 a pound, she is looking at making at least $2,500 once he is sold to the highest bidder.

However, back in Blair's day, some of his steers sold for as much as $7,000.

At the cost of $5 a day for the 180 days DeAnne has spent with her steer, minus the $600 she had to pay her grandfather for the steer in May, that is still a substantial profit for a 9-year-old.

"My 4-H projects paid my tuition into college," Carrol said. "She can just keep putting her money in the bank."

But, before her steer is ready for auction, DeAnne will need to get him ready for his big day. A scrounge steer will not pull in high bids, so she and her father and grandfather will give him a bath and haircut, all in preparation for his debut at the fair, starting Thursday at the fairgrounds in Ninilchik.

"We will move to the fairgrounds and live there for four days," Blair said. "It's the culmination of the year's projects."

They will join hundreds of other 4-H members and families who make the fairgrounds their home for the duration of the weekend.

Veal summed up her sentiments of the fair in a simple statement.

"It's just a really special little fair to me," she said.

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