Harking Back To 4-H Hens

HAS the 4-H Club, like the Grange, dwindled for want of continuity amongst bucolic people? I ask because I've seen no 4-H Club news in our weekly newspaper of late, and I've just read that another Grange Hall has been wrecked to make a parking lot. Each 4-H Club, somebody may remember, was expected to supply its news promptly and in good shape to its newspaper, a courtesy every country editor appreciated.

Forty or so years ago, some 2 million children from ages 10 to 20 in the United States belonged to the 4-H and faithfully carried out their projects, often with financial profit. My project was hens, and I could sell eggs around town for 10 cents a dozen, so you can see how important 4-H work was.

Founded in 1912, 4-H was a federally sponsored boys' and girls' program for farm children: the Department of Agriculture cooperating with the land-grant colleges, and the local activities overseen by the county extension agent. If this has fallen on evil days, we are much the poorer.

The minute a lad or lass signed up, there came the ``literature'' that taught many things to make farm life more pleasant and profitable, and to inculcate clean living and upright conduct. I've always maintained that the 4-H movement gave us bureaucratic jargon, or gobbledygook, which reached its height with the New Deal in the 1930s and changed our language for the worst.

For 4-H purposes, the professors and instructors at agricultural colleges were encouraged to write ``bulletins,'' which were printed at public expense to be distributed as information and instruction to the yearning 4-H-er. Lacking any special instruction in composition and rhetoric, these chaps reached for an elegance based on big words and imposing synonyms.

We boys who had been slopping the hog now knew about ``administering nutrients,'' and we knew nutrients were concentrates or roughages. Little girls learned to hang a jelly bag as if dressmaking a wedding gown. It was Oliver Goldsmith who told Dr. Johnson that if he were to make little fishes talk, they would talk like whales. Some of the most delicious humor ever set down in the English tongue was in these extension service bulletins, but at the time it was considered instructional and never funny. I frequently took my bulletins to my father, who would make rude remarks about professors, or educated ``fatheads.'' In this way I perfected myself in the pastime of keeping a few hens, but at 4-H Club meetings I always reported on my poultry management.

The big event of the 4-H Club year was the annual conference at Portland, Maine, (our county seat) where we gave ``demonstrations'' relating to our projects and prizes were awarded for achievement. This was a wide-open competition in which just about everybody won something. There was a major bank in Portland named the Fidelity Trust Company, and it would donate for prizes a flock of savings account passbooks in which $1 was deposited, not only as a 4-H Club prize, but to encourage the winner to practice thrift and add to his wealth in years to come. I won one of them and put it in my bureau drawer with my necktie and my collection of skate keys, and I forgot about it. I never added any deposits.

Then, a decade later, the banks closed in the Great Depression, and faithful Fidelity was the first to fall. It was overextended like a balcony on a pup tent. The conservator announced that all savings deposits under $100 would be paid in full, but those over $100 would be honored at 10 cents on the dollar as long as the money lasted. I dug out my passbook, blessed the 4-H, and got my dollar plus eight years' interest. I took my younger sister into the Kimball sody fountain and treated her to a banana split.

At this annual spree in Portland, it was customary for the people on the promenades and in the stylish Woodfords section to open their homes and show us country cousins a good time. In this way, 4-H exposed us to the high-brow world, and we came to know what the second fork was for. We met stockbrokers and business tycoons. There was a patronizing attitude, because except for the worthiness of 4-H, these people would never get to meet us and share their opulence. They were not too much interested in how my hens were laying.

I hope somebody will assure me that 4-H is still active, and that somewhere some boy still keeps 25 biddies to teach him everything he needs to know.

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