PROJECT POWER: Exhibit hall proves there’s more to 4-H than just livestock shows

Hundreds of 4-H projects fill the display area in the exhibit hall at the Hancock County 4-H Fairgrounds. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

HANCOCK COUNTY — Eli Manship has had a busy year.

The ambitious 12-year-old built a maple end table for his family’s living room by hand; did a bit of computer coding; and learned to catch, clean and cook fish for his family.

That’s just a handful of things Eli learned to do as part of the dozen 4-H projects he submitted this year at the Hancock County 4-H Fair.

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While most kids do two or three projects on average, Eli and his brothers were feeling particularly ambitious heading into this year’s fair. His brother Luke, 10, did 12 projects this year. His brother T.J., 6, did six in mini 4-H.

Like all 4-H’ers, the brothers are given the chance to pick projects from a wide variety of offerings. More than 50 projects — from arts and crafts to beekeeping to gardening to woodworking — are available for 4-H’ers to undertake every year. They don’t get the attention of the animal shows, but 4-H’ers put a tremendous of effort into them.

The Manship brothers’ mom, Libby Manship, said her boys pick projects based on what type of new skills they want to build or things they want to learn.

“Woodworking, electricity, Legos, exploring careers… there’s always a number of things they get excited about doing,” she said.

For her family, who lives near Charlottesville, doing 4-H projects is a rite of passage. “We come from a long line of fourth- or fifth-generation 4-H’ers,” said Manship, who thinks it’s the perfect pastime for her kids.

Rachelle Kihlstrum feels the same way about her children. Her three sons and two daughters have all been active in creating 4-H projects over the years.

While some may think of farm kids showing livestock when it comes to 4-H, doing projects and exhibits has been ideal for her city-raised kids, she said.

“It’s not all about the animals,” said Kihlstrum.

She and her husband Mark are parents to Kaitlyn, Ryan, Wyatt, Tyelar and Aby. The family lived in a subdivision before moving to rural Greenfield.

“My husband and I are city kids who just happen to live out in the country now. Animals are not something we have the desire to have,” Kihlstrum said.

Getting involved with 4-H projects is a great way for even non-farm kids to embrace 4-H while building friendships and exploring new skills, she said.

Her son Ryan is especially ambitious. “”He’ll probably end up with 300 projects by the time he’s done,” his mom said. “He’s done pretty much every project in the building.”

Seventeen-year-old Rachel Bates credits her years spent doing 4-H projects with leading her toward a career as an attorney.

“I did public speaking for two years in 4-H, which really helped me with my communication skills. It helped me find out that was an interest of mine, and helped me figure out what I wanted to do in college,” said Bates, who graduated from New Palestine High School this year.

This fall, she’ll head to Ball State University to study business administration and communications, on the path to becoming a lawyer in family and elderly law.

Bates has been doing 4-H projects since she was a kindergartner in mini 4-H and is a 10-year 4-H member. Her favorite project overall was a home environment project, for which she refinished her family’s dining room table and chairs.

“They were my great-great-grandparents’, so that was really great to be able to do that,” she said.

Her other favorite projects have pertained to public speaking. Last year, she gave a speech on the benefits of 4-H that was so well received, she was invited to give her speech at the Indiana State Fair.

This year, Bates opted to do a “do your own thing” project, for which she designed a Monopoly board based on the Hancock County 4-H Fair. She also did gift wrapping — fashioning a three-tiered box to look like Minnie Mouse. For the craft category, she did a modge podge of pictures from her favorite 4-H memories over the years.

“It brought back a ton of memories of all the really good times I’ve had at the fair,” said Bates, who also competed in the 4-H Fair Queen pageant this year.

“4-H has been such a big part of my life. I’ve loved being involved with it for 13 years, and I’m sad that it’s ending, but I’m excited to come back and see the projects done by my little sister and all my younger friends,” she said.

The Manship brothers are glad they still have a number of years to create new projects for 4-H.

Eli Manship’s personal favorite category is woodworking.

For his sport fishing project this year, he and his family went to Pokagon State Park and caught bluegill, then cleaned and cooked them. “We fried them and it tasted very good. It was very cool to learn how to do all that,” he said.

His brother Luke’s favorite project was a consumer pork poster, for which he diagrammed the various cuts of meat on a pig.

“I outlined all the stuff like the loins and the shoulder and where the bacon came from. I didn’t really know where it all came from,” he said. “I knew the ham came from the butt, and the bacon from the belly, but I didn’t know you could eat their feet.”

In addition to doing fun projects, Luke also enjoys the camaraderie he’s found in his 4-H club — Country Critters

On Thursday, the Manships were among club members helping out their club leader — Vickie Ramsey — who needed an extra hand cleaning up a tree struck by lightning.

“We’re all good friends so we like to help each other out,” Luke said.

Eli said he’s missed not seeing his club friends as much this year due to social distancing, and that pandemic fears and e-learning have been challenging. But his 4-H projects were a welcome distraction.

“It’s about learning and having fun,” he said. “It’s not about the ribbon you get, but about how much fun you have in the learning process.”

His mom expressed gratitude to all the 4-H club leaders who persevered in keeping the kids engaged, despite a rocky year.

“The rules you can’t have club meetings has been hard on the kids, but our 4-H leaders have gone above and beyond to keep kids going, posting photos of their progress online. Their club leaders’ Facebook posts have really been the glue to help get them through,” Manship said.

“I cannot stress enough how awesome they have been.”