Boys’ Corn Clubs (11/15/2019)

W. B. Otwell was not happy! In 1898 he was the secretary for the Macoupin County (Illinois) Farmers’ Institute. The February meeting of the Institute had been advertised in 13 county newspapers but only the officers and the chaplain showed up (Crosby, 1904). In December of that year personal invitations were sent out to 500 farmers but only two dozen farmers showed up. The farmers of Macoupin county were just not interested in attending the Farmers’ Institute.

Otwell, who had risen to the presidency of the County Institute, decided to ignore the parents and concentrate on the boys. In 1899 he wrote the leading corn growers in Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois and asked for samples of their seed corn. Otwell then asked twelve farmers to select the best seed corn from the samples (Reck, 1951). After this was done Otwell bought several bushels of the top seed corn.

Otwell then raised $40 dollars in prize money and commenced to advertise a corn-growing contest for boys under the age of 18. This was under the auspices of the Macoupin County Farmers’ Institute. He published a notice in the county newspapers about the corn growing contest. The boys who sent in their names and addresses would receive a package of seed corn to grow. Five hundred boys responded.

During the summer of 1900, the boys grew their corn. The boys were then to show their corn at the fall meeting of the Macoupin County Farmers’ Institute. Otwell published notices of the meeting in the newspapers. On the day of the Institute, scores of boys were waiting for the doors to open. They had their prize ears of corn in boxes, coffee sacks, or bound into bundles with binder twine, shoestrings, rope or anything else they could find.

When the Institute meeting was called to order there were 500 boys present AND their fathers. A professor from the University of Illinois judged the corn and prizes were given out. The Institute program was a great success.

The corn growing contest was repeated in 1901 with 1,500 farm boys in the contest. Numerous prizes had been donated for the boys to win. In order to get the best yields, the boys were studying deep and shallow cultivation, fertilization and anything else that might help them grow a bumper corn crop. There were 1,500 farmers in attendance at the Institute that year. The judge of the corn show stated the corn was finer than any he had seen at the state fairs in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas or Iowa.

The audience erupted in cheers when it was announced the first prize winner (who won a bicycle) was a poor youngster who lived on a thin, worn-out piece of land with his single mother. He had carried water all summer long to water his corn because of the drought.

Mr. Otwell observed that (Crosby, 1904, p. 490) “Farmers who two years before would not attend [the Farmers’ Institute], and who boldly asserted they had forgotten more than those speakers would ever find out were on the front  seat and helping in every possible way.” Otwell concluded that the 1901 Institute was (Crosby, 1904, p. 491) “the largest and best farmers’ institute I have ever attended.”

Crosby (1904, p. 491) believed “The problem of arousing an interest in farmer’s institutes and in the questions discussed at them had been solved. The farmers were reached through their children, and the interest thus aroused will handed down to their children’s children.”

Other Farmers’ Institutes in Illinois and the Midwest soon started corn growing contests to augment their programs.

Corn Clubs in Schools

In the early 1900s, the curriculum in the schools was out of touch with the real world, especially in the rural United States. The emphasis was on the classics coupled with rote memorization and recitation. These factors lead to dismal school attendance and high dropout rates.

Liberty Hyde Bailey, Dean of Agriculture at Cornell, wrote in 1904 (p. 31) that “The child lives in one world and goes to school in another world.”

An editorial in Hoard’s Dairyman stated “As it was 60 years ago in our boyhood, so it is today in 99 our of 100 schools. Not a grain of progress that will help the country boy to a better understanding of the problem of agriculture. (as cited by Cremin, 1961, p. 45)

School officials noticed the excitement and enthusiasm generated by the corn growing contests. It was not long before the idea of having corn clubs as part of the school curriculum took root.  In 1902 A. B. Graham, School superintendent in Springfield, Ohio and O. J. Kern, School Superintendent in Winebago, Illinois started corn clubs in the schools they administered (Reck, 1951). Both school leaders saw corn clubs as a way to revitalize the school curriculum. It was not long before corn clubs were sprouting up in schools across the country.

The Growth of Corn Clubs

In the early 1900s, numerous organizations and groups jumped on the corn club bandwagon. A variety of organizations including land grant colleges, agricultural societies, public schools, state departments of agriculture, Farmers’ Institutes, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the General Education Board were all involved in establishing corn clubs (Urrichio, Moore, & Coley, 2013).

The overall purpose of the corn-club movement was adequately expressed by Duncan (1911, p. 2) who wrote

The objects of organizing the boys … into Corn Clubs are to increase the production of corn, to improve the seed, to aid the young farmers in better methods of cultivation and a more intelligent use of fertilizers, to increase the interest of the farm boys in agriculture, and to encourage them to get an education along agricultural lines and remain on the farm. Of course arousing interest in one crop will lead to similar lines of work with other crops and will ultimately result in a more careful study of methods with all lines of farming.  This will lead to increased production on the farm and will lay the foundations for better schools, better roads, better churches, improvement of the social life in the rural districts and a more contented and happy people.

