I worked for Iowa State University 4-H program about 15 years ago when I worked on the ‘Growing the Garden’ and ‘Where We Live’ curriculums for elementary and middle schools. My daughter was a member in the local 4-H club. But my relationship with 4-H began in middle school.
I was a town girl. I didn’t get to ride the bus to school. We lived on the very edge of city limits. A shallow creek meandered through our property and someone else’s’ horses were pastured behind our home. I didn’t get to rush home after school and work on farm chores like my country friends. I walked home and had plenty of free time to read books and play by the creek.
I longed for the romance of farm life. Dozens of afternoons spent reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiographies had built fantastic tales of long, snowy hikes in cold winters to feed her (my) horses and fueled my fantasy life. Reading about summers filled with gardening and fishing provided a rosy glow to this town girl’s cheeks. And best of all, our names were both ‘Laura’.
So, when a girls-only, town 4-H group started recruiting members, I signed right up. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. No longer would my best friend have all the fun of 4-H projects and the rush to complete projects! I was going to the fair!
My sister joined me in the “Cherokee Hollyhocks”. And we surely did bloom during those club meetings. I don’t remember the saintly leaders’ names, but those ladies set a high standard for volunteering that I used as a Story County 4-H leader for my daughter 20 years later. Cheerfully, we memorized the 4-H pledge. I still know it: “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, my country, and my world.”
We learned how to set a proper table, select centerpieces, cook, bake and serve a variety of snacks and meals. We wrote presentations and delivered them to large groups, selected clothing patterns, selected the fabrics, sewed, and modeled the results. We really had to plan as there wasn’t a ‘Pinterest’ app to get our ideas. Oh, the detailed projects we dreamed up, and all without owning a horse.
You can hardly see the scars on my hands where I sliced knuckles sawing Diamond Vogel paint cartons diagonally in half with mom’s good bread knife to make display boxes. We expertly covered the brown cardboard with carefully coordinated vinyl wallpaper to match place settings and food projects nestled in the boxes.
One year my sister and I assembled and finished matching toy chests. We meticulously sanded, stained and varnished those wooden masterpieces. We learned how to use a screwdriver to hinge the lids. Pride swelled in our hearts the morning of the county fair. Those oak chests surely had ‘blue ribbon’ written all over them.
Our visiting cousin helped carry the projects to the truck. While handling the wooden box down a porch step, he tripped and fell face first onto my sister’s toy box lid. When the screams stopped, Mom gave the boy an ice pack for his lip, wiped the blood off the dented lid, and drove us to the fair. That toy box was entered at the Cherokee County Fair, tooth dents and all.
Later that day, my toy chest earned a blue ribbon. My sister’s almost-matching toy chest was awarded a red ribbon, the judge citing the two dents in the lid as cause for the lower award. 4-H taught us that life isn’t always fair. We learned that sometimes there is no excuse for less than the best.
Our leaders and parents never corrected our plans. No one ever told us “don’t enter those frosted rolls in July because they will be a soggy mess by the time you arrive at the fair”. Instead, the adult leaders and our parents patiently encouraged us to complete our fair entries on time. They taught us responsibility as we served the club in youth leadership. Kindly judges sampled those melted entries and shared an encouraging word to share on the evaluation form. I learned a lot from my 4-H years, and the leaders who shared the journey are the unsung heroes. They deserved a ribbon themselves.
Without 4-H clubs, we might not know how to set a proper table or sew a skirt. We may not have felt equal to our lucky horse owner friends. But I know we wouldn’t have learned how to forgive those who left everlasting impressions on our lives and toy chests.
Laura Carlson is an Iowa State University graduate. She has worked in many different fields including Child Protection Social Worker, liquor store employee, family therapist, foster care supervisor, childcare business, website developer, house cleaner, agricultural coalition administrator, and homeschooling before diving into writing. Gardening and bicycling are her hobbies when not reading or drinking coffee.
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