New Mexico 4-H: Fabric of Young Lives

A patchwork of vivid memories make up New Mexico's 90 years of 4-H. Thousands of 4-H'ers remember the first time they planted a garden, cared for an animal, gave a wobbly kneed demonstration, won a blue ribbon, took a national trip or received a college scholarship.

Like the blocks of an heirloom quilt, 4-H has provided warm, treasured experiences that last a lifetime and can be passed on to the next generation.

Clover proud: Members of Valle Verde 4-H Club in Doña Ana County show their colors with new fabrics featuring the 4-H pledge, clover and other symbols. From left, members are Tommie Hall, Rachael L. Thomen, Heidi Jeys, Annie Rose Taylor and Abigail Eiceman.

Learn by doing

4-H is rooted in hands-on learning. In New Mexico, it started in 1911 when seven boys from Doña Ana County each planted a pound of seed corn from the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. All seven members of the Boys Corn Club harvested a crop, though they couldn't interest Bernalillo County boys in a corn growing competition.

That fall, Extension Superintendent William T. Conway worked with the territorial schools to establish Boys' and Girls' Industrial Clubs led by teachers. Merchants, bankers and farmers donated prizes for year-end club, county and state contests. In 1912, club members competed for the first time at the state fair in Albuquerque, where premiums were awarded for corn, kafir corn, milo, peanuts, bread and sewing.

Agricultural demonstration trains in 1912 and 1913 brought exhibits, lectures and livestock to New Mexico communities, along with information about organizing local boys' and girls' clubs. A youth essay contest on What I learned from the demonstration train, elicited some interesting answers. Pruned trees bear more fruit than unpruned trees, wrote Orpha Ross of Solano. Velma Richardson of Mills admitted she learned more about the pumping engine than I did about anything else. Jane Cooksey of the Alamogordo schools won the $10 first prize.

During World War I, clubs raised more crops and livestock, rallying under the slogan Food will win the war, and collected several tons of peach seeds for use in making gas masks. New Mexico's enrollment increased to 4,181, a record until 1936, when more staff were added. By the 1920s, clubs across the nation were called 4-H because members focused on developing the head, hands, heart and health.

Going places

4-H offered travel and new experiences to rural New Mexicans. In 1928, Bernard Love started a tradition when he boarded a train as New Mexico's first delegate to the National 4-H Encampment in Washington, D.C.

Love and hundreds of other delegates camped out in tents near the U.S. Department of Agriculture Building during the second national encampment. A bugle summoned them for swimming or sit-ups, followed by breakfast at a nearby restaurant.

On USDA tours, Love saw top-notch beef cattle and dairy cows, hog feeding research, poultry houses and egg testing equipment. "The milk goats were very fine, as were the sheep, but I thought the guinea pigs the most interesting because they carry out such rapid breeding experiments with them," he wrote in a two-part account of his trip for the Lovington Leader.

He took an elevator ride to the top of the Washington Monument, a walk through the White House and a stroll on the grounds of Mount Vernon, George Washington's home. Back at home, he closed his article with thanks for the opportunity to see "everything interesting and educational."

College bound

Academic inspiration: Vernon Hall, top, killed in World War II, inspired his college 4-H friends to endow a scholarship for Collegiate 4-H members more than 50 years after his death. Ciriaco Gonzales, who received an honorary doctorate from NMSU in 1999, credited 4-H with providing role models and experiences that led to his success as head of the Minority Biomedical Research Support program at the National Institues of Health.

4-H created college opportunities for rural New Mexicans. Early state fair prizes included a $50 scholarship to New Mexico A & M. By the mid-1920s, 4-H'ers who completed three years of project work could get four-year scholarships to the school. In 1928, seven women and four men took advantage of the tuition scholarships, valued at $168 apiece.

Annual state encampment brought 4-H'ers from across New Mexico to the Las Cruces campus for contests and workshops. Vernon Hall from Harding County placed first in the farm record contest in 1938 and won a gold watch in meat animal competition in 1939.

His experience with livestock and crops helped when he enrolled at New Mexico A & M in 1940 and moved to the first 4-H co-op house. Located near campus on the present-day site of Las Cruces High School, it housed 4-H alumni who paid $18 in annual rent.

To economize, co-op residents raised most of their own food. One member brought a cow. Another had chickens. They took turns tending the garden, washing the dishes and doing other chores. When the house manager quit, Hall helped friend Dois Dallas get his first job as the manager, a favor Dallas never forgot.

An agriculture major, Hall worked in the cotton lab in Foster Hall. He was president of a lively 4-H alumni group that conducted business, then rolled up the rug and danced. In addition, Hall was president of the student body and interchurch club, vice president of the junior class, treasurer of Sigma Alpha Omicron, and member of the agriculture club and disciplinary board.

Like most co-op residents, Hall served in Army ROTC. When fighting intensified in 1943, the cadets were ordered to report for duty at Fort Bliss. Most were commissioned as lieutenants in 1944 and assigned to the Rainbow Division at Camp Gruber, Okla.

