History of 4-H in North Carolina


The seeds for 4-H were planted in the late 1890s, when several states responded to their charge under the 1862 Morrill Act to expand their extension activities to include youth programs. To that end, one-acre corn contests were organized for boys, ostensibly to teach farming practices and to demonstrate 'scientific' farming. The first 4-H program as we know it today began in Holmes County, Mississippi, in 1907, when a school superintendent organized 120 boys in a corn contest sponsored by the Mississippi State College of Agriculture. From this first joint venture of youth and university, 4-H work has become an important part of nationwide land-grant college extension programs.


In 1909 North Carolina State College signed a memorandum of agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture to cooperatively develop Farmers Boys' Clubs, or Corn Clubs, to be administered by the college's Agricultural Extension Service (now the Cooperative Extension Service). Ira O. Schaub was first director of the Corn Club program, which eventually grew into 4-H. Schaub worked closely with state demonstration agent T.B. Parker, who had been charged by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture with starting similar organizations, and the two organized clubs for over 4,000 boys (and a few girls) during the first year alone. Over the next few years, the Corn Clubs continued to grow, and poultry and pig clubs joined them. The first Girls' Clubs were established in 1911 and focused primarily on tomato canning and gardening. Former Farmers Institute worker Jane S. McKimmon was head of the Girls' Clubs, which existed in 32 counties by 1914 with a total membership of 1,500 girls. The State Department of Agriculture and North Carolina State College cooperatively administered club work until 1912, when the college assumed all duties. Schaub continued to run the Boys' Clubs until his resignation in 1913, when Thomas E. Browne replaced him. McKimmon ran the Girls' Clubs through the Home Demonstration division of the Extension Service.

The passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 added impetus to extension work by providing for federal, state, and county cooperation in creating a system to expand demonstration and extension work for men and women. North Carolina youth clubs grew quickly under this new system, and by 1915 the program was large enough to hold its first statewide club gathering, then called the Short Course, held at State College in Raleigh. The four-day meeting was attended by 222 boys and 1 girl. Statewide, membership in the various boys clubs had grown to over 3,500, with girls clubs at just under 3,000. Short Course attendance also grew rapidly, with over 500 youth attending in 1917, the third annual meeting.


The 1920s and 1930s saw further change in the extension youth programs. Lera R. Harrill served as the first State Club Leader in 1926. Harrill incorporated all of the youth clubs together under one banner, bringing the girls clubs over from Home Demonstration. He probably deserves credit for establishing the term "4-H" to North Carolina clubs. Before his tenure, "4-H" appeared only sporadically on a few agricultural publications in the state; starting in 1927, the term fully replaced the use of boys and girls clubs on all publications, correspondence, and memorabilia. He also worked hard to develop more programs, involve more counties, and improve overall quality of the facilities and activities. By 1929, 65 counties had their own club organizations under the statewide umbrella.

In 1927 Harrill sent a state delegation to the first National 4-H Camp in Washington, D.C. Harrill also pushed for more and better campgrounds, and increased the size and scope of the state club meeting, still called the 4-H Short Course and held in Raleigh. At the Short Course, he instituted new programs, including the Health Pageant and the Dress Revue in 1929 and 1931, respectively. The Honor Club, created by Harrill to further instill leadership values in selected 4-H members, began in 1931 as well. One dramatic innovation brought by Harrill was the Candlelight ceremony that closed each Short Course week, and found immediate favor with children and parents alike. Despite several setbacks in membership and organization - including the cancellation of the Short Course in 1933 - the decade saw rapid and steady improvements in the service 4-H provided for North Carolina youth, and by 1939 there were programs in all 100 counties.


During World War II North Carolina 4-H activity surged again. The creation of a National 4-H Mobilization Week in April and a National 4-H Achievement Week in November 1942 spurred membership to greater heights with each year of the war. Local clubs were encouraged to participate in Victory Gardens, the national "Feed a Fighter" campaign, and numerous local projects designed to foster community pride and a sense of helping with the national defense. During the four years of wartime, membership grew by nearly 30,000 boys and girls, topping the 90,000 mark in 1945. This was accomplished without the benefit of regular statewide or even regional meetings, as the state Short Course was not held between 1942 and 1945.

