Tomato Clubs in Texas: the Beginnings of 4-H

Jay White, Graduate Student, Horticulture, Texas A&M University
Tomato Club Marker near Cameron, TX
Tomato Club Marker, Cameron, TX

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the "Girl's Tomato Clubs" in Texas. The first of these clubs were organized in Milam County, Texas in 1911 and their first crop was grown in 1912. The Tomato Clubs (and Corn Clubs for the boys) were a way to introduce the latest advancements in the science of agriculture into rural Southern homes that were generally unwilling to accept new agricultural technology and deeply suspicious of "government people".

canning equipment
canning equipment

Around the turn of the century, the science of agriculture was advancing rapidly. Knowledge of things like fertilization and the need for crop rotation were becoming more widely known. Unfortunately, American farmers were not embracing these new technologies. People in the newly formed USDA knew that if American agriculture was going to thrive in the new century then they would have to find a way to get the farmers of tomorrow to adopt and embrace the science and practices that were emerging from the agricultural research being conducted across the country. When all of their efforts to "convert" existing farmers failed, a brilliant idea was hatched. Start agriculturally related clubs for farm children and teach them the farming methods of the future.

The idea for the Tomato and Corn Clubs is often attributed to Seaman A Knapp of Terrel, Texas. Dr. Knapp was the founder of the "Farm Demonstration Work" programs for the USDA. These programs originally began as a way for farmer's to show other farmers how to control boll weevils. They eventually evolved into the agricultural extension system and agricultural experiment stations that we have today.

tomato club women displaying their harvest on table for judges
Tomato Club with their harvest

"Corn Clubs" were established for boys in 1907 all across the country. The Corn Clubs provided rural boys with "improved" seed corn and lessons in soil preparation and fertilization. The boys were asked to grow the seed and then enter their best five ears in local fair competitions. As the boys won more and more awards, their fathers and neighbors began to develop an interest in what they were doing. The success of this program slowly opened doors for improved agricultural techniques like hybridized seed, fertilizer and crop rotation to take root.

As the Corn Clubs prospered, many women, like Marie Comer of South Carolina, lobbied for similar programs for girls. In 1911, Dr. Knapp agreed to expand the "Farm Demonstration" programs to rural youth of both sexes. In 1911, Mrs. Edna Westbrook Trigg of Milam County, Texas was approached to start the first of these "canning clubs" in Texas. Mrs. Trigg was a dedicated teacher and principal at the rural school in Liberty, Texas. She was very much dedicated to her educational responsibilities and as such, initially declined the request. However, after receiving assurances that her Tomato Club work would not interfere with her educational duties, she agreed. Her efforts over the next few years would change her future and the futures of countless numbers of other rural Texas women.

Tomato Club members engaging in canning activities
Tomato Club canning activities

Initially, the Tomato Clubs sought to improve the life of rural women and their families through education. Dr. Knapp also hoped that as the skills learned by the girls in the clubs provided tangible benefits to the farm family, the farm families would become more open to the additional educational opportunities available from the Farm Demonstration workers. According to Dr. Knapp, "Through the tomato plant you will get into the home garden and by means of the canning you will get into the farm kitchen". In 1912, Mrs. Trigg started eleven Tomato Clubs in Milam County. Membership was open to white girls between the ages of 10 and 18 that had 1/10 of acre that they could use to grow their crop (the program was opened to African-American youth in 1917).

The girls were taught the latest methods for planting, growing and harvesting their crops. Once the crops were harvested, the girls attended community wide "demonstrations" were they learned the latest preservation techniques. Like the boys, the girls were encouraged to enter their products in the local fairs. The Girl's Tomato Club of Milam County exhibited their products at the Rockdale, Milano and 1913 State Fair of Texas. They also exhibited at the Cotton Palace in Waco where they won over $100 in prizes. Their efforts were so well received that many of the girls earned enough money selling their products to start college funds.

The Tomato Clubs were the first clubs established for young, rural girls in the state. These clubs (and the Corn Clubs for boys) were the forerunners of the organization we now know as 4H. These "canning clubs" (as they were often called) gave rural girls access to a wider world. By combining information on scientific growing and preservation techniques with nutrition and basic accounting skills, the volunteers of the "Home Demonstration" service gave the girls and women of rural Texas the ability to improve the health and financial situation of their families.

If you live in a rural community today, you owe a debt of gratitude to Mrs. Trigg and all of the other pioneers of the home and farm demonstration corps. When they started their organizations, rural life was often difficult and short. 100 years ago, the lack of education about things like sanitation and nutrition made living in rural areas an actual detriment to your health. Their work with the youth of their time ushered in a new era of learning and education that have transformed the rural portions of our country from places of isolation and desperation into thriving communities that many America feel are the "ideal" places to live and raise their families.

Jay White is a full time computer specialist for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas and he is completing an M.S. in Horticulture at Texas A&M. In his spare time he gardens and maintains "The Masters of Horticulture" blog.

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