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Steering Youth Gee, Haw, and Even Waheesh But Never Back!

By Ron Drum, Statewide 4-H Program Professional/Associate Director 4-H Resource Development

Maine 4-H Foundation booth at the Fryeburg Fair

Maine 4-H Foundation booth at the Fryeburg Fair.

When you staff a 4-H Information Booth at a county fair anywhere, the days begin to blur together. I think it was Sunday but it could’ve been Monday or even Tuesday of the 2016 Fryeburg Fair that a fellow wearing a maroon and white Texas A&M ball cap approached the Maine 4-H Foundation booth and asked me with his full-blown, deep Texas Southern drawl, “Why do I never see 4-H Working Steer projects anywhere else but here in New England, and why especially so much here in Maine? Where did it come from?”

Seems this Texan visits New England each fall, stopping first at the Big E (Eastern States Exposition) in Massachusetts and then comes up to Maine for the Fryeburg Fair. He said he especially enjoys watching the 4-H Members working their teams of oxen at both fairs and wondered why he doesn’t see this very much anywhere else.

You know, he’s right. All six New England States each have at least one 4-H Working Steer Club (Connecticut and Rhode Island share a club) and New York State recently began looking at establishing a club there. But, except for a scattering of project members here or there elsewhere, that seems to be about it. However, here in New England there are approximately 10 clubs total with four of those here in Maine. Maine 4-H presently has around 30 young people working a team of working steers as a 4-H project.

That Texan asked good questions! New England is known for many things and one of them is indeed the 4-H Working Steer project! But why?

Paul Bunyan statue in Bangor, Maine

Well, here’s Paul but where’s the Ox?

I’m sure someone knows for sure why working steer is so prevalent in New England. Folks I’ve talked to with some knowledge about things like this tell me that my assumption is probably pretty close to being right. By the way, my assumption (based on Paul Bunyan and the big blue ox stories) is that the answer comes from the fact that oxen were used to great benefit by the logging industry to drag the harvested trees out of the woods, back in the day, that is, making Working Steer teams quite usual and necessary for a great many people in Maine and New England, a huge part of the way of life here. In fact, according to Maine 4-H alum Heidi Thuotte-Palmer, unofficially Maine’s 4‑H Working Steer guru but officially the UMaine 4-H State Activities Coordinator, working steers helped create much of Maine’s history and heritage, even explaining why many of the roads are laid out as they are in Maine towns! She said that those big traffic circles, often called rotaries, sometimes called roundabouts (or other names I won’t go into), found at many intersections of the older towns, are there as the result of the need for the large turning area required by the ox teams pulling those long ship masts!

So it wasn’t long before some smart 4-H educator saw the benefit of teaching the techniques of managing a team of oxen to our young people as a 4-H Project. In the animal science world, this 4-H project is almost a holistic thing! It covers animal anatomy both inside and out (what makes a good ox vs. a bad one), breeds (for the same reason!), nutrition (what to feed it and when), biology, generics, health, medicine (keeping it healthy but knowing when it is sick AND how to make it better). The 4‑H’ers need to know about things like Ringworm (which, by the way, isn’t a worm, but a fungus) and foot rot and bloat and external parasites like ticks and lice and internal parasites like Roundworms and Tapeworms (both of which ARE worms); not to forget Coccidiosis (don’t ask. It has to do with poop and it’s yucky)! Now we haven’t even begun to talk about bacteria and viruses yet! Anyway, the 4-H’ers need to know about all this steer stuff and we haven’t even gotten to the WORKING part of the project yet, managing the animals’ behavior (also called training them!).

4-H'er with team of oxenHeidi told me, “The 4-H Working Steer project is all of it times two plus three! It’s all of the animal science stuff times two (to cover the two animals in the team) plus three (the member training the ox team how to work together)! It takes a lot of work, time, and effort to be successful. It means being responsible and caring. You even need to be a psychologist! You need to understand the psychology of the animal; why does it do what it does so you can be successful getting it to do what you want it to do!”

