National 4-H Week, held Oct. 7-13, celebrates the foremost organization for rural American youth. An Illinois man from a century ago is credited by many as a forerunner to the 4-H movement.
William Barrick Otwell sponsored a series of activities for farm youth at the turn of the century that some researchers believe are the beginnings of 4-H clubs in the nation. A national agricultural leader despite a modest persona, Otwell devoted much of his life to helping rural youth, funding many of his efforts out of his own pocket.
Born in 1863, Otwell graduated from Blackburn College in 1884. As a young man, he established himself as a top farmer and botanist, and was in great demand as a speaker for Farmers’ Institutes across Illinois.
Named superintendent of agriculture for Illinois at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, Otwell introduced the Farmer Boy Round-Up, which brought thousands of farm youth to Carlinville each year from 1907-1910 for educational pursuits, seminars, and hands-on learning. The Round-Ups were known nationwide and attracted dignitaries from around the nation.
The 1908 Round-Up featured a parade of participants in columns of four that stretched four miles. Former Vice-President Adlai Stevenson, an Illinois native, was among those in attendance and was moved to tears by the spectacle, calling it “the most inspiring sight he had ever seen.”
In addition, Otwell edited and published Otwell’s Farmer Boy, a national publication for farm youth, from 1914 until his death. His Otwell Tree Planting Clubs also earned national acclaim, and he planted 5,000 trees in 1935 alone. Otwell traditionally planted 25 acres of farmland near Carlinville as an iris field, which attracted as many as 50,000 visitors annually to see the beauty of the irises in bloom.
However, it is Otwell’s corn–planting contests that left the greatest legacy. One of the main attractions at the St. Louis World’s Fair was a pyramid of corn, the culmination of an idea that Otwell created to spur interest in farm youth for the Farmers Institute. In late 1898, Otwell began organizing a contest for Macoupin County farm boys to produce the best yield of corn from seed that he had chosen. A premium of one dollar was offered as a prize.
The response was high — more than 500 boys wrote and requested seed for the contest. Each packet could be mailed for one cent of postage, and the Farmers Institute was promoted as never before. By 1901, over 1,500 youth had entered the corn contest, and two years later, Otwell expanded the endeavor from countywide to statewide.
That year, over 50,000 packages of seed were shipped, and the corn contests became a phenomenon in rural America. The World’s Fair corn pyramid, built with corn grown by Illinois youth, was a testament to the popularity and pride of the boys in Otwell’s clubs. Many scholars accept Otwell’s corn contests as the forerunner to the 4-H movement.
Though respected nationally, Otwell never strayed from his rural roots, living his entire life within four minutes’ walking distance of his boyhood home near Carlinville until his death in 1941.
He is buried in Carlinville City Cemetery under a nondescript headstone. A display at the Macoupin County Historical Society interprets his life and achievements.
Once, Otwell noted that “in 50 years I have not traveled from this spot more than 10 days at a time, and that only once. Why do you not go far and see the beauties of the world, you ask. My answer is, I am already there.”
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He can be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.