America's Hemp King
we smoked corn silk when we were growing lads.
I grew up literally surrounded by hemp. Raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm between Waupun and Brandon in the early 1940's, one of my earliest memories was that of me and my older brother Matt (not to be confused with my Grandpa Matt) trampling down patches of hemp in the middle of my dad, Dayton Rens', hemp field to create "rooms" for the house we were "building." I also remember that Dad wasn't too pleased when he stumbled on our creation one day. Something about mining his profit, as I recall! This was the stuff, you see, that they cut in the fall and then eventually took to Grandpa Matt Rens' Hemp Company just down the road on highway 49 where they turned it into fiber and then sold it to make such things as cords, rope, and thread.
The Highway 49 hemp mill during its heyday
It was only many years after his death in 1950 that I discovered that my Grandpa Matt was pretty famous in some circles and known widely as "America's Hemp King."
In today's world when you tell somebody your grandfather was
"America's Hemp King," your listener either draws a
blank or gets that knowing smile on their face. You know the
look. The one where they are a bit smug but a trifle sympathetic
that you feel compelled to reveal your family's sordid history
in the narcotics industry! Today when you hear of hemp, your
mind --- if it registers at all ---jumps quickly to marijuana.
Even Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, while recognizing its potential
use for cordage, states a definition of hemp as "a psychoactive
drug (as marijuana or hashish) from hemp." And, in fact,
in today's world marijuana, which comes from the dried leaf and
flower of the hemp plant, is the primary if not the only use
of hemp. This was not always the case, as in earlier times the
stalk of the hemp plant was valued for the fiber it produced
to make strong, desirable twines, threads, and ropes. That is
not to say, however, that our friends and neighbors who grew
hemp were unaware of the fact that the hemp plant contained a
drug. Witness the 1943 introduction to a bulletin on hemp produced
by the United States Department of Agriculture which states in
its introductory paragraph:
The hemp plant contains the drug marijuana. Any farmer planning to grow hemp must comply with certain regulations of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. This involves registration with the farmer's nearest Internal Revenue Collector and the payment of a fee of $l.00. Although the fee is small, the registration is mandatory and should not be neglected, as the penalty provisions for not complying with the regulations are very severe. However, when a farmer signs a contract to grow hemp in the Government program in 1943, he also signs an application for a registration, and no further application is necessary. The registration must be renewed each year beginning July 1. This so-called "license" permits a farmer to obtain viable hemp seed from a registered firm dealing in hemp, to plant and grow the crop, and to deliver mature, retted hemp stalks to a hemp mill.
Because of that knowledge, the authorized purchase of hemp seed and the planting and growing process were carefully monitored by the United States Government. However, I must admit that we youngsters growing up on the area farms that grew and harvested hemp were pretty naive and uninformed. When we experimented with our first smokes, the dried leaf of the hemp plant never entered our minds. I'm afraid the smoke of the day was nothing more esoteric than dried corn silk!
but China and Asia represent its line.
While Grandpa was the "Hemp King" and we made "houses"
in the Wisconsin Hemp fields in the early 1940's, we were far
from being its earliest users. Sources indicate that hemp dates
way back to the Emperor Sun Nung of China in 28 BC, and that
2500 years ago the Scythians found hemp valuable for rope making.
Then under the Caesars the Romans actually found hemp fiber useful
for sail making. In Asia, where hemp originated, it was the source
of "hasheesh" or marijuana. The 1994 Encyclopedia Americana
"Hemp has been used as a drug source since ancient times. Its drug products have often been employed in religious and mystical ceremonies in India and the Middle East. They have also been used to treat various disorders, but in the US. no hemp products are recognized as having medicinal qualities or have official standing as drugs. Hemp is grown in India, the Middle East, North Africa, Mexico, and other countries for products used as medicine and hallucinogens."
When the pilgrims arrived in America in 1620, they brought hemp along, and grew America's first known crop in 1621. They used its fiber for rope. In the early 1800's hemp fiber was commonly used in the US. for rigging vessels, for twine, and for weaving fabrics. However, in the mid to latter 1800's the industry basically collapsed in America as US. rope makers depended more and more on imported raw materials. The hard fibers used primarily for rope and twine came from Manila hemp (Abaca) grown in the Philippines, Sisal grown in Africa and the Netherlands East Indies, and henequen from Mexico and Cuba. Softer fibers used for such things as fine thread, wrapping twines, shoe threads, upholstery threads and marlon ropes used by the Navy came from Jute grown in India, flax grown in Europe, and from Italian hemp.
