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4-H clover The 4-H project that is still giving decades later

January 30, 2020

Ed Schmidt still wears his 4-H Key pin from 1966. He likes to show it to folks and tell them about the ways that 4-H gave him a foundation for his life and career. Now a retired teacher, Ed says that many possibilities opened up to him because of 4-H.

Ed Schmidt in Virginia
Ed Schmidt

Back in the 1950s, Ed's mother started the Drum Beater 4-H Club in Grand Rapids. As a child, Ed watched with envy as his older siblings Melvin and Carol did 4-H projects. He eagerly joined as soon as he was old enough. As a young 4-H'er, Ed learned about many things--rabbits, electricity, leadership and conservation among them.

A favorite 4-H project for Ed and the whole family came when he was a ninth grader. "I went to 4-H Conservation Camp at Lake Itasca. We met with the ecology folks and I got very interested in forestry. I did a 4-H forestry project that year. My brother, dad and I took a four or five-acre field that had been used for oats and converted it to Christmas trees." They planted one seedling every three feet, following the instructions of their local Extension agriculture agent, and made a plan to maintain the plot over the coming years.

A chance to explore

In 4-H, youth have the chance to take a chance and try something new. That tree plantation inspired Ed to compete in a 4-H birdhouse building contest -- with the first bird house he had ever built. "I made a 36-room martin house and I won the contest," Ed recalled. "It wasn't beautiful, but it gave me a chance to do a little risk taking."

very old photo of three boys and three birdhouses
In a photo from the 1950s, Ed Schmidt is at left with his 36-room birdhouse.

The family cut their first batch of Christmas trees from the plantation when Ed was a newlywed and in his first teaching job. "We sold them in Silver Bay for $5 apiece. It paid for our gas back to Silver Bay," Ed remembered. In the years since, tree farming has become a more lucrative venture for Ed and his family. They now maintain the original plot and a larger one other farther north. "It got to be nice little cash crop," Ed said.

Later, when Ed and his wife, Rosalie, returned to Grand Rapids a few years into their teaching careers, Ed decided to build his own house, learning plumbing and building skills as he went. "It's still standing!" Ed said of the house, laughing. Ed and Rosalie raised three children in Grand Rapids and for 10 years served as volunteer leaders of the Drumbeater 4-H Club.

When Ed's brother Melvin died in 2004, Ed and the family wanted to memorialize him in a meaningful way. The tree farm offered the materials to do that with a landmark -- a cabin in the woods built from the plantation's logs. Ed participated in every step of the build. Today, the memorial cabin is a place where the whole family can gather, and that will stand for years to come.

In retirement, Ed and Rosalie divide their time between Grand Rapids and "snowbirding" in the southern US. He still wears his 4-H Key pin to Lions Clubs meetings as a conversation starter. He never tires of sharing the impact of 4-H with others.

Ann Nordby

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