4-H was established as a response to changing rural demographics at the turn of the 19th century. Young people in rural communities were leaving farming for work prospects in cities: 4-H was an attempt to counter this trend and keep young people on the farm by providing education, community service and social opportunities. The precursor to 4-H was founded 1901 in Ohio by A.B. Graham, a school principal who promoted vocational agricultural education through out-of-school clubs. The model spread throughout the Midwest and South, and activities in sewing, canning and cooking were developed for girls. Between 1905 and 1914 hundreds of agricultural clubs were organized throughout the country.
4-H was strengthened when the United States Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act in 1914, creating the Cooperative Agricultural Extension Service (CAES). The CAES used funds from counties, state land-grant universities and colleges, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create and sustain education opportunities in agriculture and home economics. Youth education and development has been a fundamental component of Extension since its founding, and 4-H became the vehicle for delivering experiential learning to young people.
In Minnesota, 4-H grew out of the boys and girls clubs movement. Theodore (Dad) Erickson, introduced the first agricultural club in 1904, focusing on teaching boys about corn-growing and culminating in growing competitions. In 1912, Erickson was appointed as the first 4-H club leader in Minnesota, a position he held until 1940. The program grew quickly. One of the early successes was the junior livestock shows. Beginning in 1918, they were held in the St. Paul Stockyards and supported by the Minnesota Livestock Breeders Association and the St. Paul meatpacking firms, with rules set up by the boys and girls club staff at University Farm. The junior show caught on and became a major 4-H event. The program kick-started membership by “giving agents a way to build trust with parents by teaching their children how to manage their livestock.”
Conservation education was added to programming in the 1920s, with the center of activity at the Leadership Camp at Itasca State park. Two generations of students learned about the practice and science of soil conservation and forestry in Itasca, and returned to their communities to help with local conservation projects. Programs in farm safety, fire prevention, animal and poultry husbandry, crop judging and domestic arts were the main program components of club programming through the war years: in the post war period, in addition to traditional programs, new activities emerged. Human relations, including family relations and dating, were the focus of programming, as well as local and state talent competitions, which grew in popularity during the 1950s through the 1970s. Members were also encouraged to develop leadership skills by participating in state, national and international youth congresses and international exchange programs. The public face of 4-H historically is the county and state fair. Members working on 4-H projects can display their work/skills at these events and compete for prizes.
4-H remains a part of University of Minnesota Extension. In 2000, 4-H became part of the Center for Youth Development within Extension, which also houses the 4-H Foundation and the Center for Youth Work.
- Theodore Erickson, 1912-1940
- Arthur J. Kittleson, 1940-1949
- Leonard Harkness, 1949-1980
- Byron Schneider, 1981-1989
- Richard Byrne, 1990-1995
- Carol Shields, 1995-1999
- Dale Blyth, 2000-present