Where others grew he processed hemp and won the prize.
In the early 1900's a limited amount of US. hemp was grown in the state of Kentucky. However, this limited production became insufficient in 1914 when W.W.I broke out and imports from Europe were curtailed. As Wisconsin farm land appeared favorable for the growing of hemp, beginning in 1908 the Wisconsin State Prison in Waupun built a binder twine plant and experimented with hemp production and processing. They found that while hemp grew well in the fertile Wisconsin soil, it was not particularly well suited for twine but was more appropriate for coarser threads and certain ropes.
At the same time the University of Wisconsin was encouraging farmers in the Alto, Brandon, and Waupun area to grow hemp to help meet the increased war need. Matt Rens owned a farm on highway 49 between Waupun and Brandon and was one of those farmers who grew a hemp crop in 1914.
Matt's farm as it looks in 1995
One of the things Matt discovered in this early work in the hemp business was that the process used for turning the grown hemp into a marketable fiber product was laborious, inefficient and unacceptable to Wisconsin farmers. The process was inherited from Kentucky where farmers cut and salvaged hemp without the aid of machines. In fact the only machine used in the entire process was a crude decorticating machine that removed the fiber on the outside of the stalk from the rest of the stalk. This was a sawhorse-looking device that was hand pumped and produced coarse handfuls of fiber acceptable for earlier times but very coarse and poorly cleaned.
Working with the University of Wisconsin and the US. government, Matt and area farmers encouraged the International Harvester Company to invent machines that would cut the hemp and another that would decorticate it or separate the fiber from the stalk. It was this decorticating machine that had historically been transported from field to field that provided the idea that initiated Matt's career and eventually resulted in his becoming America's Hemp King.
Matt saw that the decorticating process being done in individual fields was a very inefficient process that did not result in a quality product. He also noted when going from field to field that the moisture content of the hemp varied and that dryer hemp typically provided better quality and was easier to clean. With that, the idea of a hemp mill was born---a place where farmers could bring their hemp so it could be dried to the preferred moisture level(5-6%) and then decorticated. In 1915 Matt, in partnership with the owner of the decorticating machine, built and opened the nation's first hemp mill. Within a year he bought out his partner and was on his way to becoming America's Hemp King.
At the time that he opened his mill, Matt lived on his farm adjacent to the mill on highway 49. In time he spent more and more of his time with the mill and hired help to operate the farm. By 1918 business was so demanding that he rented his farm and moved his family to nearby Alto.
Matt's Alto home as it looks in 1995
The busiest times for the mill were in the fall and winter when the farmers brought their hemp to the mill to be processed. During the summer while the hemp was being grown, only a skeletal crew was maintained at the mill. As the jobs in the mill were seasonal, it was not always easy to find workers. In one of the early years African Americans from Kentucky were brought in to help. In another year inmates from the State Prison helped out---under the watchful eye of a Mr. Yarnes, a prison guard!
In 1920 the mill burned down; however, Matt demonstrated his resolute nature and built a new and improved version within a few short months. The success of Matt's hemp mill soon caught the eye of other astute businessmen, and by 1920 approximately fifteen mills were built in such area towns as Waupun, Brandon, Markesan, Fairwater, Horicon, Beaver Dam, Union Grove, Roberts, Juneau, and others. This competition, of course, often meant surplus and decreased profits and was an early indicator of the cyclical nature of the hemp business.
Initially farmers brought their hemp to Matt's mill at a set price per acre and Matt then sold the processed fiber to spinning companies around the country by the pound. As fiber prices varied depending on quality and demand, this did not always prove to be the fairest method of calculating payment to the farmers. Working with Andy Wright, a University of Wisconsin agronomist who he befriended and consulted with throughout his career regarding improvements in hemp quality and processing techniques, Matt then developed a system where he and the farmers shared 50/50 the sale price of the fiber they delivered to his mill.
In the early years the farmers also owned their own harvesters; however, breakdowns were frequent and repair issues were difficult. As a result, Matt purchased all the farmers machinery, maintained it, and rented it back to them when they needed it.
To summarize the early history of the Matt Rens Hemp Company, in 1915 Matt created a central processing plant for taking the fiber from the hemp stalk and called it a "hemp mill." Over the next several years he established a system that would be in place throughout his career where farmers purchased seed from him, planted and grew their fields, rented Matt's equipment to harvest their crops, delivered the hemp to Matt's mill where it was processed, and then shared 50/50 in the revenue generated when Matt sold the fiber to US. spinning mills.
