ROOTS RUN DEEP: For many families, 4-H is a long-standing family tradition

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Jayden O'Neal, 11, gets ready to show one of his sheep during the Hancock County 4-H Fair under the watchful eye of his dad, Chris. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

HANCOCK COUNTY — As the dust settles at the Hancock County 4-H Fairgrounds after another county fair, the ribbons and photographs soon will go into scrapbooks, and families will start the cycle all over again as they look toward next year’s event.

For many, the fair ritual is as ingrained as any family tradition. It wasn’t unusual last week to spot grandparents — who were 4-H’ers themselves — helping their grandchildren or cheering them on. For them, 4-H participation is something that is passed from generation to generation, preserving a family spirit as palpable as the glow on the winners’ faces.

Libby Manship, whose kids are fifth-generation 4-H’ers, has no trouble rattling off the names of local families like hers whose involvement with 4-H stretches back for generations.

Callahan. Paxton. Wickard. Grinstead. O’Neal. The list goes on.

For families like them, 4-H is a rite of passage that’s proudly handed down through the years.

Even though his parents had to convince him to join 4-H when he was little, Bryce Hasty is sure of one thing: He’s going to make sure his kids do the exact same thing someday.

The 16-year-old can’t imagine having spent his childhood without it, and he wants to make sure his future children carry on the family tradition.

Bryce and his sister Kynsey, 14, also are fifth-generation 4-H’ers, following in the footsteps of their parents, Scott and Michelle Hasty.

While his parents had to nudge him to join at first, Bryce said he now recognizes what a life-changing activity it can be. It’s taught him responsibility and discipline, said the teen, who now manages his own field with a few acres of corn.

For him and countless other local kids, being active in 4-H is a way of life.

Clarissa O’Neal, a former 4-H’er with three 4-H kids of her own, said spending time together in the family barn or out at the fairgrounds is a great way to create unforgettable family memories.

“All the travelling and time spent caring for the animals make for lots of great family time. We’ve been doing shows since (our oldest daughter) Chloe was 4, and we used to run the national circuit before the girls got into sports,” said O’Neal, whose husband, Chris, showed sheep as a 4-H kid.

The couple are raising their family on the O’Neal Family Farms in Wilkinson, which has been in the family for generations, and are proud to instill a love for agriculture in their three kids: daughters Chloe, 18, and Mackenzie, 15; and son Jayden, 11. Chloe even won two 4-H national championships, and completed her 10th year this summer.

O’Neal loves supporting her kids at each year’s fair, as well as the many nieces and nephews who are involved with 4-H as well.

Lorraine Ewing savored every moment watching her grandkids participate in 4-H activities at the fair, even though they live in Marion County.

“So long as you’re enrolled in 4-H you can take part in any fair, and my sons wanted their kids to participate in Hancock County, where they had so many good memories of doing the same when they were kids,” said Ewing, whose father, Ora Callahan, played a big role in the local fair.

He helped build “the bowl” amphitheater on the fairgrounds in the 1960s, and he and his wife, Shirley, started the county’s annual 4-H awards in 1963.

Last week Ewing and other family members honored Callahan by working in the fair’s dairy barn, raising money for the endowment they started in his name after he died in 2013.

The endowment was created to generate funds for 4-H scholarships. The family raised the seed money from selling an antique tractor Ewing’s husband restored.

“My dad’s dream was to turn the annual 4-H awards into scholarship awards,” said Ewing, whose family ties to 4-H stretches back five generations. Her family is halfway to their $50,000 goal to perpetually generate funds from her father’s endowment, which will impact 4-H’ers for generations to come.

Ewing said it’s a fitting tribute for a man who devoted his life to the local agricultural community, and loved teaching others farming and life skills through 4-H.

Julia Wickard also helped start a 4-H scholarship to commemorate her father, Keith “Brownie” Brown, who was a prominent local farmer.

Her dad is a great example of a man who taught his kids a love for agriculture and for 4-H, she said, which has been a family tradition for generations.

Her grandparents, Max and Wilma Kennedy, who are in their 90s, stopped by the local fair last week to see their great-grandkids take part in various activities.

Wickard’s daughter Jordyn, 18, just completed her 10th year of 4-H, and her son Jacob, 15, plans to do the same.

Her husband, Chris Wickard, also grew up on a multi-generational farm, Wickard Livestock, in eastern Hancock County.

Fittingly for two farm kids, the couple met in the show ring at the fairgrounds, where they were both competing in the Beef Show as teens.

“He jokes that because he couldn’t beat me, he had to marry me,” said Julia, who took top honors at the show that year.

For generations, her and her husband’s families have been deeply involved with the local 4-H program and farming community.

“Our farm was homesteaded in 1846, so we’ve been a part of this county since then,” said Julia, referring to the McClarnon Stock Farm near Charlottesville.

Her mother, Judy McClarnon Brown, was active in 4-H, as was her grandmother, Harriett McClarnon.

Hasty takes pride in her kids carrying on her family’s 4-H traditions.

She jokes that both she and her oldest child, Bryce, have been going to the local fair almost since the day they were born.

As a baby she would come to the fair with her mom, who would oversee cooking and baking activities at the fair.

“My mom started the food auction in 1974, and has records of all the winning items and bid amounts since then,” said Hasty, who now oversees the microwave cooking category at the fair.

When her own son was just 6 days old, Hasty’s husband took them to watch the local 4-H fair queen contest from their car. The pageant always meant a lot to Hasty, who was queen in 1992 and has served as one of the pageant’s coordinators for years.

“It just felt weird not to be there,” said Hasty, who has missed just one Hancock County fair in her lifetime, when she lived in Michigan.

“It made me super homesick not to be there,” she said.

Wickard can relate. The 4-H fair is simply where her family likes to be.

Carrying on that tradition from generation to generation is a blessing she doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s very rewarding to be able to see the hard work that generations before us have put into the land and livestock, and to be able to carry that forward. It’s a privilege to raise livestock that walk and graze the same land that generations before them grazed,” she said.

Hasty said it’s a community that not only looks after the land: It also looks out for each other.

“People are there to help each other out. If somebody is sick or equipment breaks down or something’s wrong, farm families are there to do whatever they can to help out, without expecting anything in return,” she said.

“That’s something to be proud of for sure.”