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Looking back at the 4-H years

The flyer reads “Wanted: Former 4-H’ers.” There are a lot of you out there. You know who you are. In fact, 4-H very likely helped make you who you are.

What are you wanted for? An alumni reunion at the Todd County Fair in August. You’ll even have a chance to bring entries for judging. Just like old times.

Men showed their blue-ribbon stock in the 1917 Todd County Fair which predated 4-H’s arrival in the county by two years.

Men showed their blue-ribbon stock in the 1917 Todd County Fair which predated 4-H’s arrival in the county by two years.

Several decades ago, for Ruth Gangloff and Verna Toenyan, preparing entries for the Todd County Fair meant coming up with something to show for a year’s worth of work in 18 categories or “projects.” Each 4-Her chose which projects to work on, and most members thought half a dozen projects were enough. But Ruth and Verna took on a lot and made the most of their 4-H years.

In her 10 years of being a 4-Her, Ruth’s areas of interest emerged from living on an active dairy farm. She, and her brothers and sister, showed both dairy and beef cattle, sheep, and horses as well as projects in health, safety, electricity, leadership and about a dozen others. “We hired a cattle truck to bring all the animals to the county fair,” she said.

Verna focused more on the indoor projects of baking, canning, clothing and crafts. She doesn’t remember being particularly self-motivated at the time. “Mrs. Helen Thompson signed me up for everything and then told me what I would be doing. She also chauffeured me to meetings and everywhere I needed to go.” Getting ready for the fair for Verna was a frenzy of canning summer’s bounty, stitching hems, and baking at the last minute to ensure the freshness of exhibited baked goods.

Committee members (L to R) Debra, Lorraine, Ruth and Verna demonstrate the four big parts of the 4-H pledge -- “your head to clearer thinking, heart to greater loyalty, hands to larger service and health for better living.” Photo by Nancy Leasman

Committee members (L to R) Debra, Lorraine, Ruth and Verna demonstrate the four big parts of the 4-H pledge — “your head to clearer thinking, heart to greater loyalty, hands to larger service and health for better living.” Photo by Nancy Leasman

Ruth and Verna are two of the four-member committee planning the Todd County alumni event. Debra Durheim, a 4-Her for six or seven years and an adult leader for 30 years more, is also on the committee as well as Ruth’s sister Lorraine Clasen, a veteran of 11 years as a 4-Her and 15 as an adult leader.

4-H grew from early youth programs under the land grant universities in the early 1900s. Primarily for rural development, 4-H offered equal opportunities for both boys and girls to participate in activities associated with agriculture, home economics and related areas. A national 4-H program was organized in 1914 with the adoption of the four-leaf clover, with an H in each leaf, as its emblem in 1924. The Hs stood for head, heart, hands, and health. The original 4-H pledge is credited to Otis E. Hall in 1918:

I pledge my head to clearer thinking,

my heart to greater loyalty,

my hands to larger service,

and my health to better living,

for my club, my community,

my country, and my world.

There were local variations on the pledge, with central Minnesota clubs of the 20th century being a little more near-sighted. The last line was generally spoken as, “for my home, my club, my community and my country.” The greater world was difficult to imagine for kids who rarely traveled outside their own county.

Each county had an extension agent who oversaw the activities of the 4-H clubs and trained adult leaders, usually parents, who helped in many ways. There were an all-time high of 27 clubs in Todd County in the 1960s, with about 30 members per club. There are nine clubs in the county now.

4-H meetings, held monthly in homes or other spaces, followed Robert’s Rules of Order and were opportunities to learn this structure while planning for the year’s activities. Officers were usually older members who were elected to leadership roles. At the meetings, members shared what they had learned in the form of project talks and demonstrations, the official song leader led music in whatever way they could, whether accompanied by a piano or a capella. The host family provided lunch, and the officers or a recreation committee led games or other activities.

Verna remembers her club meetings above the liquor store in Eagle Bend. Debra’s group in Watonwan County in southern Minnesota met above the old city hall in St. James. Some clubs met in country schoolhouses.

4-H clubs were great preparation for adult life and employment. Members chose projects that interested them, and they were required to keep records of their work in the project, money spent, and written accounts of what they learned. Records were judged by the leaders and had to show quality in order for the projects they represented to be eligible for fair awards. Good records could also receive awards.

“Share the Fun” was an annual winter program of skits, music, and a chance to perform on stage. Events were held in both northern and southern Todd County. “There were so many acts, some were chosen from each event, and they performed in Long Prairie. One act would go to the state fair,” explained Ruth.

Early summer tours of homes and farms offered opportunities to show project development prior to the annual fair as well as see how other people lived and worked. Debra commented how concerns of biosecurity have changed the annual tour. “We can’t wear barn shoes to other farms, and now kids bring their projects to a central locations, rather than going to the various homes.”

The county fair was a time of competition. “Showing at the fair was competition against others, but they were your friends, too. You were happy for them, too,” said Lorraine. “We worked as a family, and our parents were always there, too.”