Matt dried, broke, combed, and then the buyers found.
So what about the growing, harvesting, and processing of this plant that turned Grandpa from a Wisconsin dairy farmer into America's Hemp King? First let's have Matt Rens himself give us a summary of the processing procedure as he is quoted in a 1940 "Milwaukee Journal" newspaper article:
"After the hemp is harvested, the stalks are allowed to remain on the ground to 'water-ret,' ('field-ret' is a more explanatory term) or be exposed to moisture. After 'retting,' or loosening of the fibers through moisture action, the crop is gathered, tied into bundles, and brought to the mill."
"Our hemp mill really is a gigantic threshing machine. After the crop is delivered to us, we place the hemp stalks in drying kilns, under temperatures of 175 degrees. The hemp is then taken into the mill and run through a 'breaking machine,' to crush the stalks but not the fibers, and then it is graded and the woody fibers separated by a process termed 'scutching.' The only hand process involved is the 'hackling' or combing out of the fibers. The number one grade of hemp is called 'line fiber,' while the number two grade is listed as 'tow.' The United States Navy, of course, requires the number one grade."
Of course, much occurred prior to the arrival of the hemp at Grandpa's mill.
To begin with, farmers needed seed. Wisconsin farmers never became involved in growing hemp to provide seed but rather relied on Matt to purchase seed from Kentucky where all the nation's seed originated. Kentucky seed was of Chinese origin and was purchased by the bushel, each bushel weighing forty-four pounds. Like most of the hemp growing and milling process, selecting seed also needed to be done with care. Just as seed that was more than two years old didn't germinate well, neither did immature seed that was green to a yellowish green color. It was important that the seed selected be kept in a cool and dry area as it spoiled under damp, warm conditions. Ideally, the seed had an oil content of 29-34%. Matt took the responsibility of purchasing the seed and then selling it to the farmers to initiate the growing process.
While hemp returned much of the nutrients removed from the soil, it required a rich soil high in nitrogen content. As such it was a crop that was best rotated with such crops as soybeans, alfalfa, clover, or old pastures. Experiments conducted by Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, indicated that the highest hemp yields followed those crops that left the most available nitrogen in the soil. Using 100% as the most proficient, the following crops most appropriately preceded the planting of hemp:
|Alfalfa and clover||100%||(Practitioners involved in the process indicated that they followed alfalfa or clover with a crop of corn or soybeans which loosened the soil and made hemp planting easier.)|
|Corn and oats||57%|
Logically, nitrogen fertilizer produced greater gains than did phosphorous or potassium. In fact, one of the best fertilizers was plain old barnyard manure!
For best results, fields were plowed in the fall and planted in the spring, generally just prior to corn planting time. The seeds were planted one-half to one inch deep with approximately one bushel of seed planted per acre. It was also helpful to plant hemp in fields that had good drainage. While hemp did not require cultivation and, therefore, not much attention of any kind during the summer months, it did require considerable handling during the fall. As a result, most farmers limited their crop to no more than ten acres. Following these procedures for preparation and planting, farmers found that hemp grew well in the Wisconsin corn belt area because of the nature of the soil and because it had no natural diseases or insect enemies in the area. By late August or early September, the hemp typically had grown to six to eight feet tall---an ideal height in which to build "houses" and get lost!
The harvesting process began with the cutting of the hemp in the early to the middle part of September. By the time it was ready for cutting, the hemp plant was ready to form seed. It was important to cut it prior to the forming of seed as that process took some of the oil out of the plant and reduced the softness of the fiber. That was also the reason the seed was purchased from Kentucky as opposed to being grown in Wisconsin. It took a longer growing season to produce seed, resulting in a fiber that was more coarse and brittle. As can be seen, timing was a delicate matter and care had to be taken. If the hemp was harvested too early, a finer and softer but weaker fiber would result. If it were harvested too late, coarse, brittle fiber resulted. Obviously, there was a skill to
Harvester in operation
"The hemp harvester was a seventeen-foot wide machine that would cut a swath about seven feet wide. A large, movable reel would bring the cut hemp back onto a platform. A canvass apron then elevated it to be caught by a circular apron and brought around at a ninety degree angle and spread on the ground."
