As a teenager leaving my family’s Eastern Shore farm for
city visits, I frequently encountered people who assumed I knew everything
about trees, flowers, insects, electric motors, jams and jellies, freezing
fresh vegetables and making my own clothes.
My farm upbringing was different
from these fictional assumptions: Because of the income vagaries of farming,
my father had taken a
U.S. Soil Conservation Service position when I
was 6 years old and stopped farming full-time. He continued to farm
part-time for many years while our family enjoyed the guarantee of a steady
income from his day job.
I fooled most of the people most of the time about my farm
life because of what I learned in 4-H. Unlike Rachel Graves — who with her
husband, Jimmy, has owned and operated the popular Graves’ Mountain Lodge
in Syria, Va., for 40 years and who raised a 4-H grand-champion cow — I had
no interest in livestock. I did take pride in my small flower garden and in
helping my parents and grandparents freeze produce for our winter enjoyment.
(To this day, just the thought of all the silk creeping up my arms in
shucking corn for the freezer makes me itch.)
Competitive 4-H projects in the 1950s sometimes carried
monetary rewards. I once added a half-cup of applesauce to a hamburger
casserole recipe because the Virginia Apple Growers Association was awarding
a $25 savings bond to the state first-place meal-preparation winner if
apples were included in the recipe (I won the savings bond).
My parents weren’t thrilled with the small, dark spots not
easily removed from our back-porch floor after my blueberry jam-making in
which some drips from the hanging cheesecloth missed the bucket underneath –
but they were proud when my projects won the right to compete in 4-H
regional contests in Petersburg and state ones at Virginia Tech.
With the Girl Scouts not having a presence in Accomack
County at the time, 4-H projects provided a standard of excellence and
leadership opportunities in
public speaking, group organization and running meetings.
They produced recognition like Scouts’ merit badges. I collected insects,
dunked them in the pungent-smelling formaldehyde, mounted them on pins in
cigar boxes and labeled the species. I collected tree leaves, pressed and
preserved them behind waxed paper in a notebook, noting their orders and
families. I made fancy note paper with pressed flowers that I carefully
identified. I even made a very small electric motor and went to 4-H Electric
Congress in Roanoke three summers as a delegate sponsored by
Accomack-Northampton Electric Cooperative.
The character cultivated through 4-H is even more
life-enhancing than the skills. Rachel Graves put it best in a recent
conversation when she said, “From 4-H you learn to do your best. You want to
be the grand champion because you earn more money ... but, more importantly,
you learn a sense of responsibility.”
She and Jimmy were true farm kids, who met through 4-H. He
had a grand-champion pig in Orange County in 1948 and later four
grand-champion cattle; she was a tomboy and loved showing cows from her
family’s Loudoun County farm. Years later — in 1963 — he spotted her, six
years younger and a student at Richmond’s Westhampton College, at Virginia
Tech’s Block & Bridle Club, where she was a dairy princess, and he was
visiting after getting out of the army. They were married in 1964.
Good leaders are key to young people’s success in 4-H. The
Graveses have received major honors for their work as adult leaders, but
nothing has meant more to them — or to me — than being tapped as 4-H All
Stars in the goosebump-raising ceremony held annually at Virginia Tech.
I haven’t been nearly as active since my 1960 induction as
Rachel has been since her induction in 1959 — the year Jimmy was Big Chief
of the All Stars. They have hosted many All Star picnics since then at their
Syria lodge — for which Jimmy drew the plans on a napkin during dates he and
Rachel had at Luck’s Ice Cream Parlor on Broad Street in Richmond.
In July, Graves’ Mountain Lodge hosts the Virginia 4-H All
Star Conference, with the Graveses getting the 4-H clubs in Culpeper to help
in serving meals and hosting a Civil War tour of Northern Virginia. Three
months ago Jimmy was selected for Virginia Tech’s Hall of Fame and, before
that, as the Virginia Hospitality & Travel Association’s “2010 Hotelier of
the Year.” As someone who spent 25-plus years in tourism, I can say, with
the Graveses as an example, I’m still learning all I need to know through
This column is meant
to provoke thought, so we welcome reader comments. Send e-mail to:
email@example.com (please enter “Perspective” in subject line), or send
written responses to Cooperative Living, Perspective, Attn. Bill
Sherrod, P.O. Box 2340, Glen Allen, VA 23058-2340.