Fiber Wars

Chapter 9


While the chemurgic uses of hemp were being entangled in Treasury red-tape, the replacement of linoleum by vinyl, a petroleum product, was a further blow to the linseed industry, which was struggling to hold on as its other markets shifted to water-soluble paints, also made from petroleum sources. Flax and hemp were juxtaposed dominos in the general historic toppling to synthetic, petroleum-based materials. Some have posited that DuPont Chemical Company betrayed its cognizance of the meaning of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act when, that year, its Annual Report referred optimistically to "the extent to which the revenue-raising power of government can be converted into an instrument for forcing acceptance of sudden new ideas of industrial and social reorganization."152 This author has not found that theory persuasive. (See "Low, Dishonest Decade".)

As the US entered WW2, the traditional Wisconsin and Kentucky Hemp industries were in decline due to competition with synthetic fibers on the one side and flax straw and the imported fibers on the other. Then Japan's invasion of the Philippines cut off access to abacá and once again the strategic importance of hemp, recognized by Napoleon a century and a half earlier, was impressed upon the nation. Suddenly, it was necessary to set aside all the nasty things that had been said and mobilize for war. Unfortunately, seed stocks of "this drug plant" were very short. The government organized a private corporation, War Hemp Industries, Inc., with its headquarters at 208 South LaSalle Street in Chicago, which set about increasing seed stocks, planting 36,000 acres in Kentucky in 1942. Unfortunately, much of the seed was lost because of bad weather. Seventy one hemp mills were planned in several states, although only 42 were actually built, six in Wisconsin.153 Each mill cost about $290,000. They were designed by Andrew Wright. A film was produced and informational publications were issued by the USDA154 encouraging farmers to grow "Hemp for Victory," depicting the progress in mechanization of hemp production.155 Naval stores of fiber were extended by admixing ten percent hemp. Wisconsin farmers were raising 32,000 acres by 1943. In that year, an acre of hemp in Wisconsin averaged $110.59, while corn made $48.29.156 Overall, 60,000,000 pounds of fiber were produced in 1943 and 1944, combined, which covered the strategic requirement.157

Not everyone was happy with this plan, as the following press release reveals:158

March 30, 1943

The New Deal Bureaucrats and their fellow "dollar a year" fiber racketeers of the War Production Board are now offering Hemp Marijuana (dope) narcotic to the American people instead of increased food production. The American people are footing the bill.

In one of the most dastardly propositions ever "cooked" up the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the War Production Board are manipulating the proposition of a promotion and scheme to grow and produce hemp from a plant, outlawed by law, that is the fount of the insiduous {sic} drug known as Marijuana, the worst and most serious source of all (dope) narcotic evils afflicting children, in the schools and outside, and grown-ups alike in all walks of life. The fiber itself from this plant is worthless. The seeds from this plant fly far and wide. The resultant wild growth becomes dangerously uncontrollable. In the face of shortage and scarcity of labor, foodstuffs, linseed oil, fibers and other critical materials which are peculiarly being denied us, these corruptors [sic] of American life are now engaged in the promoting of 350,000 acres, erecting 100 buildings and building a large volume of equipment and machinery in a number of Mid-Western States for the production of this narcotic (dope) plant product, all of which must reach the staggering cost of $500,000,000 and end in catastrophic failure. A number of land-grant educational institutions are in on this racket. The Commodity Credit Corporation and the War Production Board and the Defense Plant Corporation, through their own created socalled [sic] "War Hemp Industries, Inc., Agency," something new in the New Deal bureaucratic set-up, are running this (dope) narcotic show with private racketeers as undercover men. Large profits have been made already by them on the seeds by cheating and gipping [sic] the government. The financial "kill" is figured to be colossal for all the participants. The kill to agriculture, industry, (the choicest and most fertile land or soils are being demanded) and health and welfare of the American people is going to reach disastrous proportions from which recovery may never be found possible. Congressman Hampton P. Fulmer, Chairman, Agricultural Committee, and Congressman Paul Brown, overseeing the Commodity Credit Corporation, and certain other members of the Congress, among them Senators Harry S. Truman and Scott W. Lucas, and Donald M. Nelson, Chairman, War Production Board, and John R. Hutson, President of the government Commodity Credit Corporation, Agricultural Adjustment Administration, etc. (the latter active participant) are acquainted with the facts as are being described here and have been presented to them in detail. The power-pressure of the participants in this narcotic (dope) racket is obviously superior to the best interests of the American people even during these dangerous times of their sacrifices and sufferings at home and on the battle front. The truth of the above report is vouched for. Do you want this (dope) narcotic in your community? You are lined up for it. It is to be noted that increased acreage for guayule rubber has been stopped because of the acute food shortages but though rubber scarcities exist yet.