Purple ribbons meant championship and a trip to the state fair. Blue ribbons were good; red ribbons, not so much. White ribbons usually indicated little effort and were to be tucked in the backs of drawers.

The annual Style Review invited those in the clothing project to model the outfits they had made to exhibit at the fair. Debra remembers the tight schedule in a busy summer. “I made my dress two days before the style review which was a week before the fair.” She was crowned queen of her division.

“We could have the hem just pinned up,” remembered Lorraine. It was a concession to procrastinators though justifiable considering school let out the end of May and most fair projects had to be ready by mid to late July.

Winning a trip to the state fair meant traveling outside the county and experiencing the barracks-like overnight fair accommodations.

Lorraine remembers chattering with a friend on a top bunk in the large dorm after lights-out. She was called out over the loud speaker by a familiar voice, that of her older sister Ruth who was a chaperone, who identified the noise by row and bunk number.

“Yes, I remember the other chaperone asking me who was making all the noise. I had to admit it was my sister,” said Ruth.

Lorraine and her friend spent the next morning cleaning the concrete steps with toothbrushes.

Debra remembers that everyone in the dorm was required to sleep with their heads on the north end of the bed. A restless sleeper who readjusted during the night would be awakened and reminded to get properly aligned with the rest of the sleepers. She thinks it had to do with reducing the sharing of germs by spacing out the distance between coughers and sneezers.

Achievement programs in the fall of the year recognized member development as well as clubs that were the most active. Sponsored by local chambers of commerce, sloppy joes, beans, coleslaw and cake was served by chamber members, community and civic leaders. “It was special seeing them serving us, and it built rapport,” said Ruth.

4-H Week University Farm in June 1941. Pictured are  Laural Blankenship, Donna Nelson, Mary McNeal, Esther Rosenburg, Isabella Bous, Gloria Leyh, June Lerfald, and Audrey Peterson.        Contributed photo

4-H Week University Farm in June 1941. Pictured are Laural Blankenship, Donna Nelson, Mary McNeal, Esther Rosenburg, Isabella Bous, Gloria Leyh, June Lerfald, and Audrey Peterson. Contributed photo

Citizenship short courses in Washington, D.C., and exchange programs allowed for even more travel, taking kids well outside their comfort zones. Ruth knows that public speaking in 4-H helped her overcome a speech impediment caused by a cleft palate. “4-H was a blessing. The demonstrations, speeches and talking on the radio were all extensions of my speech therapy.” Being selected as one of 26 delegates to a Maryland exchange program and the Washington Citizenship Short Course just after her high school graduation was both a reward and an extension of these activities. “We traveled by Greyhound bus. I used my graduation money.” She presented her experiences at other clubs after she returned.

She remembers a lesson in diversity while on that trip. A group of 4-Hers who wanted to see a performance of the U.S. Naval Academy band while they were in Washington got on a city bus to go to the concert. On their way back to their hotel, they didn’t know where to get off the bus. Finally the bus driver asked the atypically quiet group where they were going. He told them they were on the wrong bus. “He was a big black man (Todd County was not an ethnically diverse place in the ‘60s) and he took care of us, a group of white kids. He knew we weren’t in the safest part of town and insisted that we stay on the bus while he arranged for the right bus to meet us. He kept us there, in the bus, until it came.”

Those kinds of experiences made 4-Hers what they are today. “We learned the basic skills of life. What you put in is what you get out,” said Ruth who became a minister.

“You were taught to do a job, do it right, and finish it,” said Lorraine who, like her sister, participated in a memorable exchange program. “I sat in an airport for 12 hours with a hundred other 4-Hers. There was a strike and we were bussed back home.”

Lorraine still cans food, sews and has animals; interests that came from growing up on a farm and participating in 4-H. “We have two mules and a covered wagon.”

Debra’s years in 4-H focused on beef, sheep, swine and horses. She and husband Delvin passed those interests on to all of their kids who were also in 4-H and have continued as leaders in different states. Debra is the Todd County Fair secretary, and Delvin is actively involved with the county and state fairs.

Verna’s kids were in 4-H, too. Now she arranges senior citizen events at the fair as the coordinator for the Todd County Council on Aging.

4-H has changed over the years and yet much of it remains the same. It still rains during the fair, sheep need to be bleached white, clean barn stalls and great showmanship still merit herdsman awards, tall corn stalks still amaze, and pea pods still need to match their partners on the plate in the vegetable exhibit.

If baking up a batch of oatmeal cookies brings on waves of nostalgia for your 4-H days, plan to bring some to the east tent by the horse barn at the Todd County Fair on Aug. 15, 2015, before 2:00 p.m. If making an apron, bringing a scrapbook or photos from your 4-H days appeals to you more, do one of them. Entries will be judged and results announced. Stay for the program at 3:00 and reminisce with fellow former 4-Hers, and maybe a few current ones, until 6:30. Then take a spin on the tilt-a-whirl or get high on the ferris wheel. Eat some cotton candy, leave some money in the digger machines, and take some selfies to share on Facebook. Call 320-267-8443 for more information.

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