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Clinton 4-H dairy members at a project meeting held in May of 1955, at the Johnson farm include front row, from left, A. Vernon Johnson, Yvonne Schwengles, Milly the calf and Walt Schwengles. Middle row, Nina Beckman, Mary Grossenbacher, Jim Grenawalt, Bill Bonsal and David Johnson. Back row, Forrest Gillespie, Charlotte Johnson, David B., Robert Gillespie, Dale Beckman, Roger Radtke and Walt Kemmerer. Photo submitted by Charlotte Heikkinen.

It is simply unbelievable that one can recall the name of their first heifer calf, sing the song “Oklahoma,” and recite the 4-H Pledge, but can’t remember where the car key is in the morning.

Clinton area families and other clubs throughout the state of Wisconsin have been involved in a symbiotic relationship with the UW-Extension 4-H program for generations. The program provides education, entertainment, travel opportunities, and success, while families supply the 4-H Clubs of Wisconsin with faithful, dedicated volunteers, financial support, and leadership skills. For over 60 consecutive years my parents, siblings, children and I were involved in the 4-H program.

Parents lead by example

In 1926, Dad’s sister, Aunt Elinore started the family tradition when she showed a ewe and a ewe lamb (called Lucky Lind) at the Janesville Fair. Dad followed the next year with a Poland China hog that he got through the county program sponsored by the pork producers. Dad recalled that she laid on most of her piglets the next year, so Grandpa Herman and he went to August Engelkey in Boone County and got a Duroc. This led to a successful hog enterprise.

In 1929 the Janesville Fair was on the verge of collapsing when J.A. Craig stepped in to provide financial and organizational support while helping establish the Fair Board. Craig later became known as “the father of 4-H Clubs in Rock County.”

Elinore, Dad, and later brother Harold, endeavored to make the “Best Better,” as they diversified into Holstein heifer, bull calf, and horse projects.

By 1934, Dad was selected to go to Madison to State Club Congress and to the Wisconsin State Fair with a “top-notch” home raised heifer calf. He was so very proud.

In 1952, my brother David turned 10 years of age, and he could join 4-H. Dad and David went off to The Janesville School for the Blind and bought a brand-new Registered Holstein calf named Tinkerbell. Oh, my, I was so jealous, and I could scarcely wait until I turned 10 the very next year.

At this moment in time the Clinton 4-H met at the VFW/​American Legion Hall and Gert Wolters was the chairman of this 75-plus member organization. It was an exciting place to visit, and I had lofty expectations.

Finally, it was my turn. Dad and neighbor, John Spanton drove to the Blue-Ribbon Sale near Oconomowoc. All the Holsteins on the sale were too expensive; however, there was a newborn calf that had been born the night before to one of the cows brought in from Canada. It had not been listed in the sale, since Mama wasn’t supposed to freshen that soon. For the price of $160 Molly Star Abbekerk joined our farm, and I was in heaven. She went on to be a very nice show animal, but not much of a milker.

The next year Mom gave me an ultimatum i.e. “No more animals unless you sign up for a project for girls!” I reluctantly enrolled in the Foods and Nutrition project, better known as cooking. Often Dad would tell others, “The only time we get anything good to eat is when company is coming, or my daughter is getting ready for the fair.” Mom would really get irritated when he would say that.

Grandpa Herman, Dad, and we kids had a rather unusual financial arrangement regarding the ownership of our animals. The adults were farming on halves, so our dairy animals couldn’t go into the herd registered in our name. Dad would get the “short end of the stick” when he would buy back our animals. He paid me $300 for Molly which enabled me to buy a new calf (named Milly for $125 from the Rock County Farm) and three registered Corriedale sheep. My brothers sold their heifers, and each would buy a new heifer and then invest in spotted Poland China pigs. As the registered animals increased in number, we were able to register our dairy herd under the Levellae prefix.

4-H was not just about showing at the fair, but rather about feeding livestock, measuring ingredients, computing supply costs, keeping record books, singing in chorus, preforming in plays, learning to square dance, conducting meetings using Parliamentary procedure, demonstrating how to make products with honey, building parade floats, leading calves, making babysitting games, mentoring the younger kids, etc.

Skip ahead again to 1974 and ‘79, and another generation continued with 4-H in a different location but still the same program and goals. Both sons excelled at different projects and got to travel to Washington, D.C., and Mom became a leader in the Harrison Sodbuster 4-H Club in Lincoln County. Dedicated leaders and strong county support provided the kids with a sturdy foundation of volunteerism.

Although projects have changed throughout the years, many new and exciting programs have been designed for both rural and urban participants. Rest assured, the 4-H Program is still dedicated to the four Hs, and the Fair does continue each year.

And so, we continue to remember and to recite the 4-H Pledge:

“I pledge my HEAD to clearer thinking,

My HEART to greater loyalty,

My HANDS to larger service,

My HEALTH to better living,

For my club, my community, my country, and my world.”