4H Blues

Kathleen Delaney returns to talk about what life

was REALLY like when her kids discovered the joys of 4H.

I have just returned from a family vacation in California. Two of my grandchildren flew out with me and spent two weeks with their aunts, uncles, and cousins doing all kinds of things. We spent part of the time in Paso Robles, where the country fair had just opened. One of the highlights of the fair is the cattle drive. The main street leading to the fairgrounds is closed and many of the cows used in various events are driven through streets lined with spectators by real live cowboys mounted on real working cow horses the final few miles to the show grounds. My grandkids got to ride on the chuck wagon with the drovers. Watching them, seeing the cows, the kids at the fair getting their animals ready to show, the smells, the sounds of the animal barn brought back memories of when my children were growing up, in 4H, and the fairs we attended for many summers.

We had just moved to a rapidly growing area where Orange and Los Angeles counties meet. For years it had housed nothing but dairy farms but now new tract homes, small shopping centers and huge supermarkets arose out of what had once been cow fields. We were settling comfortably into our new home on a postage stamp size lot when our oldest child came bursting in one afternoon announcing that she wanted to join 4H. We had already been through Indian Guides, Brownies, Cub Scouts, Little League, ice-skating lessons and junior swim team. I wasn’t sure I was up to another new adventure.  But 4H! How wholesome! How American! Visions of smiling children, immaculately dressed in white, standing beside plates of perfectly baked bread danced before my eyes and I dreamily murmured “maybe that’s not a bad idea.”

My husband was not as easily swayed so we all trooped off to the last fair of the season before making a decision.

“This is a great idea.” I pointed out the beautiful table settings, the elaborately decorated cakes and the high, fluffy biscuits. No one answered. No family member was in sight. Clutching my three year old by the hand I went in search of them. My husband was quickly located looking at the woodwork and electric exhibits. “This is a great idea,” he shouted over the whine of a buzz saw demonstration. Then, looking around, asked, “Where are the kids? Why aren’t they looking at all the 4H exhibits?”

They were. They were in the barn, looking at the livestock.

“Wait just a minute,” I said in my sternest voice. “This wasn’t what I had in mind at all.”

Their father was more emphatic. “No animals. We have no room for animals.”

Home we went, the two of us chatting about the projects the four oldest children could take the next year. They were ominously silent.

Summer passed quickly and school began. With it came the start of the new 4H year. Our family had signed up to go to the first meeting where the children would choose their projects and we would meet their leaders. We were as eager as the children and looked forward to offering our help. Little did we know what that meant.

We no sooner walked in the door than the four oldest scattered. A group of smiling adults took their place, offering hand shakes and introductions. They said things like “Hi, I’m Greg, Kris and Laura’s dairy leader.” Or “Hello, I’m Tom Moody, Dave’s beef leader. We’ll be going up north to look for calves in a couple of weeks. Hope you can come with us.” This last was addressed to my husband who was beginning to look a little wild eyed.

“What’s going on here?” he whispered while poking me in the side with his elbow.

“I have no idea.” I moved out of his range.

Right then a formidable looking lady walked up, introduced herself as Wanda Turner and said, “I’m sure glad that Eric decided to take swine. No better project than swine. About that land those kids of yours want to lease. Can’t see a problem. You’ll build the fences, right? Kids will feed and clean, right? Should work out just fine. Always like to help out a 4H family.”

My husband led me quickly to a chair and sank down beside me, searching vainly for a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his forehead. “When did all this happen?” He was still whispering but an accusing, or perhaps it was a desperate, note had crept in. I had no answer.

The meeting started but I heard little of it. I was trying to understand what those four demons of ours had gotten us into when suddenly I was conscious of someone speaking my name.

“…and she has generously agreed to lead the beginning cooking group. Ten girls have already signed up.”

“No,” I shouted. “No, no.”

The first cooking meeting was set for the following Wednesday at our house. A beaming Mrs. Stevens, who led both the advanced cooking group and sewing, filled my arms with manuals. “I’m looking forward to having both of your girls in my sewing group. They’re so enthusiastic.” I was glad someone was.

We drove home in silence. Then it was time to take inventory. Kris, at fourteen, the oldest and obviously the ringleader, had signed up for dairy, cooking, sewing, dog obedience and horse.

