Iowa 4-H Foundation

Posted on December 15, 2011 at 12:18 PM by Global Reach

A History of 4-H in Decatur County

Compiled by Jack Van Laar
County Extension Education Director
January, 2009

Click here for the full version of the Decatur County 4-H History.


Although I was never a 4-H member, I am a native and life-long resident of Decatur County, having grown up on a farm in the Grand River area in the northwest part of the county. The history of this area and indeed the whole county represents a large part of my personal and family heritage. This includes the 4-H history of which I have been directly a part of since 1975, when I became County Extension Director. However, indirect connections to the program go back to my childhood when many friends and relatives were members or served as local club leaders and in other 4-H positions, the extent of which I was not fully aware until I was researching archives to compile this history.

I recall some personal experiences as well. I remember once, while still in grade school, visiting a cousin who lived near town and being invited to stay over night. It also happened that particular night was the local 4-H club meeting at the Lion's Club Hall in town. My cousin was a member and invited me to come along. I do not remember too much of the details of the meeting, except that another older cousin was the club leader (as had been his father of still another rural township club years before).

I also recall the topic of the presentation, which was given by the leader that evening--Civil Defense. He explained that if under a nuclear attack we may not be as far removed from danger as some might think, given that some military installations such as Offutt Air Force Base were actually not that far away when considering the far-ranging effects of nuclear fall-out. Realize that this was the early 1960's at the height of the Cold War era and these serious national issues with their perceived real and dire consequences were uppermost in many peoples' minds, and were the subject of broad discussion at the time, even at 4-H club meetings. This was also my first realization that 4-H was really more than just "Cows n' Cookin.'’

Sitting in that little town Lion's Hall that evening I little dreamed that I would some day have the job responsibility of administering the 4-H program for this county. For whatever reason I did not go on to join the local 4-H club, but still have always regarded 4-H as an important part of my rural community heritage.

My major regret in compiling this historical record is that I have not been able to find much information--written or otherwise--prior to 1940. From that time forward I do have the annual narrative reports filed by extension staff, that being almost 70 years of records, nearly half of which I have been directly involved. However, the true essence of 4-H I feel does not lie in a lot of facts and figures, but in the accounts of those who were involved and their perceptions about how 4-H has affected their lives. To that end, I have solicited personal stories from 4-H alumni (both former and current members and volunteers) about their most memorable 4-H experiences. I have included some of these as a supplement to this account in an attempt to give more and varied human perspective from some of those who actually were a part of 4-H history in Decatur County. I hope I have achieved at least some of this purpose.

County Extension Staff

Although as previously noted no official staff records prior to 1940 exist at the Extension office, it is well recognized that Arvid Miller was County Agent and later County Director (as the title changed) from 1935 until 1965 with a brief period of interruption 1943-1945, presumably for military service or duties during World War II, as with many other County Extension staff across the state and nation at the time. During this time, substitute county agents served brief appointments. They were Dale Thorngren (Feb. 1, 1943-June 30, 1944) and Howard M. Smith (June 1, 1945- Dec. 31, 1945). In addition, several County Home Demonstration agents show up in the annual reports as taking full or major responsibilities for the girls’ club program. In fact, we do not have any agricultural agent narrative reports, including boys’ 4-H or ag club activities, until 1942.

There is little evidence that the boys’ clubs were even organized (or well organized) prior to this. Some of the home demonstration agents whose names appear from 1940 until the early 50’s include: Bertha Mae Dimmitt, Terese Bodensteiner, Era C.Duncan (food preservation specialist and later home economist), Julia Kilpatrick, Helen Brotherton and Margaret Olmstead. As a general rule, the home ec agents were shared with one or more surrounding counties. For a period of time, through much of the 50’s, however, there appeared to be no county based home ec agent on staff to take any program responsibility for the girls’ 4-H clubs. However, there were district or regional and state specialists to help with specific subject matter efforts or special activities from time to time.

