Everything I Needed to Know I learned in 4-H


by Martha Stegar, Contributing Writer

Martha Stegar

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 4-H. 

What's Your View?

This column is meant to provoke thought, so we welcome reader comments. Send e-mail to: (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. 




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