In the early 1900s, 4-H arose from a need to initiate new agricultural technology and techniques on the nation's farms and to educate rural young people. The idea was to convey new discoveries to very traditional farm families and their kids through contests and rewards. Character development surfaced as an important facet of the groups, as corn clubs for boys and tomato canning clubs for girls sprouted all over the country. Today's clubs reflect modern trends and interests, but still emphasize the personal growth of each member. New Jersey 4-H is a function of Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service.
At 4-H fairs throughout the Skylands, kids strut their stuff in shows, exhibits, presentations and action. Come see horses sailing over jumps, udderly-loved dairy cows, adorable pigs, zooming go-kart races and soaring rockets. There'll be crafts, quilts and foods made with love the old-fashioned way--as handed-down traditions. Over the past one-hundred years, 4-H has grown to reflect the times. It's evolved from boys' corn-growing and girls' tomato-canning groups to a catalog of coed clubs that range from shopping and sheep to rabbits and rocketry.
All year, the kids work on their projects, with record-keeping and presentations designed to instill skills to last a lifetime. Their hard fun culminates in a summer fair. Here is a glimpse of a few clubs in the Skylands, with enticement to their country fairs.
Somerset County 4-H has the largest fair completely under tents east of the Mississippi, attracting 60-80,000 people in three days, according to Carol Ward, 4-H agent for 30 years. Fair-goers will find unusual projects that reflect the interests of this suburban county. Check out demos and exhibits of Chinese Culture, Space-Science, astronomy, alpaca and clown clubs. Rally round the tri-oval track while the award-winning Go-Kart club races in figure-8s, an hour-glass and ovals. They even do all their own mechanics.
"When the county and volunteers are supportive, you can really do something," Ward says proudly.
Morris is another county whose clubs reflect its suburban population. Kids here are into flying machines like remote-control model airplanes and rockets, and on the softer side, puppies. "We have three Seeing Eye Clubs that replace beef and dairy shows. Our 4-H fair has emerged with a suburban flair because shopping malls have replaced farms, but we have farms as our roots," says Kathy Murarik, Morris County 4-H Program Director.
Morris's fair has a history of independence and growth. It began as a few tables in the middle of Rockaway Town Square Malls, and with borrowed tents and dedication, evolved into a country fair with 25,000 visitors. Come check out all the stuff for families--kiddie rides, hay rides, clowns, face-painting, story-telling and a petting barn. There are animal shows from large to small, but no beef, pig or sheep, because the county doesn't have them as a resource. Stop by the exhibit tent with weavers, spinners, fly-tiers, and dog-sledders, and all the 4-H projects that the kids will be happy to show. Then there's the reason many go to fairs--the food. Sue Elam's Cooking Club kids will have a variety of home-made cookies waiting for you.
Everything's a learning experience for the kids at the fairs. Presentations on favorite topics, club exhibits, contests and shows are further education under the guise of fun--a tradition started a hundred years ago. Seeing-Eye Puppy Raisers is one club whose project beginnings are observable, but whose endings are seen by a person far away, and only in the imagination of the 4-Her.
Martha Bardin's 20 club members raise puppies for the Seeing Eye. Since 1942, The Seeing Eye, based in Morristown, and 4-H has formed a lasting partnership. Nobody but 4-Hers raise the pups. When give-back day arrives, some take it hard and most get another pup. The kids have one chance to see their pup before it's assigned to a person.
"It's very impressive for a kid to see the dog he raised in a harness, walking with the trainer," says Martha.
In other projects, kids borrow big animals--horses, cows--from nearby farmers, so town kids can learn about farming too. In Warren County's Asbury Junior Dairy Club, 4-Hers work with the "leased" animals on the farms, then bring them to the 4-H part of the Warren County Farmers Fair. There are 4-H barns scattered throughout the fairgrounds, with cows, poultry and horses.