Generally the Farm Bureau Women’s Committee took major responsibility for the girls’ 4-H Club organizational needs, as Extension was sponsored by and administratively linked to Farm Bureau in these early days of Extension and 4-H, prior to the state law change in 1955 establishing township representative Extension Councils. A number of 4-H assistants served from time to time over the years. As a rule, these were part time staff but their contributions were significant and services were sorely missed when the state or county lacked the resources to hire someone to this position. They and subsequent county directors and home and family staff are mentioned by name in the full chronological portion of this history (pdf).

The Decatur County 4-H Fair

A discussion of 4-H in Decatur County would not be complete without inclusion of the Decatur County Fair.
Not much is available about the county fair prior to 1940. There was an early fairgrounds site a few miles north of Leon and east of Highway 69. It is known that there were horse races held there as the track area can still be faintly detected from the air. There was a grandstand of sorts but most of the rest of the fairgrounds was covered by tents at fair time. A violent storm struck in the twenties one evening as the fair events were concluding and caused a lot of damage to the fairgrounds. From then on until the 1940’s we have no account available of where the fair was held or how it was organized.

The Decatur County 4-H Fair Association, the structure of the current county fair association, was incorporated and articles filed on June 7, 1940. The original board of directors was: W.A. Reed, Arvid F. Miller, T.E. Van Dyke, W.F. Roberts, E.W. Stoll, Earl Hullinger and Burbank Halstead.

The site picked for the county fairgrounds was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp barracks on the north edge of Leon on the west side of Highway 69. The Fair Board acquired 10 acres of land including improvements at this site, which included three barracks buildings, a water system and septic sewage system.
A five-year building program was immediately adopted but shelved due to World War II. Founding individuals of the fair association had in mind a county fair event that “focused attention on youth and not the race track.” Inflation following the war further hindered building plans.

In 1951 membership, which could be obtained for a one-time fee of $5 (this would later be dropped), totaled 184. The Fair Board considered this at the time to be “too small to adequately provide public support.” There was felt a great need for new buildings to avoid the great amount of tent rental necessary for the fair. A membership and fund drive, launched in the fall of 1952 in conjunction with the Farm Bureau membership drive, garnered 137 new members and some cash donations, and a new facilities renovation plan was adopted.

In 1952 the first carnival since before the war was booked at the fairgrounds. The Royal United Shows of Minneapolis contract provided for the advance sale of 5,000 carnival ride tickets. Carnivals would remain a feature of the fair through the following two decades, and then problems with scheduling, space requirements, safety issues and cost led to the multi-ride old time carnivals becoming a thing of the past from the 70’s on. In 1953, funding remained very short, but help from the county engineer laid some important groundwork with construction of water diversions, a lighted parade field and dirt fill for a new calf barn. In June and July, a 24’ x 104’ pole shed calf barn was constructed and the girls exhibit building remodeled.

Many other improvements were to come over the years including more barns, an enclosed show ring, a new 40’ x 100’ Girls’ 4-H exhibit hall in 1959 (currently known as the North Building--discussed previously in the main section), the new 4-H exhibit building and food stand (1976--discussed previously), addition of a horse barn west of the hog barn (which later became the sheep barn) in the early 80’s, extension of the north cattle barn, numerous grading, graveling and drainage projects, a tractor pull pad, chain link fence around the grounds perimeter, construction of portable stages on wheels, various water line and wash rack improvements, connection of the sewage system to the city sanitary sewer, a scale house and permanent set of livestock scales, a “demolition derby” pit, an extension of the North Building, and metal siding for all the barns and buildings. More recent projects have included the 4-H Building renovation in 2005 and new swine barn in 2007  (both discussed earlier) and an RV campground area along the south fence complete with electrical stubs. In addition, recently the North Building has undergone and continues to see some remodeling and improvements. Over the past two years continuous steel fencing has replaced the wooden panels around the show ring and in the cattle barns. A set of steel panels was erected two years ago west of the swine barn as a cattle tie-out area. Upkeep, maintenance and improvements of the fairgrounds remain priority but costly obligations of the county fair board.

