Head, heart, hands and health: How 4-H has empowered generations of Iowa farm kids

By John Busbee


Its emblem is one of the most recognized in the world, protected by federal code in the unique category of other protected emblems such as the U.S. Presidential Seal, Red Cross, Smokey Bear and the Olympic rings. Seeing the emblem often triggers a response from its viewer, as it seems everyone in Iowa — and, beyond — has a meaningful connection to 4-H. Its numbers are impressive. With more than a century of youth development programming and socializing for young men and women, 4-H today has more than 6 million participants globally. Iowa’s historic role and presence with this impressive organization has been, and continues to be, significant. The 4-H idea is simple, and as vital today as it was during its beginnings: help young people and their families gain the skills needed to be proactive forces in their communities and develop ideas for a more innovative economy. That is today’s interpretation, but this story shows, even when coached in language and society of more than 100 years ago, the 4-H mission remains true to those philosophical roots.


The beginning of the 4-H movement was as organic as the agricultural heritage that forms its foundation. Those early visionaries must have surely known that the motto that would be adopted well after their formative efforts, “To make the best better,” was something each of them practiced. In the late 1800s, a movement sprouted that stressed education to meet the needs of young people. During this time, nature study was introduced to school curriculums, and school gardens attracted much attention across America. At this time, Iowa had more than 15,000 mostly country schools, so the relationship between schools and local farmers was strong.


On a parallel track, college educators also were reaching beyond their campuses to teach, and agricultural college professors in nearly all the states were organizing “farmers’ institutes” meeting to share the newest agricultural information for farmers and their wives. These early connections formed the backbone for what would officially form the 4-H movement, where local, county, state, national and international networks of involved youth and their adult leaders formed partnerships with 110 universities.


In 1902, Clark County, Ohio’s superintendent of schools, A. B. Graham is credited with establishing the original model for conducting 4-H business. Graham formalized the process, establishing boys’ and girls’ club structure that included elected officers, projects, meetings, and record keeping requirements. Iowa wasn’t far behind. During these nascent years of the budding 4-H movement, many Iowa educators — from county school superintendents to local teachers — also were involved in agricultural education for youth. Two Iowans who pioneered what would become 4-H were Oscar H. Benson and Celestia Josephine “Jessie” Field Shambaugh. These two educators championed their causes through both their leadership and actions.


Benson began working with Wright County schools in 1900, specifically to establish hands on education for the students to learn about agriculture and domestic science. He encouraged students to exhibit their work at local fairs. In 1906, both he and Shambaugh became superintendents of their counties, Benson in Wright County and Shambaugh in Page County. Graham’s model in Ohio was embraced by these two Iowa educators and others, with these two Iowa superintendents promoting clubs for boys and girls in their counties. Another leader in Keokuk County was Cap E. Miller, whose work helped further define the programming details for 4-H clubs established by Graham in Ohio.


The evolution of the clover design happened in Iowa. According to the Iowa 4-H Foundation, Benson was inspired by a simple gesture from Iowa school children he was visiting. The story goes that before Benson’s arrival at a Clarion one-room country school, the 11 pupils searched their school grounds during recess for four-leaf clovers. Upon his arrival, the teacher recognized the visitor as Benson, and encouraged her students to give the clover leaves to him. He was presented with seven of the symbols of good fortune. Benson told them that they had just given him the symbol for which he had been searching for agricultural clubs in this new youth movement.


TO READ MORE ABOUT THIS STORY AND OTHER FASCINATING STORIES ABOUT IOWA HISTORY, subscribe to Iowa History Journal. You can also purchase back issues at the store.