National 4-H Congress and J. Alice Smith

National 4-H Congress: the ultimate awards program! Many 4-H Members across the decades have said that it was this event — the chance to be selected to attend it — that motivated them to continue working to make their best better throughout their years in 4-H! Attending National 4-H Congress is a true recognition of a 4-H Member’s growth and achievements; considered by the 4-H’ers who’ve attended it to be a great, if not their greatest, honor.

Eighteen year old Julia Alice Smith, her National 4-H Congress nametag reads J. Alice Smith, was so honored in 1937, being sent by Maine to the 18th National 4-H Congress (Smith’s documents in the exhibit say “16th National 4-H Club Congress” because the Committee began planning/implementing the event in 1921 and did not count the tours implemented by Nobel the preceding two years. More below). Born January 1, 1919 in the York County town of Parsonfield, Maine; Julia eventually joined the South Parsonfield 4-H Club. Highly successful as a 4-H’er, she was chosen to attend the 1937 National 4-H Congress in Food Preparation, having also received the 1937 York County Gold Medal in the third annual National 4-H Food Preparation Contest.

J. Alice and her family were well known across Maine and throughout New England. Together they made up the “Singing Smiths”, a musical and entertaining group often called upon to provide entertainment at county and state Extension 4-H, Farm Bureau, Eastern States Exposition, and other events during the 1930’s. In addition to Alice, the “Singing Smiths” consisted of Alice’s father, R.V. Smith, the 4-H Club’s Assistant Leader; her brother Arnold, the 1937 Poultry 4-H Champion; her younger sister Louise, also a 4-H member; and her youngest brother, eight-year-old Raymond. They were “musical marvels”, according to the State 4-H newsletter Club Echoes (v20, #7, January 1938, p2) which went on to describe their performance during the 1937 State 4-H Contest as including “vocal and instrumental solos and duets, clogging, readings, music on guitars, harmonicas, jews (sic) harps, violins, bells, vibraphone, and homemade instruments including musical pitchfork, mixing bowl, and ‘cowhornica’.” And that was “only part of their inexhaustible repertoire.” Newspapers and newsletters throughout the 1930’s describe their many performances; performances that provided much needed funds to help supplement Alice’s mother’s teaching income and income from the family farm.

Graduating valedictorian from Parsonfield Seminary in 1937, Alice went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Maine and a Master of Education from Willimantic State College, Connecticut. She lived a long and highly productive life as both a professional and volunteer educator in three states retiring in 1978 to Orono, Maine but continuing her volunteer activities. On her resume’, among her many community and civic professional and volunteer positions, is Maine 4-H Volunteer and Member of the Page Farm and Home Museum Board of Directors. Julia Alice Smith was 90 years old when she passed away in Orono on March 25, 2009.

Originally, the experience that became the National 4-H Congress was designed to be an educational tour of Chicago offered to the 4-H (Extension Youth Club) Members attending the 1919 International Live Stock Exposition.  Guy Noble, an employee of Armour and Company, a major Chicago meat packing company, and, in 1921, Co-founder, Director, and Executive Secretary of the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work (name was changed to National 4-H Service Committee in 1960 and, by combining with the National 4-H Club Foundation in 1976, became National 4‑H Council), realized the marketing advantages inherent in encouraging these “young meat producers” visiting Chicago.

He persuaded Armour and Company to sponsor 40 all-expense paid trips for Extension Club youth to attend the 1919 Exposition; then encouraged Extension State Club Work Leaders in states with Armour markets to select highly achieving Extension Livestock Club Members to be the winners of these trips. He planned a series of tours and entertainment for these winners during the week they were in Chicago and invited the approximately 100 other Club members who were attending the Exposition as guests of railroads and other sponsors. His work that year, now acknowledged as the first National 4-H Congress, became the program model utilized by the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work when it began implementing the program in 1921; giving it the “Congress” name in 1922. It is the model that has been replicated each year since and generally still followed today.

National 4-H Congress consists of a week spent in a large city where the Congress participants attend banquets in their honor, participate in educational tours, dance at evening balls, and attend motivational presentations. To identify their delegation members, most states use a fairly rigorous selection process based on the member’s 4-H project work and involvement in 4-H as described in a written report, often including an interview by a panel of judges.  It is an honor to attend this event during which participants are justly honored!

Because the event was held in Chicago for so long, the 4-H community began to refer to National 4-H Congress simply as “Chicago”; saying, “I hope I get to go to Chicago” or asking, “Are you going to Chicago this year?” However, in 1992, National 4-H Council, in an attempt to re-energize and expand the event, began a study of the event resulting in a 1993 announcement that the 1994 event would be held in Orlando, FL. Shortly before the 1994 Congress began, however, National 4-H Council announced it was no longer able to manage the program marking the 1994 Congress as seemingly the last; apparently bringing National 4-H Congress’s 75 year run to an end.

This decision was not popular within the national 4-H community. Because so many state 4-H Programs included the National 4-H Congress as part of their state 4‑H awards system, not holding a National 4‑H Congress was seen by many state 4‑H programs as a major, negative programing impact. Plans began immediately for the creation of a new national committee to take over the management and coordination of the program.

Due to the situation, no National 4-H Congress was held nationally in 1995. Many states, including Maine, accepted an invitation to attend the Southern Extension Region’s 1995 4-H Congress held in Memphis, TN; offered, they said, as a substitute until a new national event could be arranged. Many of the states not able to attend the Memphis event, accepted a similar invitation from the Western Extension Region offered for the same purpose. A new national committee of Extension personnel was formed and authorized by Extension Service – USDA. This committee brought about the rebirth of National 4-H Congress in 1996. Following the Southern Region’s lead and building on the 1995 experience, the 1996 and 1997 National 4-H Congresses were held in Memphis TN. In 1998, National 4-H Congress was moved to its present location, Atlanta, GA.

More information about the National 4-H Congress can be found on the National 4-H History Preservation website and the National 4-H Congress website.