4-H Club Provides Memories of Head, Heart, Hands and Health

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When the first signs of spring appear in West Tennessee, I’m reminded of plans and preparations for 4-H projects enjoyed in childhood. Often, my thoughts return to the pledge of the 4-H Club.

“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, and my country.”

With the motto, “To make the best better,” children in rural America had the opportunity to participate in meetings during the school day led by the home agents from, in my case, the Madison County Extension Service. During this monthly meeting, classes met in the auditorium where they presented programs on being loyal citizens, showing responsibility, and developing skills for the future. But what caught my attention were the projects for competition in the county fair. Perhaps it was the vision of winning blue ribbons. Or better yet, the check that accompanied the award.

Entering 4-H projects in the fair required advanced planning. If you wanted to enter the flower arrangement division, you had to choose the seeds in the spring. We were instructed to select annuals that had a long season bloom, such as marigolds, zinnias, and cockscombs. These varieties could be counted on to endure the summer heat and continue producing buds until the early September fair. After months of keeping weeds out of the flowerbeds and watering hoses pulled out during dry spells, the weeklong fair arrived. Early in the morning, I selected well-formed buds, not yet open. Cutting flowers in the early hours, there was less chance of wilt. Part of the competition was choosing a vase or basket that complemented the blooms.

Another 4-H project was the sewing competition. The dress contest, scheduled in late spring, was a highlight of the year. My grandmother’s old Singer sewing machine hummed along as I worked its foot pedal. Selecting a pattern and choosing fabric came first. Then, the 4-H girl had to sew the dress and model it in the competition. I never understood why, but the judges turned the dress inside-out and inspected the seams. The inside had to look almost as good as the outside. Oh yes, the entire project must be completed by the student. I recall a girl that won first place two years in a row. Could the rumor be true? Did her mother make the dress?

Raising chickens was a 4-H project I’ll always remember. As our chickens were considered “pets” and were kept for laying eggs, none ever had fear of the frying pan. Our flock consisted of Rhode Island Reds, White Leghorns and a mix of the henhouse. My favorite was a big yellow hen named “Old Yellow” who had a questionable pedigree. I wanted to set a hen and hatch baby chicks for a spring 4-H project, but my mother objected. “No more chickens,” she said. “We have enough for eggs.” Never one to take no for a final answer – unless there was a very good reason – I coaxed Old Yellow to become a surrogate mom. One of my chores was to gather the eggs after school each day. So, I placed the willing hen on a nest and every day for the next two weeks, I slipped an egg under Old Yellow. Though I knew a chicken egg hatched in about three weeks, I never thought about the time frame of each egg. After about the third week, Old Yellow welcomed a fuzzy chick into the world. Then, another. And another … for the next 14 days.

Spring was also the time for registering for 4-H summer camp. Held at the University of Tennessee at Martin each July, club members considered this the best part of summer. Boarding a Madison County school bus, we loaded our suitcases into the back section. With the windows down to survive the oppressive heat, we journeyed up Highway 45-N to Martin. Staying in dormitories, we felt almost like college students. During the day, there were crafts, woodworking, basket weaving and swimming. The cafeteria provided nourishing food – but nothing like our mothers cooked. Day activities were fun, but they couldn’t compare with the night events. To prepare for the evening affair, we curled our hair, wore can-can petticoats and tried new lipsticks. The football field was turned into a square dance arena. As the loudspeaker blared out, “Swing your partner, do-si-do and promenade,” we danced until our hair no longer curled and the lipstick was only a memory. It was here summer romance blossomed and addresses were exchanged in hopes of continuing a friendship from the summer 4-H camp.

It’s been years since I piled my suitcase on a yellow school bus and left for a week of camp. But when I see a bus headed down the highway with a group of laughing kids, I’m reminded of lessons learned from the 4-H Club.

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