While each group involved in corn club work had different rules and regulations the most common rules were:

  1. The boy had to grow 1 acre of corn
  2. The boy had to do all of the work involved in growing the corn including plowing the land.
  3. Detailed records of all the expenditures, labor and income had to be kept. In one state (Alabama) the following guidelines for determining costs were recommended (Duncan & Kerlin, 1914, p. 120-122):

In estimating profits, five dollars per acre shall be charged as rent of land.  The work of each boy shall be estimated at ten cents per hour, and the work of each horse at five cents per hour.  Manure shall be charged at the rate of $2.00 for each two-horse wagon load.  Commercial fertilizers shall be charged at their market value.

Prizes were typically given for the greatest yield per acre, best display of 10 ears of corn, best set of records, and most profit.

Since so many groups were involved in corn clubs it is difficult to get an accurate picture of the scope of the corn club program. The work of the state leaders and county agents was heavily supplemented by that of volunteers trained as local leaders of boys’ clubs. In the northern and western states, 11,478 local volunteers served as club leaders in 1916, and this number rose steadily each year to over 50,000 volunteers in 1927. These volunteers not only served as club leaders, but they also held community meetings, visited club members’ plots, and worked to recruit new members (United States Department of Agriculture, 1928). The photo below is of corn club members in Pennsylvania with their club leader.

One thing we do know is that the corn yields of the boy far exceeded the state average. Typically, the boys’ yields were 2½ times the state average (See Table 1).

Table 1

Average Corn Yields (Bushels/Acre) Between Corn-Club Plots and Similar Land

State Average Yield on Boy’s Acre Average Yield on Similar Lands
Alabama 62.3 17.2
Georgia 56.4 14
Louisiana 55.3 20.2
Mississippi 66.3 18
North Carolina 62.8 20
Oklahoma 48 22.6
Tennessee 91.5 35.5
Virginia 59.5 20

Note. Adapted from The General Education Board: An Account of Its Activities, 1902-1914 by the General Education Board, 1915, p.60.

The photo above is of Marius Malmgren of Hickory, Virginia, a member of a corn club, is shown with his 1912 yield – 209 bushels of corn on one acre when national corn yields averaged only 45 bushels per acre.

However, there were some interesting happenings. One anonymous agricultural educator wrote “My wife’s father was a member of a corn club in Illinois about 1921. His corn production was so much greater than his father’s that his father destroyed the one-acre corn crop so as not to be embarrassed in the eyes of the neighbors. But, the next year, he did some of the things on his own cornfields that his son had done the year before.”

The Rest of the Story

Because of the pioneering work of W. B. Otwell, he was asked to be responsible for the Illinois state exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’ Fair held in St. Louis in 1904. He decided to have a statewide corn growing competition and sent out 50,000 samples of corn seed to farm boys in Illinois asking them to grow the corn and then send the 10 best ears to him. These ears were then used to build two huge corn pyramids at the World’s Fair. One pyramid had a banner that said “Grown by the farmer boys of Illinois” and the other pyramid has a banner that said “8,000 Farm Boys in Contest.” Many of the corn bundles had photographs of the boys who had grown them.

Several years after the World’s Fair, Otwell invited corn club boys from across the country to come to Carlinville, Illinois for a corn club boys roundup and parade. Families from 40 counties in eight states accepted the invitation. The boys rode their horses in the parade which was four miles long with riders four abreast. They were proud to participate.

Concluding Remarks

In addition to increasing corn yields and promoting the scientific study of agriculture, the corn-club movement also focused on improving rural public education. One could assert that corn clubs were the forerunners of agricultural education in schools including the FFA (after all the cross-section of the ear of corn is a major component of the FFA emblem) and the 4-H program. The hands-on experiences of corn club members helped “vitalize” education in public schools.

For more details about the importance of corn clubs you are encouraged to read “Corn Clubs: Building the Foundation for Agricultural and Extension Education” at


Bailey, L. H. (1904, March). An Appeal to the Teachers of New York State. Supplement to Home Nature Study Course (pamphlet). Ithaca: Cornell University.

Cremin, L. A. (1961). The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Crosby, Dick (1904). Boys’ Agricultural Clubs. Yearbook of Agriculture. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Duncan, L. N. (1911). The relation of the country superintendent of education to the boys’ corn club work. (Alabama Polytechnic Institute, Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station Circular No. 9), Opelika, AL: Post Publishing Company.

Duncan, L. N. & Kerlin, I. B. (1914). Program of county organization day for boys’ corn clubs (Alabama Polytechnic Institute, Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station Circular No. 30), Opelika, AL: Post Publishing Company.

Reck, Franklin (1951). The 4-H Story. National 4-H Service Committee and the Iowa State University Press.

United States Department of Agriculture. (1928).  Annual reports of department of agriculture for the year ending 1927.  Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office.

Uricchio, C., Moore, G. E., Coley, M. D. (2013). Corn Clubs: Building the Foundation for Agricultural and Extension EducationJournal of Agricultural Education. 54(3), 224-237. DOI:10.5032/jae.2013.0.3224