Fiber Wars

Chapter 5

Hemp's Progress

For more on the coming of hemp to Wisconsin, see Hemp in Wisconsin

While the South's cotton economy struggled, following the Civil War, hemp culture spread, with active federal assistance, north into Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, New York, Minnesota and eventually to Wisconsin, west to Nebraska and California, and also, briefly, south. In his pastoral account of post-bellum life in the hemp growing region of Kentucky, James L. Allan recalls that "...the long interruption of agriculture in the South had resulted in scarcity of cotton; so that the earnest cry came to Kentucky for hemp at once to take many of its places."40

Flax fiber also enjoyed a short resurgence. Both fibers were promoted by the USDA's Office of Fiber Investigations, established in 1890. Its first Director, Charles Dodge asserted "There is no reason why hemp culture should not extend over a dozen States and the product used in manufactures which now employ thousands of tons of imported fibers."41

In 1895, Dodge mentions that "In the past two years there has been an increasing demand for information relating to hemp culture, and experiments looking to its production have been carried on in localities where previously its culture was unknown, notably in extreme Southern States, which are large cotton producers."42 In 1901, the report tells that "During the past two years hemp has been grown successfully on a small scale near Houston, Texas, and with improved methods of handling the crop it seems probable that it may become a profitable industry in that region."43

Hemp growing in the South did not proceed, however. Hemp, traditionally, is a temperate climate crop. Because of photoperiodism, the crop will be induced to shift to its reproductive (seed setting) growth phase by the shorter days and longer nights during the growing season at more southern latitudes. World-wide, hemp agriculture is found above 35 degrees latitude in Russia, Hungary, China and Wisconsin.

A symbiosis developed between seed producers in Kentucky and fiber producers in Wisconsin based on hemp's photoperiodism. This will be discussed in later sections.

In contrast to cotton, a southern and even tropical fiber, hemp and flax tend to be temperate fibers. When grown in the South, it is as winter crops.

"McCormick Harvester and Twine Binder manufactured in 1881. This was McCormick's first binder which tied the bundles with twine."
from "Grain Harvesting"

The hemp industry declined after the Civil War with the coming of the steamship, but a new impetus for increasing hemp production came with the invention of a binder for the harvest of wheat and other small grains. This machine required a strong binding-twine for which hemp was ideally suited.

Hemp's success, Dodge's Office of Fiber Investigations recognized, depended on mechanization of harvesting, breaking, scutching and hackling. In 1896, they "hoped before another year to bring together for the first time the promising hemp-cleaning devices that have been brought to public notice for an official trial."44 The 1899 USDA Yearbook states:

There is a reasonable prospect of establishing an extensive hemp industry in the United States on new lines, involving the use of either a taller variety or two crops of the short variety, growing the crop on large areas of cheap land, plowing deep, putting on the necessary fertilizers, reaping and breaking by machinery, and using the process of water-retting.45

And, in 1902, the Yearbook told how,

In Nebraska, where the [hemp] industry is being established, a new and important step has been taken in cutting the crop with an ordinary mowing machine. A simple attachment which bends the stalks over in the direction in which the machine is going facilitates the cutting...The cost of cutting hemp in this manner is 50 cents per acre, as compared with $3 to $4 per acre, the rates paid for cutting by hand in Kentucky. 46
The literature on hemp agronomy is full of testimonials to its ability to clean fields of weeds. (See: Hemp as Weed Control) It was a valuable contribution in the days before chemical weed control, as it could be today for "organic" agriculture.

Hemp culture moved north under USDA auspices. It was first grown experimentally in Wisconsin in 1908. The results were so encouraging that they were repeated and expanded over the following decade. Hemp caught on rapidly among farmers who observed the experiments near Waupon, in east-central Wisconsin, and noticed that it cleaned the fields of weeds.

Wisconsin Agriculture Experiment Station researcher Andrew Wright was given responsibility for promoting the growth of the industry. He reported on the progress in 1918:

When the work with hemp was begun in Wisconsin, there were no satisfactory machines for harvesting, spreading, binding, or breaking. All of these processes were performed by hand. Due to such methods, the hemp industry in the United States had all but disappeared. As it was realized from the very beginning of the work in Wisconsin that no permanent progress could be made so long as it was necessary to depend upon hand labor, immediate attention was given to solving the problem of power machinery. Nearly every kind of hemp machine was studied and tested. The obstacles were great, but through the cooperation of experienced hemp men and one large harvesting machinery company, this problem has been nearly solved. The hemp crop can now be handled entirely by machinery.47

The industry was off to a good start thanks primarily to the war demand that always stimulated trade in hemp. However, with the ending of the war, demand fell off and the industry realized it needed to organize for its self-promotion. The Wisconsin Hemp Order was formed on October 17, 1917, at Ripon, "to promote the general welfare of the hemp industry in the state."48 The key to the industry's growth was the organization of the central mill located with rail access. In 1921, the USDA reported that

The organized hemp growers of Wisconsin, working in cooperation with the field agent of fiber investigations [Andrew Wright], have so improved the quality and standardized the grades of hemp fiber produced there that it has found a market even in dull times. The hemp acreage in that State has been kept up, although there has been a reduction in every other hemp-producing area throughout the world.49

Mechanization and the mill organization quickly raised Wisconsin to the status of number-one hemp producing state. California also initiated hemp production and reported the highest yields: a ton of dew-retted fiber per acre.