HOWARD D. SALINS, Managing Director
Flax and Fibre Institute of America,
6423 North Newgard Avenue
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.
NOTE:---This whole hemp marijuana racket will be dumped out of existence right after the war is over in accordance to with [sic] a statement from Washington, D.C., but obviously not before the "kill" in taxpayers' money has been made and the narcotic has been spread to dope them.

This author's attitude at the resurrection of an old nemesis may be intelligible in light of the decline flax was suffering as synthetics took over the paint markets, and as the use of hempseed for its drying oil was attracting new attention.159 One thing flax did not need was another competitor. Salins held some patents on flax processing equipment.

While the author of this diatribe accuses the War Hemp Industries of wasting strategic resources, according to Walter Wilcox, author of The Farmer in the Second World War,

"The outstanding example of misused human and other resources in agriculture during the war effort occurred in the Cotton Belt. Although the acreage of cotton dropped some 17 percent during the war, production was maintained at far higher levels than was required for the war effort...Although the acres of cotton fertilized decreased each year [under the USDA quota program], this was largely offset by heavier rates of [fertilizer] application."160

Pounds of fertilizer used per cotton acre increased from 277 in 1940 every year to 335 by 1945. This resource, Wilcox points out, would have been better used on strategic crops, which short staple cotton was not. Southern legislators fought to get quotas removed from cotton production. When the war began there was a surplus of 12,900,000 bales of cotton. When it ended there were still 11,000,000 bales.

Cotton was continuing to lose markets to new synthetic fibers. Technological progress was stimulated by the war and when it ended synthetic fiber had conquered cotton's biggest market:

One of the most significant developments during the war in rayon was the sharp increase in United States production of high tenacity rayon for use in tire cords. Prior to the beginning of the war this was not only the largest single domestic outlet for cotton but was a field in which there was practically no competition.161

By 1949, rayon had taken two-thirds of this market. Rayon's price had fallen substantially through the war years, so "In November, 1950, cotton cost the mills 45.3 cents a pound, as compared with 32.9 cents for a comparable quantity of rayon staple fiber."162 And chemists were finding new synthetic fibers: nylon, fiberglass, fibers from milk and corn protein.

Cotton was also suffering losses in its second biggest market: bags. "The output of paper for shipping sacks increased from 195,000 tons in 1940 to 667,000 tons in 1948."163 That same year, cotton's use in bags hit an all-time low: 383,000 bales. Paper was also replacing cotton for "towels, handkerchiefs and napkins, window shades, plastics, twine, and draperies."164 In the previous century, most paper had been made from recycled cotton rags. Rags accumulated after Charles Herty at the Georgia State Department of Forestry invented a process by which southern pines could be pulped.

After the war, as cotton's dominance diminished, the economic condition of the South gradually improved, due in large part to war reductions in farm population which allowed farm acres per capita to increase to a point where efficiency was possible. Mechanical cotton pickers came into increasingly widespread use. The effect of mechanization was "to shift the relative profitableness of cotton from one geographical area to another—from parts of the South where cotton acreages per farming unit are small to other areas, including the West, where acreages per farming unit are large and where irrigation is a factor."165 Many southern farms finally succeeded in diversifying away from cotton monoculture. Today, pulp is the leading export for five southern states. Southern tobacco growers also prospered as hundreds of thousands of soldiers returned home addicted to nicotine as a result of government assisted cigarette give-aways.

America's new dependence on pre-rolled cigarettes also benefited the flax industry when the leftover flax straw found a use in cigarette paper.166 Dr. Bob Robinson (not to be confused with B. B. Robinson), now retired from the University of Minnesota, told the author a fascinating tale regarding this industry. Huge mounds of flax straw generally remained after seed harvest in western Minnesota. The Schweitzer company had developed a cigarette paper producing operation in Windom, Minnesota, to use this byproduct. But when the flax acreage moved west into North Dakota and Saskatchewan in the Sixties, Schweitzer was left without its primary fiber source. An idea occurred to the plant manager: grow hemp as a dual purpose crop—for birdseed and stem fiber—for his paper mill. He contacted Dr. Robinson who handled miscellaneous crops at the University of Minnesota. Robinson jumped through the DEA's hoops to obtain seed and run variety trials at the University's experiment farms. Having grown up on an Iowa farm that grew hemp during the war, Robinson was familiar with the crop and viewed it as an alternative that could fit selected niche markets. He had researched hemp and knew that Cannabis was recognized to contain three types: fiber, seed and drug. If the hemp could be used as a dual purpose crop (as is frequently done in Europe and Russia), then the stem would be a byproduct for paper production. Several varieties from Europe were tested (because Kentucky Hemp by this time was already lost). Birds were a pest on the crop, Robinson tells, but when all was said and done, the plant manager was very pleased with the results. However...

