BOLIVAR, Mo. – Fourteen-year-old Michaela Higginbotham of Bolivar expected to learn about the history of Polk County 4-H when she began working on a national 4-H history project. But she was happy to unearth her own family’s rich 4-H tradition as well.
Higginbotham is one of a small group of Polk County 4-H members who helped gather and display 4-H memorabilia in the county’s museum as part of the National 4-H History Preservation Program.
Cards stored in the county courthouse chronicle the projects her grandfather, uncles and cousins enjoyed while they were members.
She also found a picture of her great-grandmother, who died before she was born. Her grandmother was a 4-H leader, as is Michaela’s mother, a 10-year alumnus of Polk County 4-H. She also found a picture of her mother on the front page of a special 4-H section of the local newspaper.
Higginbotham is following in her ancestor’s footsteps. She has been a member of Woodlawn 4-H club for six years. Her mother, Pam, serves as a leader of the club’s bread project.
University of Missouri Extension 4-H youth development specialist Velynda Cameron learned about the national Voices of 4-H History Project at 4-H FilmFest in Branson. Members were asked to make audio and video recordings of former members as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act, which created the national cooperative extension system.
The Polk County Commission offered 4-H memorabilia found in storage at the courthouse and a small but enthused group of 4-H members expressed interest in having Polk County represented in the national project.
Members painstakingly pored through newspapers, microfilm and 4-H annual reports to gather information. Their research shows that Polk County 4-H club work began in 1926 with two garment-making clubs and 15 members. By 1928 there were 54 clubs in the county and 422 active members. Today there are 10 clubs and 186 members, Cameron said.
The Bolivar Herald-Free Press published articles seeking memorabilia from past members. Current 4-H members began recording interviews with members from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Items began pouring in, including an extensive collection from 84-year-old Betty Ammerman, who had kept a diary of her 4-H days.
Museum curator Margaret Vest suggested that the local 4-H group put a display in the “school room” section of the Polk County Museum. Because 4-H groups met at rural schools and teachers often led projects, the country school display seemed a fitting home. Ammerman’s diary gives glimpses of the past such as “How to Cover and Make a Stool for a Dressing Table from a Nail Keg” in 1942.
Courthouse records showed that the ancestors of 12-year-old Jacob Toombs of Bolivar participated in beef projects. Toombs, in addition to being one of the most dedicated volunteers on the history project, shows Hereford cattle as part of his 4-H project.
Higginbotham volunteers at the Polk County Museum and encourages older family members to go through the museum with her because the displays often inspire them to tell her stories about their past.
“This project is really special to me because I can see what other people have done,” she says. She’s hopeful that future generations will be inspired by her love of 4-H. “I like visiting other places, going to contests and going to Achievement Day. I just love 4-H. It’s really, really fun.”
A video of the club’s history is on the Polk County Extension Center website at extension.missouri.edu/polk/4h.aspx.
Polk County’s 4-H club is the first club in Missouri to participate in the history program, which aims to increase public awareness of 4-H by collecting and preserving audio, video and print information.