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Jessie Field Shambaugh and the Roots of 4H

posted on January 7, 2009 at 6:13 PM


Original Airdate: 02/21/2002 -"Living in Iowa"

To uncover the origins of 4-H, we headed over to Page county where many residents claim that a woman named Jessie Field Shambaugh, from Clarinda, planted the idea for 4-H 100 years ago. 

As a 19-year-old rural schoolteacher, Miss Jessie held informal agriculture and home related lessons after school which became the Boys' Corn Club and the Girls' Home Club.

Jessie was elected Superintendent of Schools for Page county in 1906 and with the help of teachers from 130 one-room schools, she cultivated the clubs throughout the county. 

Later, to help motivate the youngsters, Jessie organized competitive exhibits and county-wide junior achievement shows which were similar to today's fairs.

We interviewed Ruth Shambaugh Watkins, Jessie's daughter and 107-year-old Martin Johnson who was on the first corn judging team that went to compete in Ames in 1909.  Another person interviewed for this story was Esther Williams who became the first 4-H queen to be crowned at the State Girls 4-H Convention in Ames in 1928.

4-H will celebrate its centennial this year (2002).  That means there are several generations that have pledged to use their head, heart, hands, and health to improve their communities.  Speculation as to the origins of 4-H points to an Iowa teacher named Jessie Field Shambaugh, who was determined to give her students more than the three R’s.

These vintage photographs show 4-Hers at the Iowa State Fair marching in parades, showing livestock, and standing proudly by their exhibits – the bread-and-butter activity of 4-H – demonstrating how to select proper footwear or outlining the advantages of lead paint.  To uncover the origins of 4-H, we headed over to Page County, where many residents claim a woman named Jessie Field Shambaugh from Clarinda planted the idea for 4-H one hundred years ago.

Ruth Shambaugh Watkins: The mother of 4-H was my mother too.

Ruth is the daughter of Jessie Field Shambaugh, and tells us that at age 19 Jessie taught at the Golden Rod Country School, but felt that rural children needed more than the three R’s to improve the country way of life.  So after school she held informal lessons, which became the Boys Corn Club and the Girls Home Club.

Ruth Shambaugh Watkins: It’s just the whole idea of learning by doing so that they could see the results and feel pride.

After graduating from college, Jessie was elected superintendent of schools for all of Page County, a remarkable accomplishment for a woman in 1906.  With the help of teachers from 130 one-room schools, Jessie cultivated the Boys Corn Clubs and the Girls Home Clubs throughout the country.

Ruth Shambaugh Watkins: She was definitely a visionary, I think, and then the ability to see far into the future and bring it all together somehow in practical, fun ways, really, for a lot of the children, and she had this way of motivating in such a kind of a calm, loving way, I guess you’d say.

To motivate the youngsters, Jessie started organizing competitive exhibits.  Martin Johnson is 106 years old and was on the first corn judging team that went to compete in Ames in 1909.

Ruth Shambaugh Watkins: When you came in from the first contest where they had called you the pony team because you were the smallest – the youngest, but the pony team won the prize.

Martin Johnson: It was really something to win a contest like that.  We went down there.  Jessie Field Shambaugh took us down and we visited with the experts putting the program on. 

Teams of three were judged on how well they evaluated the quality of ears of corn.  Picking choice ears for seed corn on the farm with his father prepared Martin for the competition.

Martin Johnson: I probably learned to be a better farmer, produce better seed corn, for one thing.

County teams had to win three years in a row to keep the trophy permanently.  So when Martin’s teammates achieved that goal, it was a sweet victory.

Martin Johnson: I valued that very highly.  We kept it in the superintendent’s office for a long time.  The sad part of it was that they had a fire one night and burned it.

Jessie Field Shambaugh started countywide junior achievement shows similar to today’s fairs.  In 1909 Jessie and her troops entered their exhibits in the international corn show at Omaha and won.  First prize was a brush automobile.  The 600 kids who participated voted to let the county school superintendent, Jessie, use the car, which allowed her to visit their schools more often than she could by horse and buggy.

Ruth Shambaugh Watkins: She made them feel sure it was their car.  When they heard the little car coming up, putt-putt-putt-putt-putt, they would all run to the steps, and the teacher would let them, to see their car.  And then the boys took turns with cranking it, and she gave them many, many rides.  Many of them had their first automobile rides.

Another first for Page County came in 1928 when Esther Williams was crowned the first Iowa 4-H queen at the state girls 4-H convention in Ames.

Esther Williams: I was chosen and it was a wonderful evening.  Some of the others that were runners up were the attendants.  There was a beautiful gown and mammoth headpiece, and they took lots of pictures.

Esther said that it took hours to set up this picture, and if you look closely, you’ll find her at the base of the “A.”  4-H really was a family affair for Esther when she went on to become leader, like her mother.  She said they worked hard on their demonstrations, first at the county fair level and then, if they won, at the state level.

Esther Williams: Oh, the county fair was just wonderful because there the people in our county got to see what we’d been doing.  I canned a chicken.  Did you know that a whole 2.5 to 3 pound chicken will go in a quart jar, if you know how to put it in?  And also, I made bread.  Neither got to go to the state fair.

But over the years, a lot of kids did make it to the state fair to set up their exhibits or show ag products.  Besides the obvious changes in uniforms, 4-H has also changed its scope to include urban areas and contemporary projects like computers and space exploration.  The ideas that Jessie Field Shambaugh pursued a hundred years ago are still the basis for today’s 4-H.

Ruth Shambaugh Watkins: She was so eager to give the children a feeling of self-worth or that here were things that they had achieved, they go do.  This was, you know, learning to do the best better.

The national 4-H organization does not attribute the origins of 4-H to any one person, but according to Jessie’s daughter, that would have been just fine with Jessie.

Ruth Shambaugh Watkins: Not that it really matters.  As she says, “Don’t write about me, write about the idea.”

Tags: 4-H children education history Iowa leadership students teachers