Cut hemp in the field
The hemp was then left on the ground for from four to six weeks and exposed to the rain and dew. this process, a partial rotting of the hemp, was called the "retting" process. Specifically, it was called "dew retting" as opposed to being retted artificially in large vats as was sometimes tried in Kentucky and Italy. This retting process permitted the fiber of the hemp to be easily separated from the woody core of the stalk. This, too, was a sensitive process subject to delicate timing. If the hemp was over retted, the fiber was weak as the adhesive substance between fiber cells on the stalk broke down. This then produced short, broken strands of fiber called "tow fiber" which were less valuable than the long strands called "line fiber." On the other hand, if the hemp was under retted, the fiber would not separate well from the stalk or so-called woody "hurds" of the plant; and the quality of the fiber was poorer and would not spin into a good quality twine. It was also discovered that it helped to turn the cut hemp over at least once during the retting process so that both sides were evenly retted. During early times, the turning process was done by hand. A farmer could turn approximately three acres per day, so it was a tedious, laborious process. At any rate, the question of the day for farmers come October was to ret or not to ret as a few days too long in the field could mean the difference between retting and rotting. Farmers received help in this decision-making process from personnel at the hemp mill who performed several tests to help determine whether or not the hemp had been properly retted. Three such tests are described in a 1943 US Agriculture Bulletin:
1. Break test--- Three to six stalks are taken in the hands and
bent back and forth. If the hemp is properly retted, the fiber
shouldn't break when the woody core crumbles and the hurds fall
free. This is the test most commonly used in Wisconsin.
2. Bowstring test--- One to five percent of the fibers are in a bowstring shape.
3. Peel test--- If properly retted, the fiber peels freely away from the stalk.
When it was determined that the hemp was properly retted, it was gathered up from the field and tied into bundles with a Harvester machine called a Gather-binder.
Shocks in the field
As Matt has said in a few eloquent words at the beginning of this section dealing with process, once the hemp arrived at the mill it was first dried to where it had a moisture content of five to six percent. To do this, bundles of hemp were opened and laid out flat on a conveyor ten feet wide and one hundred feet long which went through a drying kiln. This process took approximately one and a half hours. Once appropriately dried, the hemp went through a machine called a "breaker." The breaker had about fifteen sets of corrugated rollers, one above the other, similar to two gears meshing into each other. These "gears" were not tight together, which allowed room for hands of hemp straw to be fed through them. As the hemp straw progressed through the machine, it was crushed. The short pieces of crushed stalk, called "hurds," were then
Hemp stacked at the mill
waiting to be processed
Matt by a new scutcher
in the Markesan plant
While the hurds that came out of this process were used to fuel the plant or for cattle bedding, the short pieces of fiber or "tow" were fed into a "tow machine" which was a smaller model of a breaker. The tow came out of this machine in loose form and was bailed that way. An average bale of tow weighed 350 pounds.
The longer and more valuable "line fiber" was caught by workers as it came out of the scutcher and made into handfuls or "hanks." The "hanks" were then combed by hand, a twist was made in the center of them, and they were put onto racks. Baler men would then pick up the "hanks" by the armful and create bales to be trucked to Waupun and shipped to spinning companies throughout the country. Bales of "line fiber" averaged about 500 pounds or more.
Dayton Rens checking racks
The major soft fiber spinning companies Matt did business with included LudlowManufacturing Company, the Linnen Thread Company, the Hanover Cordage Company, and, of course, the Navy. that held hanks of line fiber.
He timed it well; sold and bought; made a great impression.
So, Matt essentially developed this milling process in 1915 and throughout the course of his life worked to refine it. While the business proved profitable for Matt, it was a cyclical business by nature. W.W.I and immediately thereafter were boom times for the hemp business, and Matt prospered. As a result, competition took notice and increased, making business tougher. It was good enough in 1928, however, for a slick Chicago businessman to make Matt an offer he couldn't refuse. So, in one of those masterful once-in-a-lifetime strokes of genius, Matt sold his hemp mill in 1928—and just at the exact right time. When the crash of 1929 came and the great depression set in, the city slicker was driven back to Chicago, leaving the area farmers, who had already planted their hemp crops but now had no place to process them, high and dry. Matt then bought back his mill and the one in Waupun besides, and he and Garrett Greenfield, the manager of the Waupun plant, rescued the area farmers by processing their hemp. In 1930 Matt closed the Waupun plant and consolidated his operation in the plant on highway 49. He later donated the Waupun property to the City of Waupun, and it is today the site of the Waupun Hospital. Matt also served on the planning board for the hospital from 1943 until his death in 1950. The hospital was dedicated and opened in 1951, and serves the city of Waupun and the surrounding area to this day.
