Throughout the year 1919 the ground work for 4-H Clubs in Polk County was laid. In 1920 the organization was official when Don Merrill, the County Extension Agent, began the all important work of forming clubs. Polk County Extension had already expressed an interest by sponsoring many project areas such as the Corn (Seed Corn) Project, Gardening, Livestock Projects and more. With these new officially organized 4-H clubs, the youth were divided between Boys groups and Girls groups.
June 13, 1923 marked the first 4-H Rally, an event where different groups in the county came together to recognize individuals for awards and hold elections for county representatives. The numbers of youth engaged in some kind of club activity was already up to 250 by 1924, which was attributed to the tireless work of the leaders, who not only worked as club leader, but also project chairmen for the county women’s project groups. The county sponsored various programs focused on clothing starting in 1923. Millinery and Nutrition were added in 1924. In 1927 Polk County farmers entertained the members of the Greater Des Moines Committee. A talk on European corn borer control was attended by 250 people, leading to the adoption of the corn production project. Poultry husbandry, agricultural economics and marketing were other projects being considered for the future. The Farm Improvement Association, later called Polk County Farm Bureau, provided money for 4-H club members to purchase club calves and pigs for their 4-H projects. In 1927 the 4-H Rally Day was also particularly successful with 1,250 people in attendance.
The Spring of 1932 was so wet that the roads were often impassable and caused most clubs to have poor attendance. Throughout the Depression, the Polk County Farm Bureau continued to support 4-H by loaning 4-H members money to purchase livestock. In 1936 The Board of Directors recognized the work done by the Girls 4-H Club and appropriated $200.00 and voted to include the Chairman of the Boys and Girls Clubs on the County Board for 1937. The Board hired the first county club agent to start work in February of 1939 due to the continual growth of 4-H work in Polk County. R.W. Zehner, B.L. Brown and Ralph Hitz were appointed to a committee formed in early 1939 to investigate organizing a County Fair. After due consideration, the committee negotiated a lease with the Iowa State Fair Board, whereby the grounds were leased for $50.00 and the Polk County 4-H Fair was incorporated. With the fair scheduled for August, Farm Bureau planned their annual county picnic in conjunction with the event resulting in a considerably larger crowd than at previous county picnics.
At the 1947 Rally Day it was voted to have a county newsletter sent to each of the 4-H members during the year. The Junior Farm Bureau was very active in 1949; their programs included Farm Safety, Soil Conservation, Rural Problems, sponsoring the Sports Festival, Drivers School, providing leadership to 4-H clubs and conducting a lunch stand at the 4-H Fair. The 1950s saw a steady enrollment in 4-H Clubs, including a steady attendance at the Annual 4-H Girls Rally Days, which were consistently attended by over 350 individuals. 1955 marked the separation of the Farm Bureau and Polk County Extension as prescribed by the Secretary of Agriculture. 1956 was an exciting year since Martha Glenn, member of Beaverettes 4-H Club in Mitchellville, was elected as a State 4-H Officer for the girls. Several fellow Polk County 4-H members went to State Girls Convention to campaign on behalf of Martha for president. The county threw a “This Is Your Life” surprise party for her on June 29 to show Martha how proud they were of her accomplishment of receiving the highest office a 4-H girl could hold. Also in 1956, Martha Witherspoon, of Johnston and member of the Classy Lassies 4-H Club, was selected to be the representative from Iowa to the National Club Congress in Chicago after winning top honors in the Dress Revue Contest at the Iowa State Fair.
In the 1950s and 60s, the predecessor of 4-H Legislative Day, was Rural Youth Day, chaired by long-time Polk County Extension Director, Grover Hahn. Nearly 500 visitors consisting of presidents of boys’ and girls’ 4-H clubs and officers from chapters of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and Future Homemakers of America (FHA) from central Iowa came to the Iowa State House to meet with legislators and the governor before being lead on tours of businesses and industrial plants around Des Moines. The purpose of the tour was to acquaint the group with job opportunities in Des Moines, the city’s economy and how its residents lived. The event was sponsored by the agricultural committee of the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce.
In 1960, the Polk County Extension Trust Fund was presented with $400 for use in 4-H work throughout the county. 4-H Rally Days in the early 60s were much success with over 500 people in attendance year after year. By 1963 the total 4-H Club Membership was up to 1,005 boys and girls in a total of 56 clubs, made up of 17 boys clubs with 398 members and 39 girls clubs with 607 members. 300 of the 4-H’ers were first-year members that joined in time to celebrate the Golden Anniversary of 4-H. In the 1970s youths participating in Polk County 4-H belonged to community clubs, after school programs and summer day camps.
In 1980, Martha McCormick and Rick Hofmaster were hired to join Harold Saddoris as 4-H and Youth Leaders. Harold provided leadership for the community club program, Rick for Urban 4-H and Martha for 4-H EFNEP, a federally-funded nutrition program. At the time, Extension employed 10 program assistants and additional summer assistants in Polk County. 4-H EFNEP reached about 1,500 kids, many of them pre-school age. In 1981 that number doubled to 3,000. In 1983, the first school enrichment programs started in response to budget cuts in the Des Moines Public Schools. School enrichment programs served K-5th grades and focused on age-appropriate nutrition education using experiential learning.
Due to state budget cuts, grants were sought to support additional urban programming. The first grant project was a career exploration after school program at Harding Middle School in Des Moines. The next grant project went to support a five-year literacy project. Several subsequent grants funded nutrition and wellness education, computer and technology education, and a host of after school programs primarily for the middle school audience. After school programs meet weekly and functioned similar to the community club.
The first adventure programming in Polk County was conducted in the summer of 1994 in response to “riots” on the near north side of Des Moines. Through a problem solving process, Des Moines Public Schools, Employee and Family Resources, PACE and several other community organizations purchased the first 4-H Challenge kit and attended training in facilitation of adventure programming. 4-H Portable Challenge is still being used to help youth who are at risk of dropping out of school, experimenting with sexual behavior and who are incarcerated or in need of assistance. The Adventure Education programs expanded in 2004 with the opening of the Adventure Learning Center at Living History Farms, a high and low ropes challenge course operated as a partnership between Polk County Extension, Living History Farms, and Polk County Conservation.
In the summer and fall of 2001 Polk County youth participated in two initiatives to secure their input on community development in Polk County - the Annie E. Casey Youth Circles and the National 4-H Council’s National Conversation on Youth Development, held in conjunction with the 4-H Centennial Celebration. One of the key action steps that resulted from both of these conversations was that youth in the county needed a better way to find out what is happening in their own communities. The polkcountyyouth.org website was created to provide an online calendar where youth could add events and search for things to do and places to go.
The 21st Century continued to bring many benefits for youth involved with 4-H in Polk County. Throughout the 2000s, despite being the most urban county in the state, the Polk County Fair continued to sport a large 4-H livestock show with almost 50 percent of enrolled 4-H’ers showing at least one livestock project. The nearly 650 4-H Club members in more than 40 clubs exhibited more than 2,000 exhibits in the 4-H Exhibit Building at the Polk County Fair that still takes place on the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
From the first partnership with Farm Bureau’s annual county picnic, to today, 4-H continues to cultivate partnerships with groups like the Science Center of Iowa, Izaak Walton League of America and the nine school districts in the county, reaching approximately 10 percent of school-age youth in the county. Since Don Merrill’s humble start in 1920, the Polk County 4-H program has grown from a few hardworking volunteers to the robust organization administered by more than 250 volunteers of today.
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