On Oct. 26, 1959, an organizational meeting for a new 4-H club was held in the former District #160 “Prairie School” in East Otter Tail County and its first officers were elected. The club was born without a name and with low enrollment from local youth, but what it lacked in both human and economic capital, it made up for in hope and vision for the future.
Charter members included Dianne, Dale, and Lynnette Menze, Douglas, Patricia, and Michael Kawlewski, Aloma and Ralph Koplin, Janis, Marla and Ronald Isaacson, Karen Pikkaraine, and Ronald and Sharon Virnala.
Orlend and Delores Menze organized the group because they wanted their children to participate in a nearby 4-H club. Their three eldest children, Dianne, Dale, and Lynnette, were immediately enrolled as members with the foundation of the club. In the years to follow, the remaining seven children would also become Otto Otters and eventually, many of the Menzes’ grandchildren and even great grandchildren would follow in their footsteps.
In the early years, meetings were held at the Menze home in Otto Township, the former District #160 schoolhouse. Members would watch and participate in demonstrations, listen to guest speakers, and learn life lessons together. Orlend Menze would occasionally show his home movies on a projector as a special treat.
As the organization grew on in years, the Otto Otters became more involved with the East Otter Tail County Fair held in Perham. 4-H projects were worked on year-round and new ideas and learning curves were present in daily life. The adult and student membership started looking outward to state and national 4-H matters.
Orlend Menze served as a leader for 19 years until his death in 1977 and was active on the 4-H council. In March of 1976, Orlend attended a National Leaders Forum in Washington, D.C. Delores Menze served for over 25 years and brought the 4-H way of life to her children and many of her grandchildren. Her sister, Lorraine Olsen, also served for over 20 years and recalled a highlight from her leadership was a time at the food stand when fair goers would ask for “a piece of Mrs. Olsen’s apple pie.”
After the first generation of leaders were ready to retire from leadership, the Menze children were ready to take on the roles held by their parents.
Dianne, Lynnette, and Fay all served as 4-H leaders after their time as student members of the Otto Otters.
As the first members of the Otto Otters graduated, got married, and had children, a new generation started to reach 4-H age and their parents quickly enrolled them in the same club that gave them a foundation in lifelong learning. Many of the Menze grandchildren learned similar lessons that the past generation did from their parents and grandparents.
In 1992, an Adopt-A-Highway route was adopted by the Otto Otters. Lynnette Henderson, who was in charge of this adoption, asked for special provisions to include 6-12 year olds (which were prohibited under the policy of the Adopt-A-Highway program). She was not granted this request any of the times she submitted it, but was able to keep the ditches clean nonetheless.
In 2005, Lynnette also applied to adopt one of 22 county recycling canister sites at Rush Lake. She stated that “We believe each child should learn how to serve their community and how to preserve our environment. This program would cover both ideas.” The site was maintained by the group until its dissolution in 2012. She cited the learning opportunities that could come about from a canister site adoption.
After the first year, Lynnette’s reflections proved that her initial hopes had been correct.
“Many families had never recycled or only saved aluminum cans. They are almost all recycling and are changing parents’ habits of packages at the grocery store.”
Community involvement was another pillar of learning for Otto Otter members. Activities such as delivering Valentine’s Day cards to the elderly in the area and upkeep of the Emmanuel Cemetery south of Rush Lake were just a couple of examples of service-based learning.
During the 2000s, membership was waning and most of the members were made up of Menze grandchildren and great grandchildren. Lynnette and Fay kept their leadership positions and kept the club going, despite falling enrollment.
In the summer of 2012, the final meeting of the Otto Otters 4-H Club took place in Otto Township, only a mile from where the first meeting took place over fifty years before. In a short meeting, the remaining members of the club voted to dissolve.
Lynnette and Fay were the last leaders of the group upon dissolution in 2012. Lynnette had served for 40 years and was awarded the Super Diamond Clover for her years of devoted leadership. As Lynnette was there on that fall day in 1959 when the group began and was also there when it gave its dying breath on the summer day in 2012, she was the only Otto Otter to see the club’s complete tenure.
The remnants of the Otto Otters still keep up that stretch of Adopt-A-Highway route that Lynnette adopted thirty years ago, now in honor of Lynnette with signs bearing her name. Lynnette was a visionary and exemplified the tenants of the 4-H pledge in her own daily life. We want to remember her passionate contributions, decades of leadership, and her tenacity of character as she thrived with the program for over a half-century.