“Horse?” yelped my husband. ”Horse!”

I sighed and turned to thirteen-year-old David. “And you?”

“Just beef and woodwork. Although dairy sounds like fun.” He looked thoughtful. I ignored him and turned to eleven year old Laura. “”Well?”

“Just dairy, cooking, sewing and horse.” She glanced at her sister as if for approval.

“Horse,” my husband repeated weakly. He seemed stunned, a feeling I shared.

Controlling my rapidly growing hysteria I turned to nine year old Eric. “What did you choose?”

“Pigs. Only you’re supposed to call them swine. I wanted dog obedience but Kris says she’s going to take Mindy this year. I can take her next year.”

Feeling a pang of sympathy for the poor unsuspecting dog I pressed on. “Where do you think you are going to keep all of these animals? Not in my back yard.”

“You heard Mrs. Turner, Mom.” Kris was ready with the answer. “We have it all worked out. We’ll all help and we’ll go over every day and feed and stuff. It’s real close, you’ll see, it’ll be great.”

I want to go on record that I said no. Their father said no. We both said no all of the time we built the fences, all of the time we went looking for calves and baby pigs, all during the time that small girls filled my kitchen with flour and greasy fingerprints. I’m pretty sure we said no.

However, events moved quickly and soon we acquired two small black and white calves, which the girls promptly named Tisha and Leche. A pair of piglets followed. The last arrival was a medium size Black Angus steer with huge, scared looking eyes. David immediately dubbed him Henry the Ninth. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to be whimsical or if his grasp of history was a little shaky.

By now we were in full 4H swing.  Every project had a list of  requirements and I was getting worn out helping the kids keep up with them. However, we were all learning. The children were learning that animals have a mind of their own, that putting a halter on a calf not inclined to wear one is no easy task and leading that same calf represents an even greater challenge.  The calves had a tendency to go off in any direction they fancied, dragging a screaming child behind them. Pigs cannot be haltered. They require an altogether different technique, one that, to this day, we do not seem to have mastered. We were making progress however. David could now approach Henry’s pen without the steer either jumping the fence or going through it. The girls and the calves had worked out a compromise. If the girls wanted to go in the same direction that the calves did, the girls could come along. I could get my kitchen back to normal in only two days after a cooking meeting instead of a week. But the real star was Mindy, our sheltie. She took to dog obedience like she was born to it. She and Kris practiced for what seemed like hours. Sit, stay, come, down, they did it all. It got to the point where she heeled right next to me all around the house. She sat when I stopped, stood up when I went, circled around and sat in front of me, looking up with expectant eyes, ready for the next command. I used to like that dog.

The time came for our first fair. We were all beside ourselves with excitement. My husband and I kept telling the kids not to expect blue ribbons their first time out, after all, this was practice. But they did their best. The calves actually walked beside the girls most of the way, Henry didn’t jump out of the ring, and although Eric’s pig mostly ignored his tapping cane, she didn’t bite anyone. It was a success. We got better as time went on, had different animals and filled one wall in our family room with ribbons and trophies. They were good years, filled with fun and treasured memories. I hoped my grandkids were having an equally fun and memorable time.

Oh. I almost forgot. One more thing about that first fair. We did bring home one blue ribbon. Mindy won the dog obedience class.

7 thoughts on “4H Blues

  1. Love it!
    I was a 4-Her and this was pretty much what our years were like-though somehow the closest I got to animal husbandry was helping friends. We lived in town and I never thought of the lease arrangement! I had to do baking and sewing(per mom) in order to join, but over the years I worked through forestry, electricity, entemology,birds, and Lord knows what else.


  2. This was great, so funny! Loved it! My dad always wanted me to join 4-H as he had done but he lived on a farm. He had a prize winning rooster but hadn’t bragged about it. I only learned about that later from a clipping my grandmother saved.


  3. Kathy, this had me in stitches, which is pretty much what I did in 4H, along with cooking and gardening and other incredibly boring stuff. Now I understand how relieved my parents must have been that farm animals didn’t appeal to me 😉


  4. Great story, Kathleen! I’ve never had contact with 4-H but it sounds like a great organization. Wonderful way to bond with grandchildren.


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