Manitoba History: Head, Heart, Hands & Health: 4-H in Manitoba

by Lorna Andrews
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 2, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Rural life in Manitoba today is much different than it was, say 70 years ago. Today, thanks to television and radio, a wide variety of transportation and large consolidated schools in large rural districts, young people can come together and share a common education, and social life. When our grandparents were young such was not the case. Life was largely centred around the home, the local one-room school house, and the church.

4-H Clubs Parade
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Yet it was here in 1913, in Roland, a small rural town in southwestern Manitoba, that an organization for farm youth was founded that would in only a short time influence the lives of thousands of children all across the nation. The first local club was the foundation of 4-H in Canada. 4-H, as proposed by its founding fathers E. Ward Jones, Director of the Extension Service of the Manitoba Agricultural College and George Black, Deputy Minister of Agriculture for Manitoba, was to meet several objectives. The first, and most important in a country whose economy depended in great part on increasing agricultural production, was to introduce new farm procedures through the work of the club so that the children could channel information on to their perhaps more skeptical parents. Another objective was to provide a structured vocational training for the young people, as farming became more and more complex. A third objective was to firmly instill in farm youth an idea of farm life which was based on pride of ownership and individualism, leadership from within the community, and the total commitment of the entire family to their land.

The first clubs in Roland were organized through the local school so that all children could participate whether by raising poultry, swine or beef, or planting and harvesting a top quality garden, canning vegetables for winter’s use or making garments for the family. As the movement grew, volunteer leadership emerged from the communities and became independent of the school, and provided a way of drawing the rural community together.

The 4-H Clubs played both an economic and a social role in the community at large. Club work concerned itself with improving qualities of agriculture. There were beef clubs, dairy clubs, poultry and swine clubs, garden and seed clubs, all dedicated to the advancement of new techniques. Stress was placed on productive labor and the ensuing profit. In its initial stages, the 4-H movement was designed to create a sense of pride in the industry of farming and thus prevent the “dreadful luring” of rural young people to the city. The boys were encouraged by 4-H to attend the Manitoba Agricultural College, to learn about advanced farm practices and to then return to the family farm to make a useful contribution. The girls were encouraged to attend the faculty of home economics in order to advance their roles as professional housekeepers. This particular role to a farm woman in the early half of the century was certainly not considered limited for she was an integral part of the family economic unit. In days when there were no supermarkets, knowledge of food preservation techniques were essential! Instruction in nursing and child care was also vital considering that many of these woman lived in rural isolated communities.

Makaroff Club Fair

Gradually, as women’s roles in society underwent change, so too did the focus change in the 4-H Club movement. By the early 1960s, because technological advances in the home had made women’s roles less demanding, 4-H club work was preparing girls to go into the work force and develop careers. For boys as well, the focus in the 4-H movement was changing to adapt to the demands of a changing society. As well as keeping up with the latest advances in agriculture, the purpose of Club work included the development of the individual’s potential in leadership, citizen-ship and the fostering of a cooperative spirit within a larger community. An example of this was the 4-H enthusiastic participation in the World Freedom From Hunger Campaign in 1963 sponsored by the United Nations.

In all, 4-H has offered a valuable service to young people over the years, first by providing the means by which rural youth could come together to learn more about the business of farming and second by providing reason for people from the community, both adults and children, to get together for some good honest enjoyment. Through the ideals it holds dear (such as individualism and competition and profit) the 4-H movement has, over the years, been a fairly powerful means of social control, clearly emphasizing what it deems to be the “proper” social attitude and influenced the thinking of thousands of children.

During World War I, 4-H club work became synonymous with patriotism as its role was to raise food for the war effort. This sense of patriotism manifested itself also in the attitude of the 4-H leadership towards immigrants. Children were encouraged to “Anglicise” all foreigners, in other words to make them “just like us” in both appearance and thought. This was stressed so emphatically that it was suggested that immigrants should only be brought in from the ‘good stock’ of the British Isles so that there would be little if any problem in having them as neighbours. Unfortunately members of 4-H who heard this kind of talk from their leaders naturally might assume that being “white Anglo-Saxon and Protestant” made them somehow quite superior. But by the end of World War II, such racial attitudes had changed and all new Canadians regardless of race were welcomed into the 4-H movement, as long as they adopted the traditional 4-H ideals of competition, profit and good citizenship.

Source: Archives of Manitoba

4-H has moved from a concentration on improving agriculture to a concentration on improving the rural community. Ideally, a young person has the opportunity to find high personal achievements as well as the setting in which to learn to work co-operatively within a group. Over the years, 4-H has proved to be of benefit to Canadian youth: it has strengthened the link between rural and urban communities and has promoted a greater understanding of each others needs and problems.

Page revised: 23 April 2010