Some mention needs to be made here about other facilities on the fairgrounds. The Leon Rodeo Arena was built in the 60’s and although it is on the fairgrounds, it is owned and maintained by the Leon Chamber of Commerce through their Rodeo Committee. However, through working arrangements with the Fair Board and other community groups, the facility is used by 4-H and FFA horse project members, saddle clubs, youth or junior rodeo and other groups throughout the year. It is a first class facility, excellent for 4-H and other youth horse shows (including the fair show), besides providing the site for the award winning annual IRCA Leon Rodeo, which occurs around the Fourth of July. The facility has constantly been improved and today boasts roofed “sky box” seating above the regular grand stand seating almost around the entire perimeter of the arena.

Another building which is evident on the fairgrounds is a large red metal pole barn at the south east corner. This was built in the early 70s by the Decatur County Historical Society as an agricultural museum and housed a lot of antique farm machinery and equipment they had acquired. For a few years they conducted a “Threshing Bee” in the fall on the site and fired up an old steam engine and threshing machine they owned. For a few years in the early 80s, the “Bee” was held in conjunction with the county fair. Shortly thereafter, due to lack of manpower and support, the Threshing Bee was discontinued, although on occasion some of the machinery was pulled out and displayed during the county fair. More recently, in 2006 due to lack of funds and active membership, the Historical Society auctioned off the machinery and sold the building. The Rodeo Committee purchased the building, however, and made it available for other uses. It came in handy during the 2008 Decatur County Fair, for example, when due to rain, the Bill Riley Talent Show and Farm Bureau annual meeting and barbeque were conducted there.

The original 4-H Fair Association articles of incorporation were established to be in place for 50 years and hence were to discontinue in 1990. However, the Fair Board at the time was not aware of this and continued operating from these articles, not realizing the need to re-organize until it was called to their attention in 2005. The new corporation is now the Decatur County 4-H & FFA Fair Association. The initial officers and directors are: Robert DeLong, president; Benji Hullinger, vice-president; Terry Bundt, secretary; Sandy Marcus, treasurer; and directors Roger Elliott, Wade Hamilton, Teena Hash, Jerry Hatfield, Roger Leeper, Sam Mendenhall, Roger Percell, Lathum and Rose Saxton, Dennis Showers, Rosa Sondag, Julia Van Laar, and Brandi Hullinger. Most of these directors remain on the Fair Board today.

Space does not permit inclusion of everyone who has been instrumental through service on the Decatur County Fair Board over the years. However, a few that have provided some long terms of exemplary leadership, in addition to those listed above on the current Board, include: Arvid Miller, Paul Griffith, Clifford Cowles, Joe Dale, Edwin Woods, Harry Daugherty,  Bud Hamaker, Bob Redman, Howard Baker, Olin Rippey, Leon “Bud” Kessel’, John and Zana McKibben, Jimmie Perry, Dale McAlexander, Denzle Bethards, Kenneth Smith, Tom Stone, Dale Moeller, Lucille Deemer, Dick Bettin, Don Templeton, Ordale Frandle, Dick Neubauer, Don Erpelding, Dennis Hullinger, Monte Baker, Linda Binning, Mark Tharp, Jerry Parsons, Roger Vanderflute and many, many others.

Click here for the extended version of the Decatur County 4-H History.







Visit the Decatur County 4-H Website.

Continue the Decatur County 4-H History and share your comments below.

I grew up on the farm across Hwy 69 from the Decatur County Fairgrounds...on what was known as the Hoffman farm. The carnival people would often bring their animals over to our drink and soak in our pond. We would go to the carnival on the Fairgrounds each night...then come home to sleep in the yard on those warm summer (then in August) nights. We loved to roam around the Fairgrounds...setting on the farm machinery...and eating cotton candy. I even won a blue ribbon with my homemade oatmeal cookies...learned from my mom who made and shipped them off to my two older brothers during WW II. Great grow up in America...and the midwest.
Jack McConnell | 3/20/23 at 3:16 AM
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