Early Agricultural Clubs

Corn clubs and corn contests began in the late 1800s as a way to reach young farmers about new techniques and better corn varieties. These contests spread from the Midwest to the South and other regions. William Hall Smith, superintendent of schools in Holmes County, Mississippi, began a corn contest in order to link formal education with rural experiences, thereby creating greater interest in the schools among farm families. In addition, he hoped the contest would break the one crop mentality of the South. If successful, farmers would see corn as a cash crop as well as feed for farm animals. In 1907, Smith worked with 120 boys as they each raised corn on half acre plots. The success of this project led other states to adopt similar programs.

In North Carolina, early agricultural clubs began as a way to teach young people, and they were designed to meet the economic needs of farmers. Since 1906, the North Carolina Farmers' Institute had offered prizes to boys for corn production. Prizes were awarded to boys who worked the hardest to increase crop yields. The corn clubs began in the state after July 1909 when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) signed a cooperative demonstration agreement with North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (later North Carolina State University). They were based on the pattern of farm demonstration work, and they promoted record keeping on costs and productivity. The purpose of these clubs was to take abstract lessons from school and adapt them to practical use on the farm. In part these clubs formed the basis of what later became 4-H.

Following the July 1909 agreement, Ira O. Schaub promoted corn club work in North Carolina. His plan called for rural schools to establish School Boys' Farm Life Clubs and School Girls' Home Life Clubs with teachers as advisors. He also envisioned county associations and local, county, and state contests. The first official corn club in the state was organized in Hertford County in 1909. Boys worked an acre of land, using scientific methods to increase their yields. Some successfully tripled and quadrupled the amount of corn typically grown. The boys' work helped influence farming practices throughout the South, as they demonstrated potential for greater yields. Through their work, they were able to earn money for school supplies. As the program became more successful, farmers began to demand seed corn from the boys clubs. Eventually clubs were established to promote production of a variety of crops and livestock, including tomatoes, calves, poultry, eggs, and pigs.

Nationwide, girls saw the success and fun of the corn clubs and wanted the chance to earn money too. They needed to buy books for school, furnishings for the home, and clothes for themselves. Some people questioned whether girls could do the hard work required of the boys. While some girls were allowed to join boys clubs due to their persistence, Dr. Seaman A. Knapp, supervisor of demonstration work in the South for the USDA, suggested other activities that he believed were better suited to girls' interests. In 1910 in South Carolina a tomato-growing program commenced where girls would work a tenth of an acre. The tomatoes could be sold fresh or canned, giving girls another activity in which to participate. In 1911, Schaub hired Jane S. McKimmon to start the first tomato clubs in North Carolina for girls interested in home economics. This was the beginning of the state's Home Demonstration program.

In 1912 agricultural clubs were open to boys between the ages of ten and eighteen. During World War I, the age was temporarily lowered to eight. Initially, girls could participate in their own clubs between the ages of ten and twenty.

In North Carolina early successes of participants, especially Julia Rankin's tomato canning and Charlie Parker's corn yield, led to expanded club programs. Canning clubs started in fourteen counties. In 1912, Schaub arranged for several Granville County corn champions to spend a few days for training at the state college, and this became the predecessor of the 4-H Short Courses.

The success of the corn clubs led other agricultural leaders to adopt the club method for teaching youth. Because of shortages during World War I, young people were asked to help with food production. Poultry work and gardening were added to various club projects. By 1916, the following clubs existed in North Carolina: corn, pig, poultry, crop rotation, peanut, cotton, and potato. African American clubs had been created also.

Within two years of the earliest tomato clubs, girls clubs expanded to cover almost all vegetables, as well as fruits, soup mixtures, and preserves. The girls produced products that they tried to sell to stores. When the stores proved unwilling to carry these goods, the girls went straight to the consumers. As stores recognized people's interest in buying homemade goods, they began purchasing the girls canned goods for resale. The girls' mothers became interested in learning these techniques too, and this led to an expansion of the home demonstration program to include women.

The name 4-H first became popular as a brand name in marketing club projects, but at first it was not typically used to refer to the clubs or participants. The various girls and boys clubs in North Carolina did not officially become 4-H clubs until January 1, 1926.

Readers may also be interested in our essays on the history of 4-H in North Carolina and Tomato Clubs.


Clark, James W. Clover All Over: North Carolina 4-H in Action. Raleigh, NC: Office of 4-H and Youth, North Carolina State University, 1984.

Harrill, L. R. Memories of 4-H. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University Print Shop, 1967.

McKimmon, Jane Simpson. When We're Green We Grow. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1945.

Sheffield, C. W. Boys and Girls Agricultural Clubs: Pleasure as Well as Profit Result from the Activities of Club Week. March 1926.

[author: Mary von der Heide]

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
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