4-H Ontario

The History of 4-H

It Started with a Single Seed

4-H started in the United States in 1901 with a single seed, well technically a bag of seeds but a single seed has that wow factor we’re going for. President Orwell of the Farmer’s Institute of Macoupin County, Missouri offered local boys a bag of corn seed to grow and show at the St. Louis Fair in the hope of establishing a youth component in the agriculture sector. Over 500 boys requested seed in this season making Orwell’s concept a roaring success. School authorities, parents, and the agriculture industry revered this simple idea and it sparked the 4-H movement.

4-H came to Canada in 1913 where it found its first home in Roland, Manitoba. The Department of Agriculture donated one dozen purebred poultry eggs, purebred potatoes and seed to Manitoba youth for them to raise and grow over a period of several months. During this time a Club organizer checked on the boys and girls and provided them with information to help them get the best outcome for their crops and poultry. This initiative began the Boys’ and Girls’ club, which was a predecessor of 4-H. This club established many of the concepts that are still involved in 4-H today including:

  • Age regulations
  • Members complete a project
  • Members are guided by a leader who supervises them and provides constructive feedback
  • The project is presented at an achievement day
  • The program should develop agriculture and homemaking / life skills

Within this club the concept of “Learn To Do By Doing” was also born. The entire premise of the club was learning through youth engagement and hands on involvement. Although the official 4-H motto was not established until 1952, the basis for the 4-H learning approach was well underway. Folks were noticing the positive impact the Boys’ and Girls’ club was producing for youth in their local areas. The large success of the program in Manitoba combined with a movement that focused on formal agriculture education for youth caused the Boys’ and Girls’ club to spread across the country.  Ontario clubs mimicked Manitoba’s club mentality and guidelines which furthered the “Learn To Do By Doing” learning approach and club structure.

historical photoe

The first Club in Ontario began in 1913 with a Potato Growing Contest in Carleton County, however this knowledge was only brought to light in the mid 1980’s.  A Club established in Waterloo County in 1915 by Stanley Knapp, a District Representative for Waterloo Country, has been long recognized as the first Club in Ontario from which all of Ontario’s 4-H Anniversaries have been dated. In 1919 there were 450 4-H Members in Ontario and by 1923 the movement caught fire and clubs spread across the province totaling 127 clubs and 2,369 participants. The number doubled over the next decade and continued to grow with the inclusion of homemaking Clubs. 1935, the first homemaking Club was introduced and 1,000 girls completed the project called “A Simple Cotton Dress”.

The 1950’s brought about a great deal of change for the Boys’ and Girls’ club program. First of all, in 1952 the program name was changed to 4-H Canada. The name 4-H was selected to represent the 4-H’s in the pledge: head, heart, hands and health. At this point the 4-H logo was also selected. 4-H counterparts in the United States were already using the four leaf clover for the logo so 4-H Canada decided to adopted this logo and add a banner at the bottom with the word “Canada”. The learning to do by doing approach made headway and “Learn To Do By Doing” became the official 4-H motto. During the mid to late 1950’s there was also a critical refocus of 4-H initiatives. A switch was seen that placed the focus on the individual Members and their development rather than the project. The Club goal switched from the best calf or crop to the most well rounded individuals and best community contributing citizens. This is the focus 4-H still holds today; building leadership and life skills that equip youth with the tools they need to reach their full potential and become conscious and contributing citizens. In 1959, the first 4-H Leadership Week took place, a program that still runs today under the name of Provincial 4-H Leadership Camp.

historical photos

The height of 4-H Ontario membership numbers was in 1965 when there were 28,833 4-H Members. By the 1980’s membership numbers were starting to drop and in 1988 the Ontario 4-H Council was established to act as a guardian of the 4-H program ensuring longevity of the program. It was then in 2000 that 4-H Ontario became an autonomous organization from the Government of Ontario. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs ran the 4-H Ontario program up until this time.

Today 4-H Ontario has an expansive reach and can be found in communities all across the province; including rural, urban, and suburban areas. The 4-H program is still well rooted in a strong agriculture history but recognizes that everyone can benefit from the holistic and socially conscious approach 4-H takes to learning. Agriculture, food and the environment will always be an important part of the 4-H program, but Clubs that cover non-agriculture topics are also important to today’s youth. Youth in 4-H have the freedom and ability to tackle the issues that matter to them most; this makes the 4-H program unique and ever changing.