Cultivating Modern America: 4-H Clubs and Rural Development in the Twentieth Century

My dissertation is an attempt to connect two central narratives of American progress, one technological, one environmental. The former is expressed in the national mythology of innovation and ingenuity, and the belief in the improving effects of science and technology; the latter is encapsulated in the process of settlement, the spread of agriculture, and the belief that these transformations of the landscape were formative of the national character. Cultivating Modern America explores the history of reformers’ efforts to modernize rural places and people through the youth clubs known as 4-H, through a framework that does not see the “rural” and the “modern” as oppositional. Run jointly by the Department of Agriculture and the states, 4-H’s project to improve the farming of the future by educating the farmers of the future illuminates the rural dimensions of development on the American model. Drawing on state and federal records, 4-H publications, and oral histories, I argue that 4-H implemented progressive, biological ideas about the proper development of youth, crops, livestock, landscapes, and societies in order to create a country life that was both modern and rooted in the land—a “rural modernity” based on science and technology as well as on farming as a way of life. 4-H was both the means by which reformers implemented this distinctly rural vision of the future, and a site for rural people to contest and shape that modernity moving forward. Examining 4-H in four states—Wisconsin, New York, Mississippi, and Montana—and in other countries from the 1910s through the 1970s, I trace the formulation, implementation, revision, and eclipse of rural modernity in development efforts.

My story is divided into three sections, which trace the establishment, shaping, and eclipse of rural modernity in 4-H’s efforts to develop rural people and rural places simultaneously. Part I, “Inventing Rural Modernity, 1890–1930,” explores the economic and social crisis in rural America at the turn of the 20th century, and the resultant country life and educational reforms that brought 4-H into being. These were rooted in biological notions of development: by directing, guiding, and channeling the growth and maturation of young people, crops, livestock, and landscapes, club work would also develop American character, society, and nation. My first chapter, “‘To Make the Best Better’: Progressive Ideas of Development and the Roots of 4-H,” shows how these scientific ideas about organismal and species development, and Progressive notions about the proper development of people, societies, and nations, found expression in the 4-H movement. My second chapter, “Establishing Rural Modernity: 4-H’s Vision for Rural America,” explores 4-H’s founding within the new USDA Extension Service, arguing that club work sought to promote a distinct “rural modernity,” separate from urban-industrial modernity and rooted in the farming way of life. 4-H was an important means for agricultural reformers and government agents to modernize the countryside, but it was also a way for rural people to negotiate what that modernity entailed.

Part II of my dissertation, “Revising Rural Modernity, 1930–1945,” explores how rural leaders and local people used 4-H to contest what modernization meant. In chapter three, “Healing the Rural Community: Health and Conservation in Interwar 4-H,” I examine 4-H’s Depression-Era efforts to place an ecological and sociological view of the community at the center of rural concerns, and to promote broad ideas of conservation and health as hallmarks of modern living. My fourth chapter, “From the Community to the Nation: World War II and the Foundations of Development Theory,” explores how World War II narrowed these notions of conservation and health, and how the individual and the nation replaced the community as the sites of development, laying the foundation for postwar economic modernization.

In the last section of my dissertation, “Inventing Underdevelopment, 1945–1980,” I move from the establishment and shaping of rural modernity to its eclipse. My fifth chapter, “The International Farm Youth Exchange and Postwar Economic Development,” tells the story of a 4-H exchange program that helped implement American-style development in other countries after World War II. 4-H’s experience abroad, combined with demographic and economic shifts at home, pushed club work into cities and suburbs. Chapter six, “‘4-H Ain’t All Cows and Cooking’: Urban 4-H and the Underdeveloped City,” deals with these urban and suburban programs in the era of civil rights, the Great Society, and the population bomb. Together, 4-H’s international and urban programs transformed the organization from a promoter of modernization on rural terms, to a youth development program, applicable in any country, landscape, or society.

My project sheds light on the interplay between two strands of development thinking: one with roots in biological ideas of growth, cultivation, and maturation; the other, epitomized by high-modernist schemes such as dams and other large construction projects, rooted in engineering, remaking, and control. Both senses of development are progressive, both involve technological change, and they clearly coexist and interact in important ways—yet the high-modernist mode has received the lion’s share of scholars’ attention. Agricultural and home economic work with young people through 4-H offers an excellent opportunity to really see this other, more cultivationist sense of development at work, and how it interacts with and informs the high-technology- and economics-focused sense that has become synonymous with “development” today. Paying attention to the cultivationist strain also directs our attention to places and groups of people have not been the traditional purview of the history of science and technology, but which deserve more attention: farmsteads, rural schools, the global south; women, children, rural communities. It thus offers an important corrective to state-centered analyses of development, and places development in a longer history that takes its biological metaphor seriously.

Cultivating Modern America also illuminates an epistemological framework that emphasizes the role of lay people, active participation, and locality in the making of scientific knowledge about agriculture and rural life. The 4-H project and the demonstration—the heart of club work and extension teaching—were a means by which local people came into the purview of science and knowledge-making, both in gathering information about local conditions and in carrying out labor that was important to agricultural research. This builds on recent histories of science and empire, colonial science, and science in the field that take into account the role of local people and the periphery in shaping the content and practice of science. It also furthers research on the institutions, models, and mechanisms for producing knowledge, and the means by which it is able to travel. Extension work was not concerned simply with producing facts, but also with developing a model for producing facts—and not just any kind of facts, but local facts. It strove to be a way of making and sharing agricultural knowledge that could operate in any environment, one that relied on local resources, both human and natural. To do this, it developed a distributed process of witnessing that would make those facts stick. Demonstration’s visual and labor aspects belong in a longer history of lecture-demonstrations and technologies of witnessing, but are distinct in how they made use of local cooperators—often children—to produce convincing demonstrations that would not just illustrate or impress, but actually make people change their ways of making a living. The way extension created trust in agricultural science through local demonstrations and 4-H club work offers a fertile field of investigation for historians of science and the environment.