Of course, the next question is: In what state was that smart 4-H educator located? Maine obviously claims that honor. So does New Hampshire. In the 4-H Working Steer world, such a duality seems to happen a lot! Here in Maine itself, it seems two counties each think one of their 4-H Clubs was the first Working Steer 4-H Club in Maine! Franklin County has their Franklin County Working Steer 4-H Club and Cumberland County has their Brass Knobs Working Steer 4-H Club, both clubs, apparently, beginning in 1963. Even within the Brass Knobs 4-H Club, you will find this duality. Mark Winslow and Heidi, as 4-H volunteers, worked together in 1983 to keep the club active after the original club leader stepped aside.

Well, why shouldn’t duality be the working steer model? The 4-H Working Steer project is all about TEAMS!

Even Heidi’s first exposure to 4-H was as one of two! She was eight years old in 1971 when she joined the Brass Knobs Working Steer 4-H Club, one of only two girls; the first girls to join the approximately 10 boys already in the club. She remained a member of the club until she “graduated” out of 4-H 10 years later only to return to the club two years later as one of its leaders.

Mark and Heidi also teamed up to build up the Working Steer youth program at the Big E. Open to all youth interested in working steer teams, the participation is mostly, if not all, 4-H’ers. Heidi became the Big E Working Steer Superintendent in 2012.

To know her today, as a 4-H professional, Big-E Superintendent, and all of her other many roles, both official and unofficial, you’d never know that, “I used to be so shy you couldn’t get me out of the corner!” I asked her, “So what changed?” She answered with a number and a letter, “4-H!” Then she added, “All the things you do in 4-H. Working the animals, showing them, giving presentations, being an officer in a club; it brings you out of your shell.”

If you know Heidi, it’s hard to imagine Heidi ever being IN a shell! And listening to the stories she tells of being a 4-H Volunteer and of her professional State 4-H Activities role, makes you realize just how important what we do in 4-H as adults, paid or volunteer, really is. Her stories tell of people who identify their 4-H years as the reason they have the successes they have in their lives today and many of those people identify her, Heidi, as being the one who helped them realize that difference. “When you get invited to kids’ weddings, you know you’ve made a difference,” she exclaims. A number of people credit Heidi as the reason they even stayed in 4-H — and she has the letters to prove it! However, perhaps the one person that means the most to Heidi that identified 4-H as the reason she is what she is today is, of course, her own daughter, Katie.

Heidi and Katie.

Heidi and Katie.

Katie Thuotte Holland is now a Registered Nurse (RN) living in Fort Kent and working at Cary Medical Center in Caribou, Maine. This 2013 UM Fort Kent graduate (BS Nursing) told her mom that 4-H was the reason she chose to be a nurse. Her 4-H projects were all about caring for her animals (“In 10 years as a 4-H Member, she never once missed on taking care of her animals,” proud Heidi told me) but Heidi said 4-H taught Katie to care about people!

My bet is that by now you’re wondering if, or when, I’m going to get around to explaining those strange words in the title of this post. Once you know them, you’ll understand the title. Those from the working steer world already understand it because they know that these are commands used to get the ox team to move in the directions you want it to go. You see, if you want the team to turn left you say “HAW!” Saying “GEE” tells them to turn right. “Waheesh” is another way of saying “Giddyup” meaning get going, and the command to back up is simply “Back.”

So in 4-H, we try to steer the 4-H Members in the right direction for a positive future; Gee, Haw, or just “Waheesh”; but, like Heidi will tell you, when it comes to kids, “Back” is never part of the equation!

As for this post, let’s just say “whoa,” the command for stop.

On July 14 the 4-H Fix is all about Community Service. It makes the line in the 4-H Pledge “my Hands to larger service” come ALIVE!

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University of Maine Cooperative Extension conducts the state’s most successful out-of-school youth educational program through 4-H, a positive youth development program that has been empowering young people in Maine to reach their full potential since 1913.

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