The hemp variety grown was known generically as Kentucky Hemp. The first hemp grown in the US was of European origin, but plant introductions from China were found to give better results for North American culture. In 1901, it was observed that "No horticultural varieties are recognized in this country. Nearly all of the hemp grown here in recent years is of Chinese origin."50 To achieve satisfactory adaptation to the local growing environment, introduced foreign strains had to be grown "for at least three generations (three successive years) in the country where it is to be grown for fiber."51

In an effort to support the industry in the face of foreign competition, the USDA ran an aggressive hemp breeding program under the direction of Lyster Dewey. Germplasm was collected from around the world,52 and breeding selection was initiated in 1912. Several types of hemp were recognized by their points of origin:

that cultivated in Kentucky and having a hollow stem, being the most common. China hemp, with slender stems, growing very erect, has a wide range of culture. Smyrna hemp is adapted to cultivation over a still wider range and Japanese hemp is beginning to be cultivated, particularly in California, where it reaches a height of 15 feet. Russian and Italian seed have been experimented with, but the former produces a short stalk, while the latter only grows to a medium height. A small quantity of Piedmontese hemp seed from Italy was distributed by the Department in 1893, having been received through the Chicago Exposition....53

The hollow, fluted stem of the Kentucky landrace was a favored characteristic for good fiber hemp (Fig. 1). Dewey initiated his breeding program using the Kentucky type together with the internationally collected germplasm. Progress was steady:

  • 1917: "The crop of hempseed last fall, estimated at about 45,000 bushels, is the largest produced in the United States since 1859. A very large proportion of it was from improved strains developed by this bureau in the hempseed selection plats at Arlington and Yarrow Farms."54
  • 1918: "Early maturing varieties, chiefly of Italian origin, are being grown at Madison, Wisconsin, in cooperation with the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station. This is the third year of selection for some varieties, and the results give promise of the successful production in that State of seed of hemp fully equal to the Ferrara of northern Italy. "55
  • 1919: "The second-generation hybrid Ferramington, combining the height and long internodes of Kymington with the earliness and heavy seed yield of Ferrara, gives promise of a good fiber type of hemp that may ripen seed as far north as Wisconsin."56
  • 1920: "The work of breeding improved strains of hemp is being continued at Arlington Farm, Va., and all previous records were broken in the selection plats of 1919. The three best strains, Kymington, Chington and Tochimington, averaged, respectively, 14 feet 11 inches, 15 feet 5 inches, and 15 feet 9 inches, while the tallest individual plant was 19 feet. The improvement by selection is shown not alone in increased height but also in longer internodes, yielding fiber of better quality and increased quantity."57

Figure 1. Hollow stem of non-fiber (left) vs. fiber Cannabis. From Small, 197958

In 1928, Wisconsin saved the Kentucky germplasm when the seed crop in Kentucky was lost due to weather conditions:

An exceptional flood of the Kentucky River in June and early July, 1928, destroyed nearly all of the seedhemp crop. Fortunately, Wisconsin hemp growers had seed left over from previous years, but studies on hempseed germination conducted in 1927-8 indicated that most of the seed more than 3 years old germinated very poorly.59

Wright was concerned about the dependency of the Wisconsin industry on seed from Kentucky because the available varieties did not mature seed as far north as Wisconsin. The variety "Ferramington," coming from a cross between the fine, flaxen hemp of northern Italy, and varieties of the Chinese type, showed promise for seed production in Wisconsin. Of Ferramington, Dewey wrote, it "has been tried in Wisconsin, where it gave a very good crop nearly two weeks earlier than the main hemp harvest."60 Another early maturing variety, Kymington, was bred from the Minnesota hemp variety known as "Minnesota 8."

Since the fiber crop was cut before seed matured, raising hemp for fiber was a separate operation from seed production. A symbiosis developed between Kentucky seed producers in their southern location, and the Wisconsin fiber producers in the North. Seed from Kentucky continued to supply the Wisconsin industry until its demise in 1958.

