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Fairs & Festivals – The Farm Crisis & 4-H

4-H livestock exhibit in Charleston, West Virginia in 1921
National Child Labor Committee Collection-Library of Congress. Lewis Hines, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
4-H livestock exhibit in Charleston, West Virginia in 1921

Hello, Radio Readers. I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas, for our Fall 2022 Read: Rural Life: Revisited.

Toward the end of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a novel set in a small rural town in the early 1900s, Anderson describes a county fair, in his world, an annual autumn event that transforms the sleepy burg into a kind of human maelstrom, with crowds filling the streets, stores and sidewalks of Winesburg.

In Anderson’s words, people “pour[ed] in from the town and the country all around” so that the town is “filled to overflowing with life….itch[ing] and squirim[ing] with life.” In stores, clerks run about madly while customers murmur, along the sidewalks, people “surg[e] up and down like cattle confined in a pen;” children clamor and run around and into adults who shout out. Streets are filled with buggies and wagons, horses stamp and whinny, horns of a band blare, fiddlers tune their fiddles, and all the other sounds of “crowding, moving life,” as Anderson writes, of “an American town work[ing] terribly at the task of amusing itself.”

I think I love a county fair as much as the next person, but Anderson’s version sounds atypical to me. I mean where are the beauty pageants and piglet races, the beer tents and fried foods, the twangy guitars? The rodeo? The carnival rides? And the 4-H exhibits, all those handmade and homemade goods set out with hopes of being awarded blue ribbons; all the rich aromas of loam, manure, hay and hide as all those 4-Hers lead their stock, stock hand-raised and bottle-fed, shampooed and curried at the fair, for judging and then off to auction in the sale barn?

As it turns out, 4-H evolved from a youth group founded in Clark County, Ohio, not far from Sherwood Anderson’s birthplace. The purpose of the youth group was to teach farm kids basic agricultural principles. The first 4-H clubs were established in 1912 in Minnesota, with the 4-leaf clover emblem and motto of “head, heart, hands, and health” as an after-school agricultural club. In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act established the Cooperative Extension System at USDA and nationalized 4‑H, with a holistic vision for well-being, a schedule for practical and applied learning in animal science, home ec, handcrafts, and leadership.

A way, really, to train rural kids for a productive and sustainable rural life. I myself had a limited run in a local 4-H chapter, as parliamentarian, and a few handcraft exhibits; of my peers, those who were legitimate members of 4-H by virtue of living on a farm, most have fulfilled the 4-H motto, but only a very few are still on the farm, still in the area, or involved with agriculture. What were our choices? About the time many of us who’d been in 4-H together were graduating from high school, the Farm Crisis of the 1980s was rumbling towards us, eating up family farms and funds.

It’s unclear whether Anderson, or his characters in his novel Winesburg, Ohio, were aware of then recently nationalized rural youth organization 4H. It’s unclear whether Anderson or his characters were aware of the looming farm crisis of the 1920s, just a few years ahead of the novel’s time frame. But towards the end of the novel, at the end of the county fair, Winesburg is emptied and unearthly silent, its two best prospects resolved to seek greener pastures.

And 4-H? According to its organizational website, 4H has extended its reach to include rural, urban, and suburban communities to support activities related to environment and climate, STEM and computer science to “improve the nation’s ability to compete in key scientific fields.”

For HPPR’s Radio Readers, I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas. Will I see you at the fair?





Fall Read 2022: Rural Life Revisited 2022 Fall ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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