Our History

Mabel Mack, home demonstration agent in Jackson County, shows clothing care to local farmers. 1925. (Courtesy of OSU Archives, HC0975_Mack_Jackson.)
Mabel Mack, home demonstration agent in Jackson County, shows clothing care to local farmers. 1925. (Courtesy of OSU Archives, HC0975_Mack_Jackson.)
The KOAC building. (Courtesy of OSU Archives, HC0598.)
The KOAC building. (Courtesy of OSU Archives, HC0598.)
Malheur County Boys and Girls Club judging team and club leaders at 4-H summer school. 1922. (Courtesy of OSU Archives, P146_0154.)
Malheur County Boys and Girls Club judging team and club leaders at 4-H summer school. 1922. (Courtesy of OSU Archives, P146_0154.)

Education as national security

Since the beginning of our nation’s history, leaders have seen the importance of public education to economic development and national security. For Abraham Lincoln, education was “the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.” At the height of the Civil War, Lincoln proved his commitment by signing legislation that created the nation’s land-grant universities. It was more than an agenda for education; it was an agenda for democracy.

The legislation, drafted by Vermont representative Justin Morrill, was the high point of a national ideal: that educated citizens were necessary for a successful democracy. In 1859, 3 months into his first term in Congress, Morrill entered a resolution to establish national agricultural colleges in each state of the union. The resolution was rejected. He tried again, facing fierce opposition from southern and western states who felt the bill impinged on states’ rights. Morrill pressed on. When the bill finally passed both houses, it was vetoed by President James Buchanan.

When Morrill again submitted his bill in 1862, many of the dissenting states had withdrawn from the union. The new bill included one significant addition for a nation at war: military arts were added to the curriculum of agriculture and mechanical arts. President Lincoln signed the bill into law on July 2, 1862.

The vision that began with the Morrill Act continued with the Hatch Act of 1887, which established a national network of agricultural experiment stations, and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which created an extension service at each land-grant university. Together, the three laws established the three cornerstones of the land-grant mission: education, research, and extension.

A model for the nation

The Oregon Agricultural College Extension Service was established 3 years before the Smith-Lever Act. OAC Extension’s first director, Ralph D. Hetzel, was a lawyer and professor of political science at OAC. His first priority was to partner with county governments. Faculty Extension agents were soon stationed in counties and began developing programs to meet local needs. In Coos County, for example, agent J.L. Smith showed people how to improve dairy production and pasture quality, delivering his demonstrations by boat instead of buggy across the roadless coastal county.

During the 1920s, Extension director Paul V. Maris organized the first of a series of statewide economic conferences, followed by county-based conferences to define the direction of Extension education. The Extension Service continued to sponsor these conferences throughout the 20th century to identify community needs. This became the model for Extension programming across the nation.

Among the first needs identified were instructions in home economics. In the early 20th century, OAC’s home economics department was part of a new national movement to teach future homemakers chemistry, nutrition, family health, efficiency engineering, and household economics. The goal was to transform the housewife’s work from drudgery to a science-based craft.
Oregon homemakers welcomed Extension’s outreach. They organized home study groups and community action based on the new home economics. Such Extension programs led to hot-lunch programs in schools, nutrition education for low-income families, and improved sanitation in rural homes. Later in the century, hunger in Oregon became a major focus for Extension faculty as they took the lead in educating local Food Stamp recipients about nutrition and healthy eating habits.

A focus on youth

From the beginning, OAC Extension’s focus included youth. The Extension 4-H program empowered Oregon’s young people to be responsible, entrepreneurial, and have fun doing it. Clubs, such as woodworking, cooking, and vegetable gardening, encouraged kids to take a scientific approach to their daily responsibilities, keeping records and striving for improvement from year to year. “Youth development” was not the term used a century ago to describe Extension’s programs for kids, but that was certainly their purpose. They emphasized measured improvement and building skills.

Oregon was the first state to create Extension 4-H clubs for urban kids, and in 1918, clubs in the City of Portland converted part of their school grounds to Victory Gardens. By mid-century, 4-H had expanded to include wildlife conservation projects, photography clubs, and opportunities for kids to experience state and federal government in action. In the 1960s, nearly 20 percent of all Oregon school children were enrolled in Extension 4-H clubs, two-thirds of them from urban and suburban families.

“The real strength of the 4-H program in Oregon is building young people who are well rounded,” said Duane Johnson, a leader of the 4-H program during the 1970s and 80s. Johnson helped develop the Community Pride program, which trained Extension 4-H members to see the needs in their communities and to plan and carry out service projects in response. Young people learned to plan projects from raising livestock to mapping disaster evacuation routes, and how to present their accomplishments to 4-H judges and the public.


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