The foundation of what was to become 4-H Club work in Massachusetts was laid during a six-month period in 1908. Boys and girls enrolled for a potato project throughout schools in Hampshire County. They received instructions on procedure, reported on yields, had an opportunity to exhibit and received recognition for their achievements.
The trend of events between 1908 and 1916 gave 4-H work its general direction. Leaders “playing by ear” discovered which methods brought the best results.
From 1916 to 1941, 4-H Club work was guided by George L. Farley. As school superintendent in Brockton, he had been instrumental in developing a school garden program, which attracted statewide attention. Two 4-H clubhouses on the University of Massachusetts campus are monuments to the vision of Mr. Farley. Club members, leaders and friends donated a large portion of the materials and labor for the Farley 4-H Clubhouse, dedicated in 1933.
To channel all financial support for 4-H activities through a central organization, the Massachusetts 4-H Foundation was incorporated in 1955.
A fast-growing activity was the 4-H horse project, which made its initial appearance in Massachusetts in 1956. This was the first large-scale 4-H livestock program with a recreational rather than an economic approach.
In the early 1960s, Camp Howe in Goshen, which serves Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties, expanded. The Worcester County 4-H camp in Spencer was renamed Camp Marshall in honor of retiring County 4-H Agent Leon Marshall. Camp Middlesex in Ashby, Camp Leslie in Georgetown and Camp Farley in Mashpee hired full-time directors for the first time.
The mid-1960s brought an expanded program that led to the National 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland and the International 4-H Youth Exchange (IFYE) program, in which twenty to thirty older teens live abroad for six to nine months and also host a visiting youth.
Along with the emergence of television came a 13-week electrical club series, aired in Boston; 3,500 young viewers participated in 1960. This led to a science series in 1966 that was watched by 15,000 viewers.
By the late 1960s, the emerging pattern of state 4-H work included cooperation with other educational organizations, emphasis on new rural area programs utilizing non-traditional experimental activities, and greater use of the mass media as a tool to educate large numbers of young people.
Urban programs continued to grow in the early 1970s. The Expanded Food & Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) bill, which earmarked $7.5 million for 4-H, was followed by an additional $5 million designated to expand the general 4-H programs in urban areas. By the mid-1980s, almost half of the 5 million 4-H members across the country were from urban and suburban areas.
The end of the 1980s saw the 4-H program lose 55 percent of its staff through planned layoffs and retirements.
In 1992, Family Life Education, 4-H Youth Development, and the Youth at Risk programs joined to form the 4-H Youth & Family Development Program, based in Skinner Hall within the Department of Consumer Studies at the University of Massachusetts. With the dissolving of Consumer Studies, 4-H moved out of a department and under the umbrella of UMass Extension.
2003 was a tumultuous year for the 4-H program, which was again downsized. The University of Massachusetts sustained a massive state budget cut and half of the state funding to UMass Extension was cut. Some 4-H Educators were laid off and others transferred to a new Communities, Families and Youth Program. A transition team worked throughout 2003 to complete a business plan that bases support for the program on corporate and individual donors, foundations, and participation fees.
For several years the UMass Extension youth program operated as two separate programs, the 4-H program and the Communities, Families and Youth program. The 4-H program established focus areas of communication skills, animal science and citizenship (leadership and community service). Emphasis was placed on the 4-H club model for delivery of programs and school enrichment declined. For the first time in the history of 4-H in Massachusetts, a participation fee of $25 was charged to join 4-H; it has since increased to $60.
The Communities, Families and Youth Program focused its work in urban areas and building connections with UMass Amherst. The program became part of the School of Public Health and Health Sciences and its division of Community Health Studies in 2004.
A 4-H Benchmarking study which benchmarked 4-H best practices in ten states was conducted in 2005. As a result, 4-H established a strategic plan, “New Directions in 4-H” with specific goals highlighted in eight areas including urban programs, curricula, volunteer recruitment and strengthening the partnership with the 4-H Foundation. In 2006, the Communities, Families and Youth Program was eliminated and staff were merged back into the 4-H Program.