We’ve been graced with more than a century of 4-H experiences and history and over 25 million program alums across the U.S. From little map dot towns and counties to high-class suburbs and the inner cities, it’s safe to say this program has played an integral role in the childhoods of many — if not most — farmers and agribusiness professionals.
As a Buckeye state native, there’s a sense of pride in the little-known fact that the program was born right here in Ohio — Clark County to be specific. But I’m a bit ashamed to say beyond his name, I really didn’t know much about the man behind the program that was pivotal to every summer of my youth, the one that I credit to my formation this day when introducing myself to potential clients.
Let’s dust off a history book and look back at the humble roots of this rural American icon, one that started with a passion for agriculture education and a vision. In this case, we can credit all that to a man named A.B. Graham.
Alfred Belmont Graham was born in 1868 in Champaign County, Ohio. He would return to his home county after graduating from National Normal University in Lebanon, Ohio, and start his teaching career. In the mid-1880s, he would receive his teaching certificate in Miami County and earned a reputation for his enthusiasm for teaching agriculture and rural community values.
But it wasn’t until 1902 that he really cemented his legacy. It was that year he held the first meeting of the “Boys and Girls Agriculture Club” in the basement of what is now known as the A.B. Graham Building in Springfield, Ohio. About 30 boys and girls, likely students of Springfield Township Schools where he was superintendent, were in attendance.
Growing the 4-H clover
Graham intended to use these preliminary 4-H meetings to teach a variety of practical life skills, from gardening and corn harvesting to knot tying and soil testing.
The popularity of this after-school program was so successful that the state’s relatively new land grant school, the Ohio State University, took interest. With the university’s help, similar youth agricultural clubs popped up across the state, with 2,000 members in 16 counties by the year 1905. For his role in the program’s proliferation, Graham was named Ohio State’s very first superintendent of Agricultural Extension for Ohio that same year.
It was under his leadership that the groundwork for the Ohio Cooperative Extension Service (made possible by 1914’s Smith-Lever Act, which created the extension service under the U.S. Department of Agriculture) was laid. At the time Ohio’s Extension Service was formalized, Graham went on to do extension work for the New York State School of Agriculture in Farmingdale, but his hand in the initial foundation is responsible for much of the service’s values today.
It was this Extension Service development that made it possible for these “agriculture clubs” to be unified and nationalized as the official 4-H program in 1916. In 1924, the clover emblem was officially adopted as the symbol of the organization — a symbol that had been used since 1910 when a woman named Jessie Field Shambaugh developed it as an unofficial pin for those early agriculture clubs.
As American as it gets
How much of a piece of Americana legacy did the humble idea of A.B. Graham become? Well, let’s just say that when the National 4-H Center opened its doors in 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself presided over those opening ceremonies. That was just one year before Graham would be laid to rest, having gotten to see the idea he conceived in a courthouse basement become a staple in the lives of young people across the states.
True to its original mission, 4-H continues to broaden its horizons to teach young folks valuable life skills — both on and off the farm — for a membership composed of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and statuses. Today there are some 6 million members and 90,000 clubs, along with 600,000 volunteers.
But between that statistics and are countless memories, stories and possibilities it has created for so many of us. I couldn’t imagine my childhood without this program as I’m sure many of my colleagues can relate to. And for that, we can all credit a man we will never know.
Jaclyn Krymowski is a graduate of The Ohio State University with a major in animal industries and minor in agriculture communications. She is an enthusiastic “agvocate,” professional freelance writer, and blogs at the-herdbook.com.