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Wooster Digital History Project

Ohio Set the Trend: The Beginnings of 4-H

Portrait of A.B. Graham

A portrait of A.B. Graham taken in 1911. Many different groups geared toward rural children got their start around the same time as his, but Graham’s Boys and Girls Club is often credited as the beginning of 4-H.


It was January of 1902, a cold and slow moving time of year, when A.B. Graham decided he would organize a proper agricultural education for the young people of Springfield, OH by forming a boys' and girls' experiment club. Graham held his first meetings in a damp basement of a county building, the floor littered with old furniture and cleaning supplies.1 In these first meetings, Graham gave the children seeds and told them to plant them, watch them grow, and take careful notes.2 This was the beginning of a complete education in agricultural science. Graham's projects instilled an interest in the science and technique beyond the chores these kids were doing at home, and made them into fun group activities and learning opportunities. Students in Graham’s first clubs did many of the things members of 4-H today might do; they grew their own plants and crops, conducted their own small experiments in groups, and presented their findings to other groups of kids in their club.3

A.B. Graham's First 4-H Club

Parent’s were not exactly sure what they were signing up for when they originally granted permission for A.B. Graham to start a club of rural children in Clark County, OH. However, Graham was trusted as the Springfield school’s superintendent, and was known to have a passion for agricultural education.  

Graham found support for his Boys & Girls Club through agricultural science which had been underway for several decades. Land-grant colleges with agricultural experiment stations, such as the Ohio State University (OSU) with The Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station (OAES), beginning the develop extension services around this time as a way to distribute their findings to farmers.Scientists were eager to get on board with clubs geared at educating young people, as they were more likely to apply newer technologies and methods to their farming.5 Graham became well-known across the state as holding the secret to promoting agriculture in youth- agricultural education. In 1905, OSU appointed Graham as the first director of extension and he continued to experiment with ways to educate youth as well as grow Ohio’s agricultural districts.Graham’s work would get the ball rolling for implementing nationwide extension services.


Girl Hangs 4-H Sign

Many of the first 4-H clubs kept women’s and men’s projects separate. Women worked on projects having to do with gardening and homemaking, while men worked with crops and livestock. This changed around the 1950’s, when there was a public push to allow children to participate in any project they wish. 

In 1914, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, effectively creating a nationalized extension system throughout the United States under the United States Department of Agriculture. 7 The clover emblem and name of 4-H were made official ten years later. From then on, all the changes the United States underwent influenced and shaped what 4-H has become today. First, hardships through wartime shifted the purpose of club-work across the US.8 Being a part of a group prepared youth, especially rural youth, to learn about their duty as citizens. This meant helping out with the war effort in any way they could- at home or overseas. The values of being part of a community began to be emphasized in 4-H clubs in this time period, and those values are still taught today. The 50's and 60's were met with a national push for making clubs accessible to all people. This meant expansion toward more urban areas and combining groups that were previously separated based on gender or race.9 4-H and club-work across American began to diversify and start teaching youth about life-skills.


1 Franklin M. Reck, The 4-H Story; a History of 4-H Club Work (Chicago: National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work, 1951), 12.
2 “Twelve Days: 4-H Founder Helped Form Better Farmers for the Future, From Woody's Couch, December 13, 2013,
3 Ibid.,  “Wayne County 4-H | News and Notes!,” accessed June 25, 2017,
4 R.E. Whitmoyer, A View From the Tower: A Collection of Historical Facts and Anecdotal Stories Covering the Early Years of the Ohio Agricultureal Research and Development Center (Wooster, OH: OARDC, 1992), 14; C. Cumo and R.E. Whitmoyer, Seeds of Change: A History of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (Wooster Book, 2000), 47, 57. 
5 R.E. Whitmoyer, A View From the Tower: A Collection of Historical Facts and Anecdotal Stories Covering the Early Years of the Ohio Agricultureal Research and Development Center (Wooster, OH: OARDC, 1992), 14.
6 “Twelve Days: 4-H Founder Helped Form Better Farmers for the Future,” From Woody's Couch, December 13, 2013,
7 Reck, The 4-H Story, 118.
8 Gabriel N. Rosenberg, The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 165.
9 Ibid., 180-81.