In a few months Seigler 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.
Educator, girls’ club founder. 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 Seigler’s 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 Seigler 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.
Seigler began by recruiting members with the promise of a scholarship to Winthrop College for the girl whose one-tenth-acre garden was the most productive, taking on the task of raising the $140 cost of the scholarship as well. By 1910 she had forty-seven girls from several Aiken County schools enrolled. The Columbia office of the U.S. Farm Demonstration Service took note and awarded the project $5,000, which provided canning equipment and experienced operators to teach canning to the girls. A demonstration of the machinery took place in front of the Aiken County Court House. Each can was labeled “Put up by the Girls’ Tomato Club of Aiken County” and bore the autograph of the grower. During the first summer, in 1910, Katie Gunter put up 512 cans of tomatoes and netted $40 from her tenth of an acre, thus gaining the Winthrop scholarship, for which funds were still being raised. Thomas Hitchcock, a wealthy New Yorker and leader of Aiken’s winter colony, responded to Seigler’s plea and funded the scholarship. On August 16, 1910, Seigler was made a special agent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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. In 1953, at the national 4-H camp, President Dwight D. Eisenhower honored Seigler for her role as a founder of 4-H. She died on June 14, 1964, and was buried in the Seigler family cemetery near Johnston, South Carolina.
Bodie, Idella. South Carolina Women. Orangeburg, S.C.: Sandlapper, 1991.
Martin, Oscar Baker. The Demonstration Work: Dr. Seaman A. Knapp’s Contribution to Civilization. 3d ed. San Antonio, Tex.: Naylor, 1941.