While hemp was expanding and mechanizing, fiber flax was in decline. A fiber industry was established in Michigan in 1880 by James Livingston who later expanded it to Oregon. But the spinning of flax into thread for fabric ceased around 1920 after which the fiber was used primarily for upholstery tow.61 The constant problem for flax was susceptibility to a variety of diseases, including races of wilt, canker, rust and blights. "The story of flax improvement centers primarily about the successful battle against diseases that threatened to wipe out the industry completely."62

Flax contributed greatly to the sciences of plant breeding and plant pathology as efforts were brought to bear on the disease problem. Eminent pathologists, like E. C. Stakman at the University of Minnesota, honed their science on the disease problems of flax. A great feat of plant breeding and genetics is commemorated by "Plot 30," preserved at North Dakota State University in Fargo, where a technique for breeding disease resistance into crops was first demonstrated. Although elite varieties with resistance to flax wilt were bred by H. L. Bolley at the turn of the century, the linseed industry declined as markets were taken by petroleum-based materials.63

The USDA investigated other uses for hemp and flax in an effort to bolster the industries in the face of competition from imported tropical fibers. Both fibers had long been used for paper: bibles are often printed on hemp paper because of its light weight, strength and durability. Efforts at using byproduct flax straw met with mixed results. "Flax straw was found to cook with great difficulty, to require a very high percentage of bleach, and to screen badly, but could possibly be used for cheap wrappers."64 But in time, once the technological hurdles were worked out, byproduct flax straw came to supply a significant cigarette paper industry in Minnesota.

In 1916, a USDA bulletin showed that a byproduct of hemp fiber production, the hurds, which were burned as the fuel source in the hemp mills, could also be turned into paper.65 They reported in 1917 that

Because of the scarcity of raw materials for paper making and the increasing tonnage of hemp hurds, the matter was placed before a large paper company, with the result that the entire year's output of a hemp-breaking mill has been contracted for by a commercial firm.66

Recently, Donald Wirtshafter, hemp activist, lawyer and founder of The Ohio Hempery, Inc., has discovered more about this experiment. Among the archives of the Scripps newspaper family a remarkable 1917 correspondence from a Mr. Ed Chase to E. W. Scripps regarding an invention of one G. W. Schlichten.67 Schlichten invented a hemp decorticating machine. His decorticating machine was able to separate the fiber from the hurds of unretted stems. The resulting fiber had higher quality and brighter color than dew-retted fiber. Chase has this to say: "I have seen a wonderful, yet simple, invention. I believe it will revolutionize many of the processes of feeding, clothing and supplying other wants of mankind." The cost of Schlichten's operation located at the Timken Ranch in California's Imperial Valley was detailed:

One of Schlichten's machine's will produce per day (two shifts of eight hours each), as follows:
  • Two tons of fiber worth about $600.00
  • Five tons of hurds worth about 27.50
  • One ton of tops, leaves, etc. worth about 5.50
  • Total $633.00

Chase goes on to explain the value of this invention to his employer, Scripps:

FIRST: We make paper from an annual and thus help to preserve the forests, the streams and the soils.
SECOND: We make paper at lower cost than is possible from wood, for the following reasons:
A. Wood must have the bark, knots, etc., removed. The hurds are ready for the digester, when, as a by-product, they leave the Schlichten machine.
B. ...less caustic soda....
C. Sulphite must be mixed with ground wood pulp; but not with the pulp from these hurds.

Furthermore, hemp paper, Chase says, "is of better quality than newsprint stock."

As optimistic as this report was, it apparently met with an impasse and was not pursued by Scripps. By the mid-Thirties, technological innovation which allowed the pulping of southern pines alleviated the pulp shortage. The pulping of forests surged and a new industry grew in the South. 68

In 1995, the author visited hemp mills in Russia that were not in operation because shortage of fuel oil shut down the dryers. Large mounds of hurds rotted behind the mills. One mill's manager was making cement blocks incorporating the hurds. See RENEWED OPPORTUNITIES FOR RUSSIAN BAST FIBER PRODUCTION

Wisconsin's hemp industry produced more hurds than were used in firing the boilers. In Wisconsin, excess hurds created a fire hazard and were given away to farmers for bedding.69 The hurds would become a greater issue as the organic chemistry industry discovered new uses for cellulose: cellophane, celluloid, etc. But this opportunity was never seized by the industry in Wisconsin.

The Twenties were the apex of the traditional fiber hemp industry in Wisconsin. Mills were operating on both the east and west sides of the state.70 Andrew Wright, who, together with Matt Rens, See America's Hemp Kingwas responsible for much of the industry's growth, could proudly point out that "Wisconsin has...more hemp mills than all other states combined."71 The growth of the industry had come as a result of a concentrated effort at mechanization: "By the simple mechanical process of hackling, now being done by very efficient power-driven machines, hemp fiber is reduced to a condition closely resembling the coarser grades of flax and may be spun on flax-spinning machinery."72

Little further progress in this direction was made, however. By 1931, with the nation in collapse, hemp was still pinched between cotton, flax and the tropical imports. Dewey felt that additional technological innovation could change that:

Owing partly to the resistant character of the fiber itself and partly to the lack of development of special machinery for spinning hemp, this fiber is not spun as efficiently and cheaply as cotton and jute. The average price per pound of scutched hemp fiber is nearly twice the average price of jute and less than the price of cotton, but hemp yarns are more expensive than those of cotton as well as jute.73

The needed technological innovation did not come as the Thirties loomed with forboding. The hemp industry in Wisconsin declined into an insignificant niche crop on the state's east side with seed continuing to come from Kentucky.

The real changes were on other fronts.

The Twenties and the Rise of Chemurgy

Fiber Wars: Table of Contents