SHERIDAN — When 4-H began more than 100 years ago, life was different: agricultural practices have changed, science has advanced and knowledge has expanded.
But the idea behind 4-H has remained constant through all those years — to help young people and their families gain the skills needed to be proactive forces in their communities and develop ideas for a more innovative economy.
It all began in the late 1800s, when researchers discovered that adults in farming communities were generally unaccepting of new agricultural developments being made on university campuses but the young people of the communities were open to new ideas and would experiment with new techniques.
The students began sharing their knowledge with the adults and as such, rural youth programs became the conduit for new agriculture technology.
Now, 4-H has become the nation’s largest youth development organization, has reached every state in the nation and has expanded to include urban and suburban areas.
By 1913, the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture had joined and 125 students had enrolled.
As Wyoming continues to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of 4-H being part of the state’s culture, a group of UW Extension employees are dedicated to preserving the club’s history from the last century.
The UWE has launched a “4-H Alumni Search” to gather stories and photos from leaders and members of years past, while others work tirelessly to archive years of reports, documents and stories already told.
Beverly Gorzalka and others from the Sheridan County Extension Office are working with Judy Slack, director of The Wyoming Room, and her staff to archive and preserve the seemingly endless pieces of 4-H history in the extension office.
“4-H is like a grand tree with deep roots and Sheridan County is in the soil but it really branches out and sprouts life in far reaching ways,” Gorzalka said. “We have a lot of documents we want to preserve, not just the club lists but the ones that show the difference 4-H has made in each of their lives.”
Gorzalka shared that Sheridan has several multi-generational 4-H families, people that are third or fourth generation participants, and that human interest story is the one they want to tell.
In fact, the end goal is to turn those stories into a book.
“The point we’re at right now is to get things archived but our vision is a book that’s similar to the Sheridan County Heritage Book we published in ’83,” she said. “Our vision is a chapter on clubs, a chapter on events, a chapter on the fair, the mountain camps, that sort of thing, and then to have stories told from former members and leaders.”
The Extension Office and The Wyoming Room staff members have started interviewing former 4-H members and leaders and recording their tales, something Gorzalka says she wishes she would’ve started 10 years ago before losing many of the people she would have loved to talk to.
One person she was able to interview is 104-year-old Melvine Rolston who recalled one special night at mountain camp in 1945. Rolston was leader of the Big Horn Culinary 4-H Club.
“Judy and I interviewed her and she recalled a ceremony they had around the campfire. She was a cooking leader and she said that her girls sang the Lord’s Prayer that night and it was the most beautiful time she had ever heard that song,” Gorzalka said. “As she told us she just closed her eyes and you could tell she was hearing the song again.”
Rolston recalled a tale for Slack and Gorzalka of the girls being dressed all in white dresses with a full moon over their heads singing around the fire.
Upon returning to the office, Gorzalka referenced the “Wyoming annual narrative report of Sheridan County cooperative extension work in agriculture and home economics,” a report the Home Demonstration Agent Katherine Bailey put out every year.
In the report, the Ag Agent had recorded the same event Rolston recalled and Gorzalka learned it was a ceremony in honor of the 4-H boys who had gone away to war.
“The way it was in the report was exactly as Melvine recalled it and I could picture the evening through her retelling,” she said. “That was the most moving thing I have come across so far, but everyone will talk about their leaders and the impact they made on their lives and remember the other kids that were with them and that’s what we’re after.”
If you have a story or photograph to submit for preserving in The Wyoming Room or consideration of future publication see www.uwyo.edu/4-h/100/alumni-search.html, email 4-H@uwyo.edu or call the Sheridan Extension Office at 674-2980.