A.B. Graham's Legacy

A.B. Graham's Legacy
As remembered through the eyes of his grandson, we celebrate the 4-H founder's 150th birthday

By Suzanne Steel

His eyes flash with the same twinkle. His nose bears a resemblance. Like his grandfather, he delights in bringing joy to young people.

And while A.B. Graham’s passion was teaching, his grandson James Graham’s passion – at least one of them – is finding a way to preserve his grandfather’s legacy.

A.B. Graham is best known for launching 4-H, a youth development program he started in 1902 that has now grown into a national organization with 6 million members and 25 million alumni. Graham also was instrumental in the establishment of junior high schools and was a founding member of what is now known as the Association for Communication Excellence, an international professional group for land-grant communicators. March 13, 2018, would have been Graham's 150th birthday.

Jim Graham holds a picture of his grandfather, 4-H founder A.B. Graham.

James – or Jim as he is called – remembers his grandfather’s patience as he helped Jim with school work and showed him how to plant beans and corn in straight rows with two sticks and a string, lessons that led to a lifelong interest in gardening.

“He was patient, but he was also strict. Very straight and to the point. He was always real strong on kids to do their best. He wanted children to reach their full potential,” Jim said.

His grandfather showed patience again the time Jim stepped in a gallon of paint in A.B.’s Clintonville home, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, where they were painting the upstairs hallway.

“It spilled all over the floor. He didn’t even raise his voice. We just got rags and started cleaning it up,” Jim said.

A.B. wore a suit every day, Jim said, whether in the garden or representing 4-H. And he never drove. He walked or took public transportation everywhere.

He may have been ahead of his time regarding equality. The first clubs included white, black and Hispanic children, and he did not limit club members to traditional topics. He taught girls gardening and boys cooking.

“Kind of a survival thing,” Jim said.

A.B. stood for Albert Belmont, but “he ignored anyone who called him anything but A.B.,” Jim said. “I don’t know why. That’s one of the things I wish I had asked.”

While focused on young people, the early clubs attracted parents as well, 4-H history books show. Club members planted corn and tested soils for acidity. When parents started attending, he launched a contest between parents and children.

His grandfather started teaching at 16, Jim said.

“He would move to a new school for a 5-cent or 10-cent raise.” Early in his career, “he did sewing on the side with his wife to help make ends meet,” Jim said. Later, in his 80s, A.B. sewed jumpers for two of his granddaughters.

A.B.’s great-grandchildren (Jim and his wife Geraldine’s grandchildren) are continuing the family’s 4-H legacy. When Emma earned a ribbon and trophy for her rabbit project, she bragged that her trophy was bigger than grandpa’s. Now 12, she is taking a photography project. Connor, 14, is taking rockets.

Jim hopes to continue the legacy in another way, by finding a home for the many treasures he inherited related to his grandfather. Among them is the sewing table his great-grandmother used to support the family after her husband died in a house fire; A.B. Graham’s bookcase, the individual slates he used in teaching, and countless books, photographs and letters.

Meanwhile, he shares the story of 4-H at the Butler County fair and 4-H camps, where he quizzes members on 4-H facts and passes out Ohio 4-H wood laser pins to raise spirits and keep the A.B. Graham story alive.

A.B. Graham

1868: Born in Champaign County, Ohio, on March 13. At age 11, moved to Lena, Ohio, after a fire destroyed his home, and killed his father.

Early 1880s: Attended the National Normal University in Lebanon, Ohio. Upon graduation, returned to Champaign County to begin his teaching career.

1885: Received his Miami County teaching certificate. Was known to be particularly enthusiastic about teaching the values of rural and farm living.  

1890: Married Maud Lauer on Aug. 14. The couple would have five children: Emerson, Rettie, Walter, Helen and Joseph. Rettie died from whooping cough before she turned 1. The other children went on to have children of their own.

1902: On Jan. 15, Graham held the first meeting of the Boys and Girls Agriculture Club, also known as an “experiment club,” in the basement of a building in Springfield, Ohio — now called the A.B. Graham Building. These meetings were the precursors to 4-H.

1905: Became the first superintendent of Agricultural Extension at The Ohio State University.

1910: Jessie Field Shambaugh, known as the “Mother of 4-H Clubs,” developed a clover pin with the letter “H” on each leaf. Two years later, these agricultural clubs became recognized as 4-H clubs.

1914: Graham left Ohio State to take charge of Extension work at the New York State School of Agriculture in Farmingdale, Long Island. That same year, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act to create the Cooperative Extension System in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

1915: He moved to Washington, D.C., as head of agricultural specialists in the federal Extension Service. Throughout his time in this position, he visited all 48 contiguous states to promote cooperative extension services.

1938: He ultimately retired in Clintonville, Ohio, where he continued to correspond with the connections that he had developed throughout his work.

1950: Maude, his wife of 60 years, passed away.

1952: The U.S. Postal Service printed 10 million 4-H stamps to commemorate the organization’s 50th anniversary. Graham attended the ceremony with his grandson James Graham.

1960: Graham died Jan. 14, 1960.

2018: Today, 4-H serves youth in rural, suburban and urban communities in every state in America, with more than 6 million members. Of those, 1.8 million are urban members, 1.6 suburban and 2.6 rural. There are 25 million alumni, 90,000 clubs in the United States, and 600,000 youth and adult volunteers.