The Formative Effect on a Country Boy of the 4-H Clubs in Ohio County, WV in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s
The Formative Effect on a Country Boy of the 4-H Clubs in Ohio County, WV in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s
Driving with my wife to the wedding of a good friend last, my mind went back to my early years in the 4-H club and how those experiences formed me as an adult.
I explained to her that the structure of the 4-H clubs was ingenious. Looking back, I don’t believe that it was manipulative or that we were indoctrinated. We were certainly guided towards leadership, independent thinking, and competition. And we developed skills that I use today.
Of course, we pledged allegiance to the flag. The pledge added “Under God”, when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade. Of course, we all accepted that was a good idea. Interesting that we were not “before God” before then (?)
We prayed before meals, had “vespers” in the early evening, and were otherwise respectful of religion, but it was not intrusive.
As we drove, I reminisced. I remember being a member of a committee. It was our job to come up with creative and innovative ideas. I cannot remember whether it was for a poster, a program, or an activity. The adult leader seems to have an unlimited supply of ideas, and I remember thinking, “I will never be able to do that.” I never dreamed I would have to do the equivalent of 20 similar tasks a day as an adult.
On another occasion, my job, as a committee member, was to call an adult who I did not know and schedule a meeting. I couldn’t do it! It took me an hour or two to rehearse in my mind and get up the nerve to call her. Somehow I got out the words. I don’t know how. I encountered that problem again, when two girls and I were selected at 4-H Camp (more about that below) to be interviewed by a local radio station. I tried desperately to memorize answers to the 4-5 questions they told us we would be asked. It was agonizing, enough so that I remember it 55 years later.
I also explained to Nancy that in the 4-H club you were graded, and rewarded or mildly punished, for everything we did. When we developed self-esteem, we were expected to earn it.
At our monthly club meetings, we were assigned small presentations that we had to give to the group. Starting with a smaller group of people we knew was comforting, but it was still something brand-new to me. Our leaders, Betty and Lucille (“Louie”) Wilhelm were terrific; gentle, funny, and patient. There was lots of laughter, and structure, to those meetings that started with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
We also had county-wide competitions. I will never forget going with Eric Wallace to Kruger Street Grade School in Elm Grove to do a demonstration on the preparation and baking of “drop biscuits”. Our competition was a pair of girls, and we beat them. Yes! But we “only” got a red ribbon. Grading was white (worst), red, blue, and purple (best). Only one person could get the purple.
Over the course of eight years in the 4-H club, I probably did 30 demonstrations. My favorite was a photography demonstration where I photographed the judge with our family’s Polaroid Land Camera. What a magical device it was. I still have that photograph and will post it here if I can find it.
We received lots of tips and guidance along the way. It was a seven year course in public speaking.
We also had something called “projects”. Projects lasted for a year, with a final judgment made at the center whose name I forget, near Schenk lake. Over the years, my projects included planting 500 Pine trees behind our home, having a garden, making a bookshelf, learning photography, and many others. There was also a very important phase in a 4-H’er’s life, “charting”. The project manual, mimeo-graphed and stapled, allowed us to chart our development, values, and maturity. Of course, my self-analysis was that I was mature and focused. In a way I was, but, “if I only knew…”.
When I was 14, I did something other than the 4-H and left for my YMCA sponsored Greyhound bus trip around the United States, 7000 miles. I was not a member, but “The Y” organized a trip, cost $300, for 30-40 boys to tour the United States! We reached St. Louis, visited a great amusement park, became terrified in one of the world’s biggest roller coasters, and got completely flooded out of our tents. I still have a photo that includes Wheeling’s Dr. Rick Terry, of us in the bus with wet things hanging everywhere. That was 1959 or 60. That trip is the subject of another article.
When I returned, my garden had been carefully tended by my sister Christine. Being 14, and being Burt, I never properly thanked her, and I heard about that from my mother many times over the years, as I did when I accidentally tied her best friend’s daughter (name withheld for the sake of propriety) by the ankles to a door knob and couldn’t get her loose. Oh, my! Mother was mortified, and furious.
When we attended Ohio County camp, we had, in a week, a microcosm of an entire year. We learned many things including firearms safety and marksmanship, archery, nature, Native American history, had athletic team contests, and endless rounds of singing, especially around the campfire.
