Life lessons play key role in 4-H club’s longevity

HAMIOTA, Man. — 4-H leader Keith Bridge reluctantly donned a bedpan hat and choir gown for the McConnell 4-H Beef Club fashion show.

He was taking part in the Manitoba club’s awards nights, said longtime leader Margaret Boyd.

Margaret said the performance was a showstopper, but it almost didn’t happen after Bridge initially refused to appear publicly in such garb.

Shyness was also common among new 4-Hers at public speaking events.

Margaret said it took much praise, encouragement and coddling to get a young 4-H boy from Cardale to speak in front of his peers.

Years later, she was thrilled to see him judging at achievement days and clearly articulating cattle attributes.

“We stressed learn to do by doing,” Margaret, the first female leader of the group, said about guiding youth through projects, public speaking, achievement days, rallies, parliamentary procedure, skits, bingo, dances and potlucks.

“We did everything we could possibly do.”

As a girl, she showed steers in the McConnell Fat Stock Show with the club. As an adult, she led the group with her husband and longtime leader, Jack, a former farmer and instructor with Assiniboine College.

The couple said the club, the longest running 4-H club in Canada, has had only eight leaders in its history.

Jack said that commitment may account for why it’s lasted so long despite the disappearance of its namesake town, McConnell, a shrinking farm population and rural migration.

“They were really committed to carrying on with the 4-H movement,” said Margaret.

Gordon Killoh founded the group in 1922 as a boys and girls club.

Margaret’s birth name was McConnell, so she has a personal connection to the club and town named for her great uncle Andrew McConnell.

She and Jack travelled to numerous 4-H events during their tenure.

“You meet a lot of nice people in 4-H. We made friends across the country,” said Jack.

Like its membership today, the first club had 11 members. Membership rose to an all time high of 30 in the 1960s when it was named the best 4-H club in Manitoba.

Its popularity in the early days is evident by a look in the local school register from 1922. It shows a large number of student absences on the day of the boys and girls fall fair.

The club added swine in 1925 and beef in 1933, adopting the 4-H name when the national group formed in 1952. Today its history fills the upper rooms of an old train station museum in Hamiota, Man.

A cairn, erected last year and sitting outside commemorates 100 years of 4-H in Canada and McConnell as the longest running club in the country.

Current leader Kevin Hyndman said a decline in cattle numbers in the region and a diverse array of program options for youth continue to challenge the beef club each year.

A leader since 2008, he hopes to encourage more in the district to join. He’s confident it will hold its numbers this fall.

“I’m going to do everything I can to keep it going,” said the father with two daughters in the club.

“There’s so much education off the computer and people think they’re educated.

“Kids in 4-H actually have to do the work and learn a lot getting their hands dirty.”

He said the beef club’s lessons go well beyond cattle management, noting how building speaking skills and self-confidence serve members well into later life.

He cited a recent graduate who received a $75,000 educational scholarship and credited 4-H as helping him to be successful.

“They’re not hard to pick out,” he said of those with a 4-H background.

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