The 4-H boom continued after the war. Membership reached 100,000 in 1946, and the Short Course was re-established, this time with a new name: State 4-H Club Week. This name would hold until the meeting became the State 4-H Congress in 1968. The spread of electrification throughout the rural parts of the state sparked the first 4-H Electric Congress in 1947. North Carolina youth participated in the first International Farm Youth Exchange (or IFYE, currently called International 4-H Youth Exchange) in 1948, and L.R. Harrill himself took part in an exchange program of sorts when he was selected by the USDA in 1949 to travel to war-torn Austria to establish a national youth program based on the principles of American 4-H. A rare dark spot during the post-war years occurred in 1948, when the State 4-H Club Week was canceled due to a polio outbreak.

The year 1952 marked another watershed achievement for North Carolina 4-H when it became the state with the largest 4-H membership in the nation. The more than 140,000 boys and girls in North Carolina 4-H marked approximately seven percent of the national total. By 1959, the fiftieth anniversary of club and 4-H work in North Carolina, membership had risen again to over 161,000 youth in over 2,700 clubs. That year also saw the establishment of the 4-H Development Fund, created with the goal of raising $1 million to support camping, scholarships, awards, and the IFYE program. Each county organization was given a fund-raising goal based on membership; the initial target amount was reached in 1969.

African American Club Work

Club work for African-American youth began in 1914 with the organization of a group in Sampson County under the leadership of G.W. Herring. The first statewide Negro youth club agent was John Wray, who was appointed in 1915. Growth was slow but steady, and by 1926 there was enough interest and membership to hold the first State 4-H Short Course at North Carolina A & T College in Greensboro. Club work continued to expand through the 1930s, and in 1936 State 4-H Club Specialist R.E. Jones could report over 10,000 boys and girls involved in African-American club work. The wartime years continued this expansion, and African-American youth club membership exceeded 29,000 in 1945.

Despite steady increases in personnel and membership, programs offered for African-American youth often lagged behind those for whites. Funding was difficult to obtain, and there were no camps devoted specifically to black youth. To this end, the 4-H Club Foundation of North Carolina was founded in 1950 in order to raise money for the establishment of a camp for African-American boys and girls. The work of the foundation paid off in 1955, when enough money had been raised to build Camp J.W. Mitchell at Hammock's Beach in Onslow County. 4-H work remained segregated by color until 1965, when the programs for white and black youth were combined into a single entity. Local community clubs were often slow to combine, but desegregation was eventually fully accomplished.


Since its inception, North Carolina 4-H worked in conjunction with the public school systems, especially in the recruitment of leaders and members. Although revisions in this set-up had been underway for nearly a decade, major changes came in the 1960s when the final formal links to the school system were dissolved and strong community-sponsoring bases - usually local businesses or existing social organizations - were established. What traditionally had been a program for rural youth expanded to offer the same opportunities to urban youth, reflecting the trend towards decreasing rural population. The move away from school-centered clubs towards community-centered ones proceeded apace with integration.

Recent decades have seen continued interest in North Carolina 4-H. Membership has remained strong, and the program continues to reach tens of thousands of youth across the state in both rural and urban areas. The continuing mission of North Carolina 4-H to teach children to "learn by doing" is probably best expressed in the program's own words: "You can participate in projects where you make something, develop a skill, raise and/or train an animal, join a virtual club with kids from anywhere in the world! There are numerous projects available to you, including foods, clothing, public speaking, models, aerospace, wood science and livestock."

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Return to our Learn More page to find other essays related to the history of 4-H and Home Demonstration in North Carolina.

Woman pouring water in a wash tub, preparing to do laundry Hazel Carris of Pitt County at her 4-H exhibit, "Drink Your Way to Health" L. R. Harrill and others launching the U.S.S. Tyrrell on July 10th, 1944 in Wilmington, N.C. L. R. Harrill revealing the plaque placed on an ambulance donated to the United States Army Medical Department in honor of former 4-H club members now serving in the armed forces