Penn Gwens 4-H Club

My mother wanted, about more than anything, for her daughters to have an easier time of it getting up in front of people. Since we lived on a farm, a 4-H club was the perfect agent.

At age 11 and in the 6th grade, I nervously joined the Penn Gwens club, held in the girls’ homes in Penn Township of Madison County, Iowa. Once a month the older girls ran a business meeting, with refreshments–which the hostess had helped her mother make–at the end.

I said I’d joined nervously because all the other girls were older. And each year we were required to give a “talk” by yourself to the group, and a demonstration–alone or with another girl. Even if you were a 6th grader and some of the two dozen girls were seniors in high school.

Back: Betty Kobolt, Mary Godby, Marilyn Ross, Connie Piatt, Janice Lorimor.  Middle: Gretchen Godby, Doris Ralston, Ruby Ralston, Judy Moore, Dorothy Benz. Front: Joy Neal, Judy Neal, Shirley Schafer, Marilyn Mount, Marilyn Lawson. October 1955 at Linda Lenocker’s house, although she’s not in the picture.
Standing: Mary Jane Smith, Mrs. Godby, Doris Ralston, Joy Neal, Pat Ross, Shirley Schafer, Connie Piatt, Susan Shepherd, Dorothy Benz, Jane Morford, Gretchen Godby, Bev Gilman. Below: Judy Neal, Sandra Bloomquist, Marilyn Lawson. May 1956 at Connie Piatt’s house

Whatever we entered at the county fair was awarded a blue (best), red, or white ribbon–along with a judge’s comments. I got all blue ribbons at the 1956 Madison County Fair–for a skirt I’d made, a blouse, style review (grooming and appropriate attire), a demonstration, and record book. I was hooked. Besides, it was fun.

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In those days, girls were not allowed to join boys’ 4-H. Even though I helped feed hogs, I didn’t want to try show any of them. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the emphasis in girls’ 4-H rotated every three years: sewing, food and nutrition (including canning), and home furnishings. Sewing was my favorite. But we also kept records of what we had done for our health, safety surveys, music, reading, an expense account, courtesy, conservation, citizenship, community service, and gardening. As we got older, we also listed books we’d read and reviewed them. I’ve been keeping a list of books I’ve read ever since.

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Back: Emily Nevitt, Judy Moore, Mary Jane Smith, Doris Ralston, Ruby Ralston, Mary Nevitt, Linda Lenocker, Gretchen Godby, Janice Lorimor. Middle: Shirley Schafer, Susan Shepherd, Sandra Bloomquist, Judy Neal, Dixie Simpson, Jane Neal. Front: Karen Boyle, Marilyn Lawson, Gloria Neal, Jane Morford, Pat Willrich, Jayne Nevitt.  July 1958

4-H taught me commitment, planning, responsibility, holding an office, serving on committees, speaking to an audience, trying new things, goal setting, and record keeping. I was unaware of my subtle progression because 4-H also meant having fun, winning ribbons, county fairs, and even the Iowa State Fair.

A superintendent of schools in Ohio is credited with starting the original model for 4-H clubs. Iowa wasn’t far behind, with two teachers involved in agricultural education for students–Oscar H. Benson in Wright County and Jessie Field Shambaugh in Page County. Shambaugh taught at Goldenrod School in the early 1900s and began holding after-school meetings. Boys were in Boys Corn Clubs, learning more about agriculture. Girls learned or improved homemaking skills in a Girls’ Home Club.

The spring of 1959, Emily Nevitt and I represented our club at Farm Youth Day, where we had a bus trip from Winterset to Des Moines, our Capital City. We were among 500 others from all over Iowa welcomed at the State Capitol by Governor Loveless, then toured The Des Moines Register, the Capitol building, Bankers Life, saw Jack Shelly at WHO-TV, had lunch at Hotel Fort Des Moines, and toured Hiland Potato Chips, Colonial Bakery, and the Art Center–places a farm girl wouldn’t ordinarily have a chance to visit.

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The summer I detasseled corn as my first job, I also got to attend the Iowa 4-H Girls’ Club Convention at Iowa State University, and was in the 150-voice Iowa 4-H Girls’ State Chorus (directed by Max Exner).

I was a member of 4-H for seven years. That last year in the club, my mother wrote in my record book: “Joy has changed from a very shy little girl into one with confidence who enjoys a challenge. She love to compete but is not upset or discouraged when she loses. This is what 4-H teaches any girl who tries.”

The summer of 1962, I got to be part of the 4-H Dress Review at the Iowa State Fair, and stayed in the 4-H Girls’ Dormitory there. One day we boarded buses which took us to breakfast at Younkers Tea Room, where we were served vanilla ice cream in a slice of cantaloupe as an exotic (to me) dessert.

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Girls’ 4-H uniforms were changing even as Marilyn and I gave our demonstration at the Waterloo Dairy Cattle Congress. Marilyn went on to study home ec at Iowa State University and eventually become a university staff member in home economics.

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I always enjoy visiting the 4-H building at the Iowa State Fair, to see the accomplishments and record-keeping of today’s club members. How wonderful it is that the basics of homemaking have expanded into other areas of interest, such as photography.

While my sister and I were slowly but surely learning to talk in front of people, so was our mother. She became a 4-H leader and also joined Madison County Farm Bureau Women, where she learned to be more comfortable speaking in front of an audience.

“Head, heart, hands and health: How 4-H has empowered generations of Iowa farm kids” by John Busbee, Iowa History Journal, July/Aug. 2015, pages 8-12, 35.


  1. Joy, I am part owner of the Earlham Echo. We publish weekly, would you be okay if I reprinted this story with permission? (By the way, I was a member of the Penn Pacesetters who followed the Penn Gwens. Then that dissolved and they just had 1 club which my kids joined and still exists today, the Penn Prizewinners). Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the great article about your memoriesin 4H! It’s fun seeing the pictures also! I was also in the Penn Gwens club. I have a knick knack shelf that I remember my dad helping me assemble. It hangs in my kitchen and gives me joy to remember the memories of 4H and my parents.

    • Thanks for sharing your memories. That reminds me that a frame that I refinished in 1948 on the wall. Got a red ribbon on it, but what I really like about it is the Home Sweet Home cross-stitching it frames. May have been my first–but not last–cross-stitched item!

  3. Joy, s number of us were also in Boys 4H, The Penn Prize Winners! We had to be in The Girls club as well. In Boys 4H we had to give talks to our club each year!

  4. I was never involved in 4H, but I learned a lot about my father’s involvement in FFA. I, too, began keeping a list of the books I read, starting in 5th grade, when Mrs. George engaged us students in a reading contest. After I got busy in sports and then college, the list keeping slid, but I renewed it in 2008. A good practice.

    • Kids are mentored in FFA here, as well, through the school system. I keep a reading list in the back of each diary. Goodreads even keeps my list handy, at least the last few years.

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