Country boy T.A. Erickson’s impact felt 100+ years later
T.A. “Dad” Erickson, the son of Swedish immigrants, was a teacher and later superintendent of schools for Douglas County. He also developed a school fair idea that flourished in outstate Minnesota. Contributed photo
The name T.A. “Dad” Erickson is prominently displayed on one of the pavilions at the Douglas County Fair. Have you ever wondered who this is and why the name is an important one?
The organization of 4-H has a rich history beginning in Douglas County. From the humble beginnings of a Corn Club in the rural schools of Douglas County, to a movement in agriculture and education that changed the country child into a member of the 4-H Club Congress, and today, 4-H related programs existing in over 80 countries around the world…. we owe much of the credit to Theodore “T.A.” Erickson.
Theodore was a country boy. He attended a log school near Lake Geneva. In fact, his folks, Anders Petter and Emma Redericka (Larson) Erickson were immigrants to America from Sweden in 1868. To acquire land, Anders and Emma had to apply for a homestead at the nearest land office and put up a dwelling on the site chosen. Anders picked a spot adjoining the homestead of his uncle, Gustaf Larson. When they obtained that acreage their expectations of opportunity in America became a reality, and the family cherished their new home. (That homesteaded area is today’s location for the Geneva Golf Course, dedicated in 2001).
Theodore, whose given name was August Theodore, was born on Sept. 2, 1871. During his childhood he learned that home was a place where hard work never became drudgery, but was rather the high road to progress and better living. Theodore’s father continued to add acreage to his farm, and by the time his young son was grown, the farm was about 500 acres, usually with 150 acres in grain, and about 40 head of cattle. Anders’ first two teams of oxen were replaced by three teams of horses.
While Theodore’s parents had little opportunity to acquire education, they did everything possible to give their children opportunities to acquire theirs. And with that, Theodore Erickson began his early education in District 22 near Lake Geneva. From the time he could read a seed catalog the young boy had his own garden in which he took great pride and pleasure. His parents further allowed him to attend high school in Alexandria, graduating with a class of 14 students in 1891, the fifth annual commencement of the Alexandria State High School at Brown’s Opera House (on Broadway, today’s Garden Gallery retail clothing store).
As a country boy with a Swedish accent, young Theodore felt keenly different from his town friends while attending high school. It was the praise of a teacher that boosted Theodore’s self-confidence and esteem. He had gotten a 100 mark in ancient history, and his teacher asked him to help her in marking the papers that would go to St. Paul for state board examinations. That public praise greatly influenced the young student, and that public praise toward students became a cornerstone of 4-H work in the future.
It was also during this time that young Theodore won a speaking contest, a huge feat for a bashful farm boy. An idea began to form in his mind that he wanted to become a teacher and also help young people, especially farm boys and girls, to develop confidence and respect for their contribution to life, whether it was by helping with farm chores or darning a brother’s sock.
As the young student began to pursue his teaching dreams, the death of his father and his only brother made it necessary for him to return to the farm. During the summer of 1901, when the Nelson school was enlarged to two rooms, Theodore and his sister, Hilda, were hired as teachers. It was then that he tested a competition idea in which children who never won a spell-down could compete in something suited to their skills. Over the summer they were to help their parents in the fields and gardens, and in the fall, there would be a school fair.
In 1902 the first school fair in the state of Minnesota was held at the two-room Nelson School. Students brought their crops and baking goods and sewing samples, all done at home during the summer. Teacher Erickson arranged for a judge from Evansville to ride the caboose of an early morning freight train. Nelson merchants donated prizes, and the parents came to share in the excitement.
That same fall, Mr. Erickson was elected Douglas County Superintendent of Schools and in that capacity began promoting the school fair idea. A turning point came in 1904 when he initiated the first county school agricultural contest. He took $20 of his own money, purchased some new hybrid corn seed and gave some to each student who requested it in essay form. The essay content was to include a promise to exhibit 10 of the best ears of corn at the school fair in the fall. Those who applied were named Corn Club members. According to information taken from the Park Region Echo, Mr. Erickson stated, “As a result of this contest, in one year farmers in every community in the county became interested in #13 corn, the variety that came to mean so much to the agriculture of our state.”
That same year Mr. Erickson married Mabel Anderson, the sister of the late Carl Anderson of Alexandria’s Anderson Furniture Company. She received an early initiation into the role of a helpmate. Mr. Erickson had arranged for 75 bushels of two new potato varieties – the Early Ohio and the Green Mountain – from the experiment station at Grand Rapids. These were put into his basement, and the newlyweds spent part of their honeymoon sacking potatoes to be given to schoolchildren who became potato club members. That fall, 800 potato displays competed for the $25 prize offered by James Hill of the Great Northern Railway. Myrtle Johnson, of Ida Township, won the first cash award.
In 1902, the first school fair in Minnesota was held at the Nelson School in Nelson. Students brought their crops, baking goods and sewing samples to display. “Dad” Erickson arranged for a judge, and prizes were donated from area businesses. Contributed photo from Douglas County Historical Society
Erickson didn’t stop there. That same year he also conducted a seed contest, and winners were selected to prepare exhibits to be sent to the state seed contest in St. Paul. A few years later this state contest took Mr. Erickson one step further as a leader of youth. He needed to find a way in which pupils from all 100 country schools in Douglas County could be brought together in a countywide competition. He chose the 1907 Alexandria Street Carnival as the location.
The carnival day dawned cold and rainy in October. It was held on a Monday, and all rural schools in the county were closed so that every child in the county would be free to attend. Each school was encouraged to enter displays, from penmanship, drawing, sewing, fancy work, gardening and crops. The winners in this contest won the right to send their exhibits to, and attend, the State Industrial Contest at St. Paul. Anna Hedloff, of District 22, won first with her exhibit of crab apples, and Denzil Knight, of LaGrande, won first with his exhibit of oats.
This state contest was the forerunner of the state competition for the 4-H clubs organized some years later. Mr. Erickson remained superintendent of schools for another four years, during which time the school fairs continued to thrive, and new projects were introduced.
In reflecting on “Dad” Erickson’s life, he wrote and spoke it best, early, during his high school graduation, “How can a youth afford to lose his opportunities? Let us all grasp our many golden opportunities and use our talent, that we may not at the closing moment of our life look back with regret, but that we may enter an eternity having employed our life to the best of our ability and receive the greeting, ‘well done, thou good and faithful servant.’
From a country boy with a Swedish accent, to superintendent of schools of Douglas County, to further teaching of youth, “Dad” Erickson is fondly and widely recognized as the founder of Minnesota 4-H. The son of Swedish immigrants never lost sight of the importance of the home as an educational force. He grew from simple beginnings with a desire in building better lives for a better world. In a letter written to his daughter about the beginnings of 4-H, a 70-year-old T.A. said, in part, “After all, it really doesn’t make much difference who was first in these things, the real thing that counts is what was achieved.”
(Information gleaned from the Douglas County Historical Society, archives of the Park Region Echo, ca. 1904 and 80 Years of Making the Best Better, 4-H, published by the Douglas County 4-H Council and the Douglas County Historical Society, copyright 1987).