Because of the depression, Matt didn't grow or process any hemp in 1930 or 193 1. In fact times were so difficult in the early 1930's that all the Wisconsin hemp mills except for Matt's and the ones in Juneau and Beaver Dam closed. By the mid 1930's things were somewhat on the upswing, and Matt's farmers grew 375 acres in 1935 and in the 19361940 period between 500-600 acres were planted annually. In 1939 all of that changed when Hitler began causing problems in Europe. At first the spinning companies began asking for more fiber, but Matt saw bigger things on the horizon. Once again he recognized a need and an opportunity and moved like the astute businessman he was to respond and take advantage. In 1940 he bought the Markesan Hemp Company from an eighty year old gentleman and then regenerated the plant to help respond to the burgeoning need.
Waupon Memorial Hospital as it looks in 1995
He organized and produced hemp galore.
In 1941 Matt's farmers in the Alto, Waupun, Brandon, Fairwater, and Markesan area grew 2700 acres of hemp or nearly five times their previous annual production. By now Matt had opened the Markesan plant to help in processing and had installed his oldest son, Dayton, there to manage the plant. Dayton remained there through the peak war years, returning to his farm on highway 49 several years later.
In addition to purchasing and upgrading the Markesan plant to help respond to increased demand, Matt saw a need for more and better equipment. As a result of Matt's work with several implement companies, the John Deere Implement Company converted their rice harvesting machine to a hemp harvester, a small implement company developed an improved gather-binder machine, and a turning machine was developed that turned the hemp over during the retting process. This machine turned about fifteen to twenty acres per day as opposed to the laborious hand-turning method which turned just three acres per day. Matt was now positioned to respond to the demands of his customers and his country, and those demands became major.
As reported in a June, 1944 Iowa State University Bulletin, "Imports of manila and sisal fibers from the Philippines and Netherlands Indies were cut off shortly after December 7, 1941." When the Japanese took over the Philippines and took control of large areas of the Pacific, it is reported that about a year's supply of Abaca (Manila hemp) fell into their hands. In addition, most of the world's supply of fiber for rope was cut off. Hemp was suddenly a "strategic war crop." Here is how the Farmers Bulletin Number 1935 from the US Department of Agriculture put it:
By B. B. Robinson, Senior Agronomist
"Hemp is now a strategic war crop. It is needed for making strong, durable twines and ropes, formerly made of fibers imported from the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies.
Your Government is sponsoring the expansion of the hemp industry, and farmers will be assisted in the production, handling, and marketing of this crop.
By growing hemp in 1943, farmers in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Kentucky can serve their country and also have good prospects of profit for themselves ..... "
In fact, the need was so pressing that in 1942 the US Government decided to get into the act itself and drafted a plan to build forty-two government-owned and operated hemp mills in the upper midwest in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin as well as a smaller number in Kentucky. In moving forward aggressively with their hemp production program, the government took a number of decisive steps. First, they consulted Matt and asked for his advice on how to expand production, build mills, train managers, and process hemp. Second, they contracted with Northwest Flax Industries in Winona, Minnesota, to construct approximately $1,000,000 worth of hemp breaking machines for installation in their forty-two plants. Third, they opened a special training school in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, to train 170 men they had hired to manage and operate their mills. And finally, they constructed their forty-two mills at a cost of approximately $350,000 each. The government's goal was to plant 30,000 to 37,000 acres of hemp in Kentucky in 1942 for seed production purposes. This was preparation for meeting the goal of planting between 300,000 to 450,000 acres of hemp in 1943 that could then be processed for its fiber.
It was during these war years that Matt solidified his reputation as the Hemp King of America. It has been reported that during this period Wisconsin supplied about three fourths of the hemp raised in the country and that Matt, in his two mills, produced more hemp than any manufacturer in the United States. In fact, a 1940 Milwaukee Journal article reports that at the beginning of the war period Matt's mills processed ninety-five percent of the country's hemp. While the country's production records are somewhat contradictory, a 1944 Iowa State Bulletin reports it as follows:
|W.W.I period||10,000-15,000 acres per year were planted|
|1930's||1,200 acres per year were planted|
|1941||7,000 acres were planted|
|1942||13,500 acres were planted|
|1943||176,000 acres were planted|
A 1971 article in the Appleton, Wisconsin, "Post Crescent Magazine" reports that the Wisconsin hemp crop from 1938-1943 produced an average of 7.9 million pounds of fiber, but that the 1944 Wisconsin crop produced 19 million pounds. The average yield was said to be about 850 pounds of fiber per acre. On the other hand, other reports indicate that Matt's mills processed over 3600 acres of hemp during their peak years and in one year produced nearly 4,000,000 pounds of fiber. However it is viewed, the Matt Rens Hemp Company produced a significant portion of the nation's fiber prior to the government's war effort and played a continuing and expanded role during the critical war years.
treating buyers and farmers with thoughtful care.
