The Aiken County Girls Tomato Club of 1910

How Marie Samuella Cromer changed the lives of thousands of young women in rural South Carolina

In 1910, Marie Samuella Cromer, a rural schoolteacher in South Carolina, organized a girls tomato club so females aged 9 to 20 could “not learn simply how to grow better and more perfect tomatoes, but how to grow better and more perfect women.” Soon, there were tomato clubs in a number of states. The idea was simple: Teach rural girls how to plant and grow tomatoes, then harvest and can them, and sell them for a profit. The only work the girls didn’t do themselves was the plowing of their individual 1/10th acre plots.

The first year one girl harvested 2,000 lbs. of tomatoes. After sales, she earned a profit of $78 (about $2,470 today). This was *real* money for girls who came from hardscrabble backgrounds.

First Tomato Canning Club at Work

In 1915, one tomato club girl was quoted as saying the work was “long and sometimes tiresome…It has been a way by which I could not only have my own spending money and pay my expenses at the Farm Camp, but I also have a bank account of sixty dollars.” (About $1,881 today.)

What Marie began in 1910 grew into the nationwide 4-H movement. In 1953, when Marie was 71 years old, President Dwight Eisenhower honored her as founder of the 4-H movement. Marie’s story is told in the South Carolina Encyclopedia:

Educator, girls’ club founder. Marie Samuella Cromer Seigler was born on November 9, 1882, in rural Abbeville County, the daughter of William Cromer and Ella Cox. Her doting father, who called her “Beaut,” instilled in her confidence and ambition beyond the norm for girls of that era. After graduation from Abbeville High School in 1898, she attended college in North Carolina. In 1907 she moved to Aiken County to teach in a one-teacher school.

The main focus of her career began in late 1909 when she heard a representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture extol the virtues of the Boys’ Corn Clubs of America at a state teachers’ meeting. He catalyzed her hopes of doing something to broaden the vision and self-confidence of rural girls. “I was born in the country,” she explained, “and I know something of its lonesomeness and sleepy-spiritedness. It is because I love the country and its people that I want to do something for the young girls–to help them keep the thinking up when school is over.”

In a few months she had created the Aiken County Girls’ Tomato Club, the first such group in the nation, and was attracting favorable attention from government and philanthropic groups.

By 1913 some twenty thousand girls in the southern states were participating. The General Education Board of New York City awarded the clubs $25,000 for equipment, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture took over the publicity and distribution of instructional literature. The federal Smith-Lever Act of 1914 consolidated all such efforts and funded them through land-grant colleges, including Clemson College.

On April 24, 1912, Marie Cromer married Cecil Seigler, the superintendent of Aiken County schools. Soon she was raising children and moving to the background of the movement. It continued to grow and evolved into the 4-H Clubs, which in the early twenty-first century still offered practical instruction and social opportunities to children in rural America. She died June 14, 1964, and was buried in the Seigler family cemetery near Johnston, South Carolina.

Read more about Marie Samuella Cromer (1882-1964) here and here.

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