How did 4-H start? Museum explores Douglas County's role

Early corn clubs got farming youth innovating with new varieties.

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Jon Wogensen of Lakeville takes in the new Runestone Museum exhibit dedicated to 4-H in Douglas County. Wogensen belonged to 4-H as a boy in Litchfield and won recognition for his garden vegetables. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

Officially, 4-H started in Ohio. But a new exhibit at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria pays homage to the fact that Douglas County, too, played an outsize role, thanks to educational pioneer T. A. "Dad" Erickson.

"He's considered the father of 4-H," said museum director Amanda Seim.

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T.A. "Dad" Erickson with 4-H youth at Spring Grove Church in 1953. (Contributed photos)

Erickson graduated from Alexandria High School in 1891. He taught, became a principal, attended college and in 1902 hosted the first school fair in Minnesota and started local after-school agricultural clubs. That was the same year that an Ohio program began.


"In the late 1800s, researchers discovered adults in the farming community did not readily accept new agricultural developments on university campuses, but found that young people were open to new thinking and would experiment with new ideas and share their experiences with adults," the display explains. "In this way, rural youth programs introduced new agriculture technology to communities."

In 1904, Erickson used half his monthly salary to buy "Minnesota 13," an open pollinated seed corn. Youths were urged to plant the seed and bring their best ears of corn to the county fair.

"The fair was so successful that the next year, T.A. added potatoes which led to tomatoes, poultry and strawberries. Then, other clubs began to appear across the state."

The spark of competition helped prime interest in new technology and growing methods.

Erickson wrote a book called "My Sixty Years with Rural Youth," and General Mills hired him to write pamphlets with names like, "Safety Guide for the Farm and Home Front," and "4-H Club Story." President Eisenhower enlisted him to serve on a People-to-People committee in 1956.

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T.A. "Dad" Erickson not only helped launch 4-H, but he wrote a book about his experiences which is on display at the Runestone Museum. (Contributed photo)

He also served as county school superintendent.


With any organization that's been around for more than a century, the challenge is staying relevant. However, 4-H began as a way to revolutionize agriculture and it continues to morph to address the most up-to-date societal problems, including climate change, feeding a burgeoning world population and food safety.

"It started out with farmers not willing to try new ways of doing things," Seim said. "They weren't keeping up with new trends. ... It started out with children of these farmers who were much more likely to convince their parents to try new ways of doing things."

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T.A. "Dad" Erickson was credited with starting the first school lunch program. (Contributed photo)

Famous 4-H'ers

The museum lists famous leaders with 4-H backgrounds. Among them: Walter Mondale, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Johnny Cash, John Denver, Johnny Carson, Roy Rogers, Dolly Parton, Herschel Walker and Alan Shepard.

History At Home

During the pandemic, the Runestone Museum and several other organizations have been offering "History At Home" talks. Online visitors can listen to experts on topics of local interest.

This week, the partnership will launch the first of three Zoom talks dubbed "Everything 4-H."


To register for the sessions, visit the Alexandria Public Schools Community Education website. Members of the Runestone Museum, the Legacy of the Lakes Museum, or the Douglas County Historical Society will receive a reduced price.

6:30 p.m., Thursday, April 8: "The Minnesota Mr. Rogers: TA "Dad" Erickson." From his humble farming roots near Nelson to the Father of Minnesota 4-H, the Douglas County Historical Society shares the story of an educational pioneer in Douglas County.

6:30 p.m., Thursday, April 15: "Farming the Heartland: From Promise to Perseverance." In the late 1800s, Minnesota was a world leader in agriculture. The Runestone Museum will discuss how certain farming practices changed the landscape forever.

6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 22: "Growing Green: 4-H in Douglas County - Past, Present, Future." Extension Educator Jodi Hintzen will explore the history of 4-H in Douglas County and the role Erickson played in its development.

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An early 4-H competitor. This is part of the 4-H exhibit. (Contributed photo)

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