Camp was a metaphor for life. On Monday, we had forever ahead of us. As each day passed, we became more friendly and familiar. Pecking orders became established, and patterns formed. Of course it was MUCH different when I started at age 10 until when I finished at 17. Each week came to an end all too quickly, as I now realize, at age 68, that our brief lives do. Back then it seemed we had forever. We didn’t. The camps passed oh so quickly
We had a phenomenon called the campfire where we gathered every evening after vespers. Vespers was a short religious service in a quiet setting. The campfire of course was when it was dark, and several times I was assigned to build the campfire.
We always watched to see how quickly the fire grew and snickered when it occasionally snuffed out. Being a fan of “overbuilding”, I do not think mine ever burned out. I am sure my friend, Dick Billick’s, did. That’s a joke. If I was assigned to build a fire, I am sure I built it with Dick, because our assignments were given to our “tribe”.
Before the campfire, each tribe was assigned some sort of entertaining activity, songs, skits, gags, and “challenges”.
A word about “tribes”. Relying upon the fact that we are “tribal animals”, of that there is no doubt, we were divided into American Indian tribal groups, Cherokee, Seneca, Mingo and Delaware. Only later did I learn that Seneca’s were really Shawnees, by far the most warlike tribe, and Delaware wasn’t really a tribe at all. They were the people displaced from the East Coast by the white man, from the area of the State of Delaware. They were just called Delaware by the white man. They were forced into our mountains as a retreat. I guess mountain Indians were no more prosperous than the later Scots/Irish population that followed, also displaced.
I believe our 4-H camp Delaware tribe did well. We took if very seriously, and were quite competitive. My view was the Mingos were lacking, but that was my view. Senecas and Cherokee always did well too. So we did not like them that much. I became the Delaware chief, after Dick Billick and Wayne Armstrong took their turns. Those were great times.
I can’t believe it took me so long to get to the most magical and fascinating part of the 4-H Club, especially for a boy who later attended five years at an all-male military school. At 4-H Camp, just as the United Methodist Fellowship, which for some reason the longer exists, we had girls!.
We didn’t just have girls, We had some of the nicest, prettiest, and most exquisite female creatures on the face of the earth.
One evening we noticed that one of these creatures had so entranced our friend Wayne that he began eating his watermelon with a fork and carefully placing the seeds back on the fork rather than spitting. We considered this absolutely hilarious, and mimicked his bizarre activities to our own great delight. Wayne, Don Boyd, and I worked for several years at the Carter’s Everbreeze Farm at the top of Boggs Hill Road, up from Edgington Lane. Wayne was big and strong and a decent fellow. I was a year older than Don and could hold my own with him, but we were overmatched by Wayne. He got to drive equipment, and we got stuck levelling the silage in the silo as it came pouring in, and stacking the bales onto the truck. I learned on FB recently that Wayne has died. The comments on the funeral home’s website show he was as well liked as an adult as he was an a young man.
It was an honor to be selected as the 1960 Ohio County “4-H Boy of the Year”. To me that was a “big deal”. I have that plaque today. I was also selected to attend the Pennsylvania State 4-H Camp at Penn State University, a memorable time. I even was privileged to have “a girlfriend” there, and we were pen pals for 3-4 years. I know her name but won’t say it here.
Back to 4-H camp, occasionally a young lady would permit us to walk her back to her cabin in the dusky evening, and on very rare occasions to get a kiss good night. That was heaven.
There is a sad component of my story, because my attending to three and four camps for summer was at least partially related to the fact that things were not so fun at home. My parents had some difficulties, an example of that was the fact that my mother always attended the Friday evening campfire, but Dad never seemed to. He was a WWII US Marine Corp veteran, something I am very proud of him for, but Friday and Saturday evenings, and other times, he was “busy” at the American Legion and VFW, Veterans of Foreign wars. So, camp was a bit of escape for me.
Still, on balance, my childhood was a happy one. My dad was a nice guy, and I have no huge complaints, but my mentors in the 4-H club and the United Methodist Youth Fellowship and even earlier in the Cub Scouts, were very important, with my parents, in forming, and helping to form the person I am today.
A final teenaged memory I need to share is the United Methodist Church sending us for a week to visit NYC and the United Nations. When a member of the Russian embassy tried to sway us with propaganda, he met a rude reception. Little would I know the many surprise New York would have to me, but……that’s several other stories.
This post was written by Burton Hunter