How 4-H got its start in Portage County.
Portage County derives its name from the Native Americans who lived, hunted, and fished there - they had to portage, or carry their canoes between the rivers. Now a mixture of urban, suburban, and rural townships, portage County once supported primarily agricultural commodities and was home to many firsts in Ohio's 4-H history.
In 1912, Dan Hanna called the first meeting of Portage County Improvement Association, a group of local farmers and businessmen, and the association launched its membership with over two thousand members. The First action of the association was to secure the services of a County Agricultural Agent. In 1913 H. P. Miller, A staff member of the Ohio Experiment Station, assumed his duties in Portage County as the first county Agent in Ohio and the twenty-third Extension Agent in the United States.
The Portage County Improvement Association’s goals were to improve the roads, livestock services, and cooperative farming services and to establish a county cooperative store. The association also made provisions to sponsor the Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs, which would later evolve into 4-H clubs. Several of the first 4-H clubs are still in existence today. Two Boys’ & Girls’ club charters were signed by Miller and Oxley Thompson, president of The Ohio State University, in 1921 and 1923. The first official 4-H agent in portage was M. R. Wright, who served from 1921 to 1926.
Early Records of the 4-H program indicates there were seventy to seventy –five 4-H clubs throughout the county, which is the same today. Most of the Early clubs focused on livestock, sewing, cooking, wood working, and later electricity. The Randolph Fair was home to the Junior Fair Exhibits. The portage County Junior Leaders Club was formed in 1921, and Portage County was the birthplace of the first 4-H Alumni Club.
Volunteers have been a crucial part of the county’s 4-H program since the beginning. Today Portage County carries one of the States highest average for years of service. Five of the Dedicated volunteers – Gus DeYoung, Wilbur Tomlinson, Dave Dawson, Dan Tronge, and Debi Heppe – have been inducted into the Ohio 4-H Hall Of Fame; Heppe is still active today with various activities including but not limited to Jr. Fair Board Advisor and Quality Assurance Volunteer.
The Portage County 4-H program has experienced many successes, but it also has struggled to survive during its many years of service as a county agency. Through it all the program has been fortunate to employ dedicated agents, an incredible and unselfish cadre of volunteers, and some of the most talented and hard working local youth.