Van Wert Family Celebrates Four Generations of 4-H

Oh the anticipation! If you grew up in the Van Wert family near Hampton, the day you could join 4-H marked a big milestone.

“We couldn’t wait to get our own 4-H projects, because we’d heard so much about4-H from our parents,” said Jay Van Wert, a Franklin County farmer who is proud that four generations of his family have participated in 4-H.

It all started with Van Wert’s father, J.S. “Pat” Van Wert, who joined 4-H in Franklin County in the 1920s, and his mother, Alice Anderson, who was a 4-Her in Minnesota. “They both benefited from great county Extension staff members and local volunteer leaders who lit the spark of 4-H participation,” said Van Wert, whose father raised pigs, calves and lambs, while his mother specialized in foods, clothing and home furnishings projects.

Pat, who was a member of the Franklin County dairy judging team that won state and national judging contests, also represented Iowa at the National 4-H Camp in Washington, D.C. His experiences prepared him well for his studies at Iowa State College in Ames, where he met Alice.

After the young couple married, they encouraged their four children (Jay, David, Sonnie and Trish) to get involved in 4-H. As soon as they were old enough, the boys joined the Mott Meat Makers, while the girls joined the Mott Cloverettes. The boys raised hogs, calves, hens and dairy cows and competed on the livestock, dairy, crops and poultry judging teams. The highlight of their 4-H projects included a gilt that gave birth to 18 piglets on Feb. 20, 1951.

“We raised all the pigs to market weight,” said Van Wert, who added that the total market weight of 4,419 pounds set a world record.

Jay Van Wert news clipping web versionReaching this goal was no small feat. When the piglets were young, Van Wert and his brother rotated the animals so nine nursed from the sow while the other nine received a homemade milk replacer every 20 minutes throughout the day and night. “This routine was extended out until every 45 minutes until the pigs reached weaning age at eight weeks,” Van Wert recalled.

The boys also named each pig. Nine had “A” names, including Abner, Abigail, Agnes, Abraham, Albert, Amy, Alex, Amos and Archie. Eight had “B” names, including Barney, Betty, Benny, Bertha, Bernie, Billy, Beulah and Barbara, while the smallest piglet at birth was named Squirt.

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Learning lessons that last a lifetime

The yearly anticipation of exhibiting 4-H projects at the county, district and state fairs encouraged all the Van Wert kids to invest the time necessary to succeed. “The challenge was always to make the best better,” said Van Wert, who was honored in 2014 with the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award. “4-H demonstrations and judging teams also helped us gain confidence and become comfortable speaking before the public.”

4-H also gave the Van Werts a network of friends throughout the state. “Holding offices in our clubs, and later serving as Franklin County officers and state officer candidates provided great learning experiences,” added Van Wert, who is proud that his children and grandchildren have participated in 4-H, too. “4-H offers tremendous leadership opportunities and helped each of us grow as individuals.”

Jay Van Wert IFBF web

Home-cooked favorites

Jay and his wife, Sally, served as 4-H leaders while their three children were growing up. Despite their business schedules, which included running J’s Hay Company, home cooking was a priority for the Van Werts, who were inducted into the Iowa 4-H Hall of Fame in 2010.

Here’s one of their go-to recipes:

Convenient Overnight Coffee Cake


2 cups flour, sifted
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 / 2 teaspoon salt
1 / 2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 / 2 cup brown sugar
2 / 3 cup shortening
1 cup buttermilk
2 eggs, beaten

1 / 2 cup brown sugar
1 / 2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 / 2 cup chopped nuts
1 / 2 teaspoon nutmeg


Sift together flour, granulated sugar, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Combine with brown sugar. Cut in shortening. Mix buttermilk and eggs together. Combine into the batter.

In a separate bowl, combine all the topping ingredients.

Pour half of the batter into a 9-inch by 12-inch baking pan. Sprinkle with half of the topping over the batter. Pour remaining batter into pan. Sprinkle remaining topping over the cake. Refrigerate until you’re ready to bake, up to 24 hours.

Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 to 30 minutes. Enjoy!