Rural Warren's program is also cracking through tradition with a dog training and agility club. "It's new blood. The new program has a snowball effect. Kids will go to school and talk, and more will join. It's not just cows and pigs anymore " says Alayne Torretta, Warren County 4-H Agent.
The drill team of Jubal's Troop, a horse club, takes excellence to the max when they perform at the USET Festival of Champions in June. Visitors can enjoy their drill at the fair too. "Our overall goal is positive youth development. It's hands-on learning whatever it takes. It could be astronomy or dairy--whatever kids have an interest in. The neat thing about 4-H is if you have an interest in something, you can take it to the max."
The Rockin Bobbin Sewing Club of Hunterdon County do just that. One member was recently recognized on Make-A-Difference Day for donating her hand-made lap quilt to a trauma victim, and the Points of Light National Foundation honored the girls in '98. This year the girls sewed up a storm of 26 nightgowns for premature babies at the Hunterdon Medical Center. Check them out in hand-made colonial costumes when they re-enact at the Red Mill Museum Village in Clinton.
You can catch their style in the opening act at the Hunterdon 4-H fair--a fashion revue. Now, they've got bunches of hoofers--goats, cows, sheep and many small animals. There's a horse show for handicapped riders and the State Blue Ribbon Lamb Sale (a lamb has to win a blue ribbon first) to see. 4-H Prep does a Creepy Critter Pet Show--expect anything--an ant, caterpillar, even a dog! No horse to show? Join in the fun at the horse-less horseshow on a broomstick, or the model horse show. The 4-H building houses the clubs' exhibits, with crafts, displays, sewing projects, photography, art, model horses, food and nutrition exhibits and horticultural projects. Come square dance at the hoe down in the middle of the show ring, surrounded by animals.
Since September 11 attacks, Hunterdon experienced an influx of wanna-be 4-Hers, but without the parental volunteerism that is crucial to its survival. "When I explain what 4-H is about, I get the same answer--'We want to simplify our lives, we don't want to get involved.' There's no such thing as just dropping your kid off. Without the support of the parents, the kids can't do much. People are simplifying in the wrong direction," explains TC Buchanan, Hunterdon County 4-H Agent for 19 years.
Thanks to volunteer farmers who lease their large animals to local kids, Sussex County 4-H maintains a traditional animal and plant sciences program. "This way, 4-H can be a valuable resource to teach kids animal science without owning an animal. 4-H strength is connected to agriculture," says Sherman Tomasino, 4-H Agent for 31 years.
Sussex County 4-Hers strut their stuff at the New Jersey State Fair/ Sussex County Farm and Horse Show. There are barns full of animals--horses, cows, pigs, sheep, and poultry exhibits and shows, and club exhibits in the Richards Building. Bring your cats, dogs and other house pets to the pet show sponsored by the dog club. Check out neat creations of the 4-Seasons Craft Club--decoupage, tile mosaics, macramé and wonderful old-time Spring tissue paper flowers. The kids learn "accountability" by completing project books before they enter the fair.
At the fair, Chaps and Breeches Horse Club does their own 4-H horse show with dressage, driving class, jumping classes and more. The rest of the year, horse clubbers, with their own or borrowed horses, compete in county, regional, state and national competitions in hippology, horse-judging and a horse-bowl.
So, this summer, come to the Fair! Join in the fun and celebration of an American tradition.
Morris County 4-H Fair takes place at Chubb Park, Route 24 in Chester from Friday to Sunday, late July. 973-285-8301.
Warren County 4-H is at the Farmers’ Fair in Harmony, Monday to Saturday, late July/ early August. 908-475-6502.
New Jersey State Fair/ Sussex County Farm and Horse Show at Sussex County Fairgrounds
hosts 4-H displays at Plains Road in Augusta, from first Friday in
August to second Sunday. Fair office: 973-579-0985
The Somerset County fair is Wednesday to Friday, mid August, at North Branch Park, Milltown Road, Bridgewater. 908-526-6644.
And the Hunterdon County Agricultural Fair takes place late August at South County Park, Route 179 in Ringoes.