Mississippi’s 4-H program started before the passage of federal legislation to support education for rural youth. In the spring of 1907, William Hall Smith, Holmes County’s superintendent of schools, began Corn Clubs for boys as a way to supplement the educational opportunities and to fill a void in public schools. “Corn Club” Smith, as he became known, believed that by working through youth he could improve the diet and agricultural methods of the county’s farm families. At the same time, Smith began a Home Culture Study Club for girls, focusing on domestic topics. That fall 82 of the original 120 corn club members exhibited their goods at the local fair. Winners earned prizes from local merchants in categories such as most ears on a stalk, largest ears, and highest yield.
Having learned about the success of Smith’s clubs from representatives of the General Education Board and from the US Department of Agriculture’s Office of Farmer’s Cooperative Demonstration Work, educator and government agricultural expert Seaman A. Knapp hired Smith, paying him one dollar a year to collaborate with the department, and Mississippi became the first state with federal funds for boys’ and girls’ demonstration clubs. The Smith-Lever Act, passed in 1914, expanded Smith’s concept into a program to teach rural youth through the Cooperative Extension service at land-grant institutions.
In 1911 Knapp hired Susie V. Powell to start Tomato Clubs for girls, and two years later, M. M. Hubert, working in Jefferson County, became the state’s first Negro Extension agent. In 1916 Alice Carter Oliver became Mississippi’s first Negro Home Demonstration agent. Agents subsequently formed clubs to study such projects as poultry, beef, swine, and dairy; in 1926 Lee County even formed a baseball club.
4-H gradually changed its missions and programs. During the Great Depression, it supported “Live-at-Home” programs designed to make rural populations subsistent. During World War II only limited projects and programs specializing in food, feed, fiber, and conservation took place. The 4-H’s war motto, “One unit for home use, one for our soldiers, and one for our allies,” encouraged club members to grow victory gardens and preserve their bounty. In 1942 Mississippi’s 4-H members had 23,036 gardens, producing nearly 1.2 million cans of fruits and vegetables. Starting in the 1950s, projects expanded beyond agriculture-related topics to include electronics, computers, wildlife and fisheries, health, public speaking, graphic arts, child care, citizenship, and service learning, and many others.
In 2002 4-H celebrated its centennial. Among the events in Mississippi was the groundbreaking of the Peter Frierson Mississippi 4-H Museum at the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Museum in Jackson. Though Mississippi is not the sole birthplace of the 4-H movement, it is home to one of the most important events in the organization’s history.
- 4-H Vertical Files, Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University
- Lee Howard Moseley, History of Mississippi Cooperative Extension (1976)
- Franklin M. Reck, The 4-H Story: A History of 4-H (1951); Roy V. Scott, The Reluctant Farmer: The Rise of Agricultural Extension to 1914 (1970)
- Thomas Wessel and Marilyn Wessel, 4-H: An American Idea, 1900–1980 (1982)