While there was money to be made in the hemp business by both farmers and millers, exact records of profits are hard to find. As indicated, Matt established a process early on where farmers were paid fifty percent of whatever the fiber they produced eventually sold for. Willard Rens reports that farmers could often net $100 per acre or more up to $160 per acre in a good year. Prices, however, were as cyclical as the business and generally depended on the availability of foreign fibers. In general, however, two and a quarter to two and a half tons of air-dry retted hemp stalks were produced per acre, and those two and a quarter to two and a half tons of stalk produced approximately 1000-1100 pounds, over half of which was high quality "line fiber." The rest of it was the shorter, less desirable, "tow fiber." The price per pound varied widely depending on demand; however, Willard Rens recalls selling some fiber for thirty-one cents per pound. John DeBoer, Matt's son-in-law who also worked in the mill, recalls in a "Post Crescent Magazine View" article that, "One year we had 3600 acres raised for our plants, and the average net return after expenses was $108 per acre." A 1943 "New York Harold Tribune" article reported that the Federal Government would pay between $30-$50 per ton for retted hemp. Given that, if each acre produced between two and a quarter and two and a half tons of stalks, the Government was paying anywhere from $65-$125 per acre during peak war years. At any rate, there was, indeed, good money to be made in the hemp milling business; however, as history shows, it was not a particularly steady business.
were some of the things he had to work through.
Politics clearly played a major role in the hemp business. Major political interventions centered around two factors---war and drugs. The first, war, has already been dealt with in the recapturing of the history of the hemp industry from 1914 through W.W.II. Matt played a significant role in both those wars by delivering a strategic war product to the Federal Government during a time of great need. Not only did he deliver a quality product, but he refined the industry, helped create more efficient processing methods, and loaned his expertise to the government when called upon. Even then it should be noted that as is always true in
Matt Rens as a 12 year old boy in 1895
"So inferior is this domestic product (hemp) to the lowest grades of imported fiber that no responsible manufacturer would waste his time on it .... In the process through which hemp must go before the fiber can be recovered, it loses all the qualities which would make it commercially valuable. Its normally short fibers become so brittle that they cannot be spun .... It's just a way to give farmers another subsidy in the form of a fictitious price for a worthless product."
Matt Rens working at
his desk in the Highway 49 mill
Willard Rens examining hemp
on the Dayton Rens' farm on Highway 49
The gather-binder machine used to tie
straw into bundles after retting is completed
The steam engine used to operate the dryer
as it looked while in operation in the Highway 49 mill
The same steam engine as it exists in a
dilapidated portion of the Highway 49 mill in 1994
The article came to Matt in a 1943 letter from the Vice President and General Manager of the John Deere Implement Company asking for Matt's reaction. Unfortunately, Matt's reaction is not attached. Perhaps it's just as well!
Ed Van Loo stands near a
full grown hemp crop
On the narcotics front Matt has this to say in a 1940 Milwaukee Journal article:
"We have enough marijuana on hand in stacks and in our warehouses to drug the nation, but I can't recall a single case since I've been in the business where farmers or help around here smoked or put marijuana to improper use."
The Federal Government, however, was increasingly stringent in their restrictions on the plant. In 1945, for example, this led Matt to Washington DC. where he headed a delegation testifying before a Senate Finance sub-committee. He told them their newest regulation of requiring farmers to remove all leaves and flowers from the hemp plant prior to delivering them to the hemp mill would force them all out of business. Matt indicated that the requirement would not only injure the plant but created a process so costly that there would be no point in growing it. He again declared, "In no instance have I ever known of anyone going into the hemp field and gathering the leaves for illicit purposes." And they got the point.
So a huge market glut created a strain.
By the end of 1944 the war picture had improved markedly and the government got out of the hemp production business. Most of their mills had been used for only one year and then were sold to various industries at a low price. Because it took a long time to get the mills into production, two mills in Kentucky never became operational at all. However, because the government's mills had created a large fiber glut on the market during their year in operation, the fiber market was extremely competitive in the mid to late 1940's. In response to the problem created, the government provided a one-year guaranteed fiber price if the fiber couldn't be sold to spinning companies at that rate or higher. This was a big help to Matt and to area farmers as in 1946 the government purchased upward of 500,000 pounds of Wisconsin fiber in their price support program. It was expected that they would then need to purchase nearly all of the 1947 Wisconsin production of 4,655,000 pounds besides. The purchasing program was completed by May of 1948.
