On May 8, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Lever Act into law, creating the Cooperative Extension Service (CES) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Part of the CES was a national youth organization for future farmers — 4-H — which has played an influential role in the lives of millions of young Americans in the last 100 years.
The purpose of the Smith-Lever Act, named for its sponsors Hoke Smith (Senate, D-Georgia) and Frank Lever (House, D-South Carolina), was explained in the first paragraph: “In order to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture, uses of solar energy with respect to agriculture, home economics, and rural energy, and to encourage the application of the same, there may be continued or inaugurated in connection with the college of colleges in each State, Territory, or possession…”*
The Smith-Lever Act connected the Farmer’s Cooperative Demonstration Program created by Seaman Knapp at the USDA in 1903 to the land-grant universities created by the Morrill Act of 1862, where much of the research and development of new agricultural techniques was taking place.
By placing the Cooperative Extension Service at those same schools, Smith-Lever made it easier to disseminate this research directly to the people who could benefit from it the most. But despite the success of the demonstration program in combating problems like the boll weevil, which threatened the entire US cotton industry, some farmers were resistant to changing their practices.
One way to get farmers on board with new technologies was to reach out to the young people who would become the next generation of farmers, through a national 4-H program. Youth organizations for future farmers started popping up in the late 1800s across the country, but a man named A. B. Graham is credited with starting a program in Clark County, Ohio, in 1902, which is identified as the beginning of the 4-H program. The USDA 4-H program was open to both boys and girls, one of the first national youth programs to support both genders. The four H’s are head, heart, hands and health, represented by the four leaves in the familiar green clover logo of 4-H.
Over time, 4-H expanded its focus from just agriculture to more general topics like leadership, mentoring and health. In 2013, 4-H groups across the country worked on the One Million New Scientists. One Million New Ideas program, designed to encourage students to pursue careers in STEM fields. More than 3,000 4-H clubs exist in the United States, working with over 100 land-grant colleges. The organization boasts of having more than 6 million current members and chapters in more than 50 countries.
The original copy of the Smith-Lever Act will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. from April 17-May 8. The official centennial celebration will be on May 8th.
4-H was organized in Maryland by 1919, and there were pig clubs, dairy clubs, corn clubs and so on in counties across the state. Fairs were major events for 4-H members at which they competed and demonstrated their skills in growing food, raising livestock and driving tractors.
There were 4-H Club Weeks for the entire state, usually held at the University of Maryland in College Park. The annual national camp was held in D.C. and sometimes included meetings with government officials, such as members of Congress, the Secretary of Agriculture, or even the President.
The University of Maryland Archives houses the Maryland 4-H Center records, more than 75 linear feet of documents and photos from the history of Maryland 4-H dating back to 1919. In honor of the centennial of the Smith-Lever Act, we are working on creating a detailed inventory and increasing access to this collection of historic photos and papers that document the growth of Maryland 4-H from its earliest days.
* – The reference to “solar energy” comes from later amendments to the Act and was not part of the original language of the bill.