All returned from the war except Hall, who was killed in January 1945 in the Battle of the Bulge. More than 50 years later, Hall's co-op friends, led by Dallas, endowed the Vernon Hall Memorial Scholarship for Collegiate 4-H members who demonstrate financial need, hard work, dedication and faith in the future.

Many World War II veterans who earned their degrees through the GI Bill returned to rural New Mexico as Extension agents, inspiring 4-H members like Ciriaco Gonzales of Socorro County.

We identified with them because they were Hispanics just like us who had gone to college. They kept telling us what it was like, and then they took us to 4-H encampment at NMSU where we lived in the dorms and visited the entire campus, Gonzales recalls. They reinforced it by talking to our parents about scholarships.

Gonzales, who grew up in the rural community of Luis Lopez, took his first out-of-state trip to Ames, Iowa, for a 4-H dairy demonstration with friend Richard Ady of Lemitar in Socorro County. Extension agents George Vigil and Udell Vigil drove the youngsters.

The 4-H activities helped to embolden you, to encourage you to become interested first, then assertive enough to take the courses to go to college, Gonzales says.

In 1950, he enrolled at New Mexico A & M. While taking plant pathology and microbiology classes as a junior, he helped the department head with research on root rot in peanuts. For 50 cents per hour, Gonzales carried out experiments that included growing fungus in flasks in the lab, infecting plants and collecting data.

That turned me on to research, he says.

The first in his family to graduate from college, Gonzales earned a bachelor's degree in biology, a master's from the University of Arizona, and a doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley.

He ran a clinical lab in the Army and worked weekends as a hospital medical technician to support his wife and children while in graduate school at Berkeley.

After teaching biology and continuing his research at the College of Santa Fe for nine years, he moved to the National Institutes of Health as director of a program to involve undergraduate students in university research.

In the 20 years he led the Minority Biomedical Research Support program, 350 NMSU students participated, with many pursuing careers in biomedical research and health professions.

In 1999, Gonzales accepted an honorary doctorate from NMSU, crediting 4-H for his success in an emotional speech to graduates.

Having fun

As a counterpoint to the serious work of rural life, 4-H offered camps, dances and songs. One jubilant number was sung to the tune of Jingle Bells: 4-H Clubs, 4-H Clubs, 4-H Clubs today. Oh, what joy it is to work, and, oh, what fun to play!

County 4-H camps were a summer staple in the 1940s and 1950s. Travis Hughs Nelson, assistant state club leader, made the rounds in a borrowed van loaded with volleyball nets, softball bases, a generator and her bedroll. On a one-day break between camps, she cleaned up at a motel before starting fresh with another group.

Budding leaders: 4-H'ers from across New Mexico formed a clover at the 1959 State 4-H Encampment in Las Cruces.

With so many of the children, it was the only time they ever got to go up to the mountains, Nelson says. In those days, they didn't have vacations on the farm. We felt camp was very important, and we used to have a lot of fun.

Scott Able 4-H Camp near Cloudcroft, founded in 1950, provided a permanent site for county and state camps. Extension agents and 4-H leaders from the southeastern counties pitched in to raise money for buildings, dig ditches and make curtains, says Tiny Faye Jones, associate state 4-H leader from 1952 to 1976.

Walter Wade, former Otero County Extension agent, played a major role in establishing the camp.

On the heels of summer camps came State 4-H Encampment in Las Cruces (now State 4-H Conference), where hundreds of youngsters celebrated with dances and sing-alongs.

To share ideas for club fun, Jones helped establish the long-running Southwest Recreational Leaders Laboratory, which held its first session in New Mexico. Jones, who worked with scads of 4-H'ers, chaperoned countless camps, state fairs and national trips. I think I celebrated 12 Thanksgivings with the kids on the train to Chicago for National 4-H Congress, she recalls.

In more than 30 years of club work, one constant remained. The kids never slept, Jones says, eyes twinkling.

Developing leaders

To appeal to the state's growing urban population, 4-H expanded its offerings beginning in the late 1950s with projects, such as photography, dog obedience and bicycle safety.

We had programs that pretty well fit all boys and girls, says Dorman Brookey, who led the State 4-H Office from 1956 to 1980. I think it was healthy because I fully believe in 4-H and the development of boys and girls. 4-H can help inner city youth just as well as those from the farm.

During his tenure, 4-H participation increased almost tenfold and the number of adult leaders grew from about 900 to more than 3,200 as new projects attracted new families to 4-H.

Whatever the topic, 4-H'ers were expected not only to learn but also to carry out leadership and citizenship responsibilities in the project. Record keeping was required to chart progress.

Acres of fun: Scott Able 4-H Camp near Cloudcroft, founded in 1950, provides a site for county and statewide events, including the 2001 Novice 4-H Camp.

A 1962 4-H record book in the swine project earned Stevan Pearce a coveted trip to the National 4-H Congress in Chicago. He was dazzled by the metropolitan skyline, formal banquets in chandelier-studded ballrooms and handshakes with political and corporate leaders.

In 1966, Pearce returned to Chicago as a national winner in achievement, and one of six 4-H'ers in the nation to receive a coveted silver tray from President Lyndon Johnson.