One of the government's post war efforts was to assist European countries in their rebuilding efforts. As part of that, the plan was to send millions of pounds of fiber to France in 1950. In response, another large hemp acreage was planted in 1949 only to have the government change their plans. This created a huge glut on the fiber market in 1950. When the milling season was completed that year, there were seventy carloads of fiber on hand with no potential buyers in sight.
And in 1950 Matt Rens died. And no new crop was grown.
And the end came.
Decline and Closing
While efforts were made by Matt's family to maintain the business after his death, the need for US grown fiber was spotty at best. A 1944 Milwaukee Journal article predicts and summarizes the plight of Wisconsin hemp succinctly when it states, "The danger is over, and it is possible to import hemp at a lower cost than our farmers can produce it."
While there was only limited activity in the mill after 1950, in 1951 the Linnen Thread Company bought the remaining fiber that was on hand for use in 'cellulose sponges. In response, in 1952 another crop was grown and, again, the Linnen Thread Company purchased the bulk of the fiber. In 1953 another crop was planted, but a poor retting year resulted in an inferior product unattractive to potential buyers. In 1953 the Markesan plant was sold to a Milwaukee family for use as a machine shop, leaving only the mill on highway 49. In later years the Markesan mill was operated as a foundry by Strakata Industries. Since 1978 it has been Robin II, a company which creates expandable polystyrene molds for use in packaging and as coolers. A major portion of the original hemp mill structure remains today, unchanged since the early 1900's.
The Markesan plant as it looks in 1995
In 1954 a moderate acreage was again planted, but just at cutting time monsoon-type rains hit and two-thirds of the crop was over retted. While some fiber of relatively poor quality was sold to paper companies, spinning companies were disappointed. Other potential uses for the product were explored in the 1955-1957 time frame such as the use of hemp in the textile industry where green hemp would be used to make clothing, but in the end there simply was no more demand for hemp products.
Finally, in 1957 the last hemp crop was grown to be processed at the Matt Rens Hemp Company, and it was a good one. Farmers had an excellent retting season, and the fiber produced was of good quality. Matt would have been proud of it. But, when the processing was completed in 1958, it took over a year to sell the high-quality fiber produced. The hemp industry no longer served a purpose or responded in a cost effective way to a customer's need.
Several things contributed to the industry's decline:
1. It was difficult to control fiber quality due to the field
retting process and being dependent on the vagaries of nature.
2. Gummed tape was developed as a way to seal packages for mailing, eliminating the once robust post office market.
3. Synthetic fibers such as orlon and nylon could more consistently control strength.
4. The issue of marijuana control became more important as the country's culture underwent change.
So what happens when you end a business? In this case the Matt Rens Hemp Company on highway 49 between Waupun and Brandon was sold to Henry Mays, the owner of a Waupun construction company who used it for storage and a workshop. He since has sold it to another construction business, and it still remains to this day a Highway 49 landmark.
The Matt Rens Hemp Company
on Highway 49 as it looks in 1995
As a final act of closing, Matt's son Willard Rens who ran the
business following Matt's death, personally degerminated 2000 bushels or 88,000 pounds
of hemp seed that cost $9$10 per bushel and sold it for its only
potential use---as bird seed at $2 per bushel.
And the business ended.
In crafting this book for family consumption, I spent a great deal of time with Grandpa Matt---reading about him, listening about him, and thinking about him. In doing so I could not help but feel a strange closeness with the man who died forty-four years ago when I was just an eleven year old boy. I also couldn't help but form some opinions and come to some conclusions about the nature of the man.
I've been told by others that Matt was a "man of integrity," that "he treated others fairly and well," that his motto was, "live and let live and don't take advantage of others," that he was highly respected by all inside and outside the world of hemp, and that he was a devout Christian family man. If you read between the lines of this book, I believe you will find verification of all these things in the way that Matt did business.
My personal memories of Grandpa Matt are limited. I remember he owned a Buick and a Cadillac, and I was impressed. I remember Dad and I sometimes started our day in Grandpa's Hemp Mill office, and Grandpa would always ask, "Well, Dayton, what's on the agenda for today?" I remember whenever we visited Grandma and Grandpa's house in Alto he'd sneak candy and cookies and fruit to us; and, in a conspiratorial wink, would admonish us not to tell Grandma. I distinctly remember his funeral because of two things. First I remember the casket with Grandpa in it was kept in the house for two days. And second I remember that my cousin Arlen Tenpas and I cried loud and long and unashamedly on the enclosed front porch where everybody was sitting after returning from the Alto Cemetery. But otherwise I don't have many personal recollections of Grandpa.
