Kent Clover Calf 4-H Club turns 100
William Sutton doesn’t hesitate when asked what he remembers most about being in the Kent Clover Calf 4-H Club.
“The people,” he said, sitting at the kitchen table in his Chestertown, Md., farmhouse. “I just remember meeting so many different people and taking part in the activities.”
As the club celebrates 100 years of continuous operation in Kent County, the people involved over the years — hundreds of club members and a succession of dedicated volunteer leaders — was cited by many as a key to its longevity.
“Over 100 years, there has been the support for youth and leaders have wanted to be part of it. That’s a long time,” said Beth Hill, University of Maryland Extension 4-H agent for Kent County. “There’s been no break. They survived wars and everything else and it’s still going.”
The anniversary celebration will culminate on Thursday, July 21 after the 6 p.m. opening ceremonies of the Kent County Fair, at the Kent Ag Center on Tolchester Beach Road. As part of the celebration, the club will present a donation to the Kent County Fair Building Fund on behalf of its members and former members. A collection of club archives will also be on display.
When it was formed in 1922, the club was focused on the dairy project. It started with six members — Stanley B. Sutton (William Sutton’s father), Norman E. Pennington, W. Franklin Moffett, Walter T. Morris Jr., Martin Sutton and Billie Urie. Members learned about improved nutrition, participated in dairy judging and exhibited cattle at local, state and regional shows.
Chronicled in Stanly Sutton’s 1983 book, “Beyond the Roadgate,” participation in the club generated a lot of opportunity for its early members. In winning the dairy cattle judging contest at the 1922 Maryland State Fair, Stanley Sutton received a Holstein bull calf as a prize and the calf would become the foundation for he and his brothers’ purebred herd. He also traveled to Europe as part of the U.S. 4-H Dairy Cattle Judging team in 1926.
Morris traveled to Camp Vail in Springfield, Mass., to attend the Moses School of Leadership and the Eastern States Exposition in 1929.
Early members and their family members said 4-H Club Week, where 4-Hers from across the state gathered at the University of Maryland College Park, was a highlight as well.
“That was good before you went to have a summer of work on the farm,” said Brad Morris, grandson of Walter T. Morris, Jr., and a third generation Kent Clover Calf Club member.
Along with the famed Club Week, Brad said a treasured memory of his father, Ted Morris, was attending a Heifer Party in the late 1940s to purchase a dairy calf.
The party was for 4-Hers interested in the Dairy Project and prominent dairyman in the state agreed to contribute registered heifer calves at a lower set price. The 4-Hers drew numbers out of a hat to determine their picking order and purchased the calf they selected at the posted price.
“This was how a lot of 4-Hers got their first Registered dairy animal for their projects,” Brad said.
While the club began with a dairy focus and only permitted boys as members, it soon expanded to allow girls as members and open up to more project areas. The club’s transformation was cited as a reason it has reached the century mark.
“It’s got to change some with the needs,” William Sutton said. “It’s got all kinds of avenues you can take a swing at.”
So while programs of yesteryear like the 10-Ton Tomato Contest or the Rat Elimination Campaign in the 1930s have themselves been eliminated, many others have developed, each with the core values of building life skills, responsibility, problem solving and learning by doing.
“It is teaching you life skills you’re going to use later in life,” Brad Morris said. “It’s a good program.”
Now the club is the county’s only general interest 4-H club with about 60 members.
But more than anything, former club members said the club has lasted so long because of its volunteer leaders.
“The leaders made it fun and you were participating with your fellow club members and seeing it as more like a game,” Susan Nickerson, William Sutton’s daughter and third generation club member. “You weren’t aware you were learning the steps to a great foundation.”
“It’s a testament to the leaders,” added Brad Morris. “They’re the people that need the recognition. They’re the ones who kept it going.”
Jennifer Debnam of Kennedyville, started as the club’s current leader in 2004 as her children became old enough to join. Though her three sons have since aged out of the program, she has stayed.
“It was rewarding and I stuck with it,” she said. “I just enjoy watching the kids learn things and seeing them grow.”
After 18 years as leader, Debnam is now getting “kids of kids” that were in the club years ago.
“It makes you feel old, but it’s a neat feeling, too,” she said with a laugh.
Debnam’s predecessor, Alice Mason, joined the club as a 4-Her when she was nine years old then served as the club’s leader from 1987 to 2003.
“We had a good time.” Mason said. “I think it’s a good thing and it’s pretty cool that it’s gone 100 years.”
Now her grandchildren represent the fourth generation of the family to participate in the club, just one of many families with similar histories in the club.
“It’s a source of pride to say, ‘My grandparents were in this club,’ said Hill. “For some of them it’s an important family tradition.”
And the club’s future, at least in the near term, appears solid.
The club’s biggest challenge may have been its most recent, when the COVID-19 pandemic restricted in-person meeting and participation dropped considerably. But the club now is humming along with a surge in new members as the club added a Clover group for 5-7-year olds last year.
“The experiences I got in 4-H are ones that you don’t experience anywhere else,” said Shannon Black, a fourth generation Kent County 4-Her whose daughter Carleigh is a Kent Clover Calf member. “To see my daughter be part of this, it’s heartwarming. I hope that whenever she decides to have kids one day, the club is still around.”
Past club members acknowledged there are many more activities for youth outside of 4-H now than decades ago.
“But I still think it’s one of the few organizations where you have kids of different ages interacting,” Debnam said. “I think that’s a unique thing to 4-H.”
Black said that’s evident at livestock shows when she sees parents stand back and let older members work with younger kids on their animals.
“It’s nice in today’s world because a lot of times you don’t see older kinds helping the younger ones,” she said.
It’s also not new for the club, or 4-H in general. According to a 1936 annual report from Stanley Sutton, who became an Extension agent for the county until 1971, members young and old frequently worked together.
“The secret success of this club is due to the fact that new and younger members are continually being taken in and given a definite job,” Sutton wrote, “therefore, as the older members outgrow the club, the younger ones are ready to take the reins.”
When Debnam took over as club leader, she also received a bevy of club archives saved by her husband’s grandmother, Virginia Dulin Debnam, who was club president in 1935. Much of those materials will be on display at the July 21 celebration.
“That has been amazing to see those,” said Hill, who has been part of the team preparing the materials for display. “To think that someone held onto them after so many years and they’re in pristine condition shows how much the club is valued.”
Jennifer Debnam said the mere fact that all the materials were kept in good condition and well-organized is a product of Virginia being in the club.
“That’s why we still have all this from her, because of her recordkeeping,” Jennifer said. “You have to attribute that skill to her project work.”
All the banquet programs, news clippings, photographs and other club memorabilia on display will surely generate a lot of conversation among former club members.
You might hear stories like Brad Morris recalling his sister visiting neighbors to give her visual demonstration for making an orange smoothie so his family wouldn’t have to keep drinking them.
“We were so tired of it” by the time of the competition, he said with a laugh.
Or you might hear William Sutton talk about the small community shows that popped up during World War II where many 4-H youth walked their animal from their farm to where the show was held because gasoline was in short supply.
“You talk about gas prices now, you couldn’t even buy gas back then,” he said.
For all the stories, just like the 100-year-old, but still vibrant Kent Clover Calf 4-H club, it’s the people in them keeping it alive.