I was from a small town in New Mexico, so it was good to know I was measuring up on the national level, Pearce says. Somebody from Hobbs could be in a leadership role and position of accomplishment.

He served as an emcee in front of several thousand participants, drawing on skills he developed by giving 4-H demonstrations and teaching younger members as a 14-year-old junior leader. Afterward, Lady Bird Johnson tapped Pearce for a national beautification committee, whetting his interest in politics.

Pearce has counted on his 4-H skills in his oilfield supply business, as a state representative and as a U.S. Senate candidate. He helped sustain New Mexico's 4-H Foundation and served as its president for five years.

As an investment in his grandson's 4-H future, he bought property big enough for a swine or steer project. One of the best things about 4-H is that there's always an adult there to help, he says.

Reaching out

To reach more children, 4-H tapped the mass media. National television programs like Mulligan Stew, a half-hour series on nutrition, introduced a new audience to 4-H. The program reached 38,000 viewers in New Mexico and helped boost national 4-H enrollment to an all-time high in 1974. New Mexico broadcast regional TV programs, including home economics and horse programs that originated in eastern and northwestern counties.

Besides joining clubs or tuning in to TV programs, members could participate in school enrichment projects, such as hatching chicks in a classroom incubator, or special-interest groups that focused on short-term projects like building and launching model rockets.

Volunteers provided vital leadership. Gerry Copeland was drawn in by her daughters, Kristin and Barbara, when they were in second and third grade.

When the Copelands began building their own adobe house on the outskirts of Albuquerque in 1978, the girls were enthralled with rides on neighbor Jeanette Mott's horses. Advising the girls that they had no money for lessons, their mom suggested they might be able to barter stall cleaning.

Soon, the girls were involved in a local 4-H club and Gerry, a scouting mom, became a 4-H leader. I was an Army brat, a city kid, not an outdoors person. I had never been in 4-H, she says. But when your kids are involved, you become involved.

Older daughter Kristin, a former 4-H agent who now lives on a ranch, pursued her interests in horses and teaching. Barbara discovered a talent for public speaking that led her to pursue a communications career and a doctorate at the University of Virginia. And their mom discovered new talents by participating in regional events and training other 4-H leaders.

Bound for success: Stevan Pearce, left, of Lea County, 1966 national winner in achievement, attended National 4-H club Congress in Chicago with Janice Louise Black of Doña Ana County, national dairy foods winner, and Joe Cooper of Lincoln County, national sheep winner. Behind them is Dorman Brookey, long-time leader of the state 4-H office. Pearce was one of two national 4-H achievement winners from New Mexico. Franklin McKay of Union County won in 1954.

After attending a Western Regional Leaders Forum, Gerry secured grant funding for a county advocate program that ran for six years. Her skills translated to the workplace as an office manager at a private middle school and high school.

I think the reason 4-H is so good is that it teaches real-life skills, and not just to kids but to adults as well, she says. I gained experience and confidence, not to mention knowledge and skills that I use in training staff.

Still a 4-H volunteer, Gerry coaches, teaches and judges events, primarily in Bernalillo County.

Helping others

Through service projects, 4-H leaves its mark on communities as well as members and volunteers.

DeBaca County 4-H'ers maintain Dallas Park in the center of town, with families taking turns mowing and watering the grass.

Rio Arriba members have painted school murals and helped with highway cleanups. They take flowers, valentines and Christmas ornaments to local retirement centers. Socorro County 4-H'ers organized a local food bank drive.

Curry County 4-H projects have included planting windbreaks and shade trees and establishing model composting sites. Members have made baby quilts for teen mothers who completed prenatal checkups.

Whatever the activity, 4-H's goal is to develop productive citizens.

Numerous studies have shown that kids who stay in the club reap the most long-term benefits from developing life skills, says Jesse Holloway, department head for 4-H and youth development. Some of the most prominent are social and communication skills, decision making and responsibility.

Currently, 50,200 youth participate in New Mexico 4-H. About 7,600 are enrolled in traditional 4-H clubs, and the rest take part in school enrichment or special-interest programs.

In 2000, New Mexico received $1 million in federal funds to reach at-risk youth and strengthen 4-H clubs in New Mexico by hiring six new 4-H agents for three years.

The new funding will complement 4-H Share/Care and Rio Arriba County's Clover Club program, two efforts to help youngsters fill up their leisure time with fun, educational activities instead of drugs.

As part of 4-H's national centennial in 2002, New Mexicans will offer ideas for the organization's future, starting with community focus groups during National 4-H Week, Oct. 7-13, 2001. Representatives from each state will attend a National Centennial Conversation on Youth Development in the 21st Century in Washington D.C., in February 2002.

Other plans include honoring outstanding alumni in national and state 4-H halls of fame. To contribute ideas or make nominations, contact the State 4-H Office at (505) 646-3026 or visit the World Wide Web site at

Some 4-H'ers have found their experiences last a lifetime. But 4-H's history continues to unfold, with each new member adding quilt blocks of memories.

Editor's note: Kathy Treat, retired Extension assistant director, contributed research and ideas for this article.