After writing this book I do, however, have some opinions and conclusions. In 1914 when W.W.I broke out Matt was a simple Wisconsin dairy farmer with a tenth grade education. Yet he took the concept of a decorticating machine and built it into a major industry within a year. In 1920 Matt's mill burned down. Within three months he built a new and improved plant and was up and running. In 1928 when business was booming, Matt sold his Hemp Mill. In 1929 the stock market crashed and the depression was on. In 1930 he bought his mill plus the Waupun mill back to help area farmers who had been abandoned by a Chicago city slicker. In 193 1 he closed the Waupun mill and later donated the land to the City of Waupun. Today the land is the site of the Waupun Hospital. In 1939 Hitler began creating problems in Europe. In 1940 Matt increased his production capacity by purchasing the Markesan mill and stimulating the development of new and improved equipment. Who was Matt Rens? He was a generous, creative, inventive, persistent entrepreneur with an almost magical sense of timing who cared deeply for others. Those were all traits that made him a highly successful and respected businessman and led to his becoming America's Hemp King.
"America Revives Old Hemp Industry for Rope to Hang the Axis: Hemp for War Now Sprouting on Corn Land," New York Harold-Tribune, May 30, 1943.
"Badger Hemp Important to Navy: Matt Rens' Factory, Brandon, Largest of Its Kind," paper unknown, 1940.
"Costly U.S. Hemp Scheme Based on Worthless Weed," Chicago Journal of Commerce, May 8, 1943.
"Expert Reviews Boom in Hemp: Million Dollar War Product of 12 Factories Made in Three Now," The Milwaukee Journal, December 23, 1934.
"Hemp Growers File Protests: Matt Rens, Brandon, Talks to Congressional Group at Washington" Fond du Lac Newspaper, May 28, 1945.
"Hemp Grown for War Rots; U.S. Burns It," Chicago Tribune, August 23, 1944.
"Hemp is Likely to be A Major Wisconsin Crop: Production May Move Into High Gear in 1943, When Kentucky Seed will be Made Available," Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, 1943.
"Hemp Mills in State Face Shutdown as War Picture Improves: No Contracts for 1945 Crop: AAA Quota Chairman Reveals Foreign Fiber is Being Received," The Milwaukee Journal, November 29, 1944.
"Hemp Survey Made in States" The Milwaukee Journal, September 6, 1942.
"J. A. Johnson, Associates Get Contract: Equipment to be Used in 6 States for War Production," Winona, MN Newspaper, 1942.
"On the Production of Hemp," The Wall Street Journal, December 16, 1942.
"RFC Declares 13 U.S. Hemp Mills Surplus," Chicago Journal of Commerce, July 3 Is 1945.
"Rope - Hemp Such as Pilgrims Planted at Plymouth Revived as War Crop: U.S. Hustling to Get Half Million Acres Into Production Before Imports Are Used Up: Shrinking Supplies Stretched," The Wall Street Journal, June 24, 1942.
"State's Hemp Mills Revive: Two Will Operate," The Milwaukee Journal, date unknown, estimated early 1950's.
"U.S. Is Buying Hemp of State: Market Fails," The Milwaukee Journal, January 25, 1948.
"Wisconsin's Hemp King: His Rise and Decline," Post Crescent Magazine View, Appleton, Wisconsin, January, 1971.
Laurie, R.B., Vice President and General Manager, John Deere Co., May 12, 1943. (Letter to Matt Rens)
Pritchard, R.L., R.L. Pritchard and Company Fibre Brokers, June 4, 1943. (Letter to Matt Rens)
Rens, Willard, Matt Rens Hemp Company, August 8, 1989. (Letter to Dennis Rens)
Rens, Willard, two tapes regarding the chronological history of the hemp business from 1914-1958, August, 1989.
Rens, Ruth, May, 1989.
Dedication brochure, Waupun Memorial Hospital, July, 1951.
Promotional packet, Robin II Incorporated, Markesan, Wisconsin, October, 1994.
"Hemp," Farmers Bulletin No. 1935, U.S. Department of Agriculture, January, 1943.
"Hemp Production Experiments: Cultural Practices and Soil Requirements," Bulletin P63, Iowa State College, Ames, Iowa, June, 1944.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1994.
Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition.
"Hemp Processing," a 1940 film produced by Willard Rens.