Century of Service

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 3, 2009

She came riding up on a spotted horse.

And, the arrival of Sarah Luther at Union Hill, Ala. in 1911 changed forever the cultural landscape of the rural South.

Or, perhaps, a more accurate description would be the “culinary” landscape of the countryside.

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“Sarah Luther organized one of the first, if not the first, tomato canning clubs in the country,” said Tammy Powell, Pike County Extension coordinator. “Prior to her arrival, women were skeptical of home canning. Most of the foods were preserved by smoking or drying. Women didn’t trust the canning methods and stayed away from them even though canning would have given them tasty, nutritious food through the winter months.”

Sarah Luther had ripped a page from the “instruction” book of the boys’ Corn Club that had been formed in the Midwest in 1902 and gained popularity in Alabama in 1909.

“The Corn Clubs were officially organized in 1902, but there was an inkling of them before the turn of the century,” Powell said. “Farmers had been growing corn their way for years and were pretty much set in their ways. Even though, new and more efficient ways of growing corn were presented to them, they continued to do things ‘their’ way.”

“Farm demonstration agents went from farm to farm on rolling university wagons talking to farmers, telling about the newest methods and techniques of farming. The farmers didn’t readily listen, but their sons were all “ears.”

Corn Clubs for boys were organized because corn could be eaten by the family, fed to the livestock and sold for cash. It was an all-purpose crop.

The boys joined Corn Clubs and began to practice the new methods they had learned on one-acre plots. The success of the boys’ one-acre corn crops encouraged their dads to try the new techniques.

The dads learned from their sons.

“That’s how it happened with the Tomato Canning Clubs,” Powell said. “The girls started canning tomatoes and then other vegetables and got prizes for the best canning. Their mothers soon followed suit and that was the beginning of a new era in food preservation.

The Corn Clubs and Tomato Canning Clubs took root and have continued to grow and thrive.

As these clubs became more popular, educators realized there were may other things young people could learn to make their homes, farms and communities better.

The Cooperative Extension Service was formed in 1914 and the Corn and Tomato Clubs became a part of it.

A new club called 4-H was formed. The four-leaf clover was chosen as the club emblem. With the leaves representing the Head, Heart, Hands and Health.

Each 4-H Club member recited the pledge: I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to greater service and my health to better living for my club, my community, my country and my world.

A little club that had its beginning in the corn fields of the Midwest and the tomato patches of South Alabama is now closing in on 60 million 4-H members and alumni in America.

In the past 20 years, the 4-H Clubs in Pike County have averaged nearly 1,700 members each year. That’s a very large number of young people who have benefited from the program designed to foster good citizenship and leadership though a variety of programs, Powell said.

“The 4-H Clubs have continued to play a huge role in the education of our young people because, 4-H has always taken a lead role in society,” she said. “Beginning with the Corn Clubs and Tomato Clubs, which taught young people ways to make life better for themselves and their parents, through today where they learn about everything from grilling chicken to conservation and rocket science.”

The willingness and ability to change with the times has secured a place in the educational system for 4-H for the immediate and longtime future.

“The 4-H programs have evolved just like society,” Powell said. “The programs have changed to meet the needs of society no matter the decade.

During World War I, 4-H Clubs collected peach seeds, which were used in gas masks for the soldiers. During World War II, they planted Victory Gardens and raised crops to send to the soldiers.

Today, 4-H Club members continue to give back to their communities and their country through service to others.”

The programs offered through 4-H are always educational/learning activities.

“I hear people say that 4-H just has contests,” Powell said. “We don’t have contests. We have evaluations. Evaluation is a part of life. Whatever we do, we are evaluated and 4-H Club members are evaluated through their projects and learn from those evaluations.

A lot of the 4-H work is done at home and involves parental involvement.

“When children and parents work together, it strengthens their relationships and helps form a special bond between them,” Powell said. “4-H is a family program. It’s an organization that helps children and parents.”

Even though, the 4-H Clubs have not escaped the downturn in the economy, Powell said their future remains bright.

“I foresee more adult involvement on the local level,” she said. “I think more adults will begin to go into the schools to work with our 4-H Clubs and nothing but good will come from that.

“I also think that our society will continue to become more thrifty and we will find ways to do more with less. That’s the root of 4-H and it has proven to be successful through the years and will continue to do so.

“The evolution of 4-H into the 21st century is the reason that we are this year – 2009 — celebrating the 100th anniversary of 4-H in Alabama.

And, as we continue to meet the needs of society, we will be able to look toward another 100 years of 4-H in Alabama.”