Recounting this episode to the author, Dr. Robinson explained that, meanwhile, in neighboring North Dakota an aspiring politician heard of this experiment and decided this was a fine idea that his state might also put to good use. His stumping for hemp was picked up by the Wall Street Journal which ran a story to the effect that the candidate was supporting legalization of marijuana. Kimberly-Clark, the paper giant which happened to own Schweitzer, upon seeing the WSJ article, put the kabosh on the plan and that was the last time anyone has grown hemp for paper in the US. The year was 1968. Kimberly-Clarke makes paper from hemp in France and is an active supporter of DARE in the US. It has also been revealed recently that Kimberly-Clarke acquired the Schlichten technology.167

Following the war, the South's hegemony in agricultural policy continued.168 So, while hemp and flax were desperate for markets, the USDA initiated a program in Florida, in 1943, to study the value of a native fiber-yielding grass, Sansevieria, also known as bow-string hemp. Programs investigating other long fiber plants were also begun with specific interest in papermaking potential. Although hemp was cited for tear-resistant paper, the selection of species for further research focused on two southern plants: ramie and kenaf. Efforts directed at these plants utilized hemp technology:

No harvesting machinery has been designed especially for ramie, but several reaper-type harvesters built for other crops can be adapted. The war-time hemp cutter has been combined with the hemp pick-up binder to make a complete cutting and binding machine.169

Kenaf was subsequently selected

"...for developmental studies. These include the preparation and use of mechanical pulps, chemi-mechanical pulps, semi-chemical pulps, and high grade bleached chemical pulps. So far as strength is concerned, experimental kenaf bleached pulps have been superior to commercial hardwood pulps and, except for resistance to tear, comparable to softwood kraft pulps and superior to softwood sulfite pulps.170

Kenaf will not flower if grown in the North. It will produce fiber there, but it is not on the scale of southern production. Yields in research plots have varied from 2.5 ton/acre (dry matter at Rosemount, Minnesota) to 15 ton/acre (College Station, Texas).171 "Today [1991] research and development continues, primarily in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Southeastern U.S.A., with emphasis on development for newsprint manufacture."172 Reflecting on the difficulties in introducing a new fiber, one researcher candidly revealed his experience of Fiber Wars:

New product development (and this includes improvement of old products) is absolutely essential if plant fibers are to remain competitive with other fibers. Much of this research will be done by governmental institutions and by various associations of producers, ginners, etc., who have a vested interest in cotton.173

With the effort to identify new sources of long fibers at the USDA, it might seem that the hemp industry was already history by 1950. The "unorthodox" industry in Minnesota was gone before 1940, its very existence buried beneath the sands of time, as were the words of Billy Hale and Wheeler McMillan. But the "conventional" industry continued in Wisconsin and Kentucky. The Rens Hemp Company operated five mills in eastern Wisconsin. A scutching unit was capable of handling 6000 to 7000 pounds of dry stalks, yielding 800 to 1000 pounds of clean fiber per hour. Approximately a dozen men working two shifts throughout the year were capable of handling the production of 4000 acres,174 but actual acreages were much less than this capacity. This "conventional" industry, producing fiber for a small and dwindling demand, was not a threat to anyone.

The company still obtained seed from Kentucky which it distributed to growers. The equipment to harvest the crop was owned by the mill, alleviating the capital equipment burden on farmers. Matt Rens' son, Willard, kept the business going until the 1957 crop was sold out in 1958. He says, "I don't think I would have enjoyed being in the business another five years because of the marijuana problem." Mr. Rens says he never smoked any of the crop, his growers were surprised to learn they were growing marijuana, the heinous drug plant. Now retired and living in Arizona, he is the last man to grow hemp commercially in the US.

The tax, he says, was not a big deal to their operation. It cost each farmer $3.00, and the company had to buy a special license to be a seed distributor. There was some additional paperwork, but they were never visited by any FBN inspectors. However, he recalls hearing of a mill near St. Paul, Minnesota, that was forced to close. He thought it was in the early fifties. He recalls it was an autumn when there was insufficient moisture for dew-retting, so when the stems came into the mill, leaves were still attached. As has been noted, normally hemp returns to the field the bulk of the nutrients it uses for growth when the leaves fall off during the retting process. But, in this instance, the leaves came in and so did the FBN and halted operation for over a year, forcing the mill into insolvency.

The author has been unable to find any record of this event. It is possible Mr. Rens is mixing in his memory rumors he may have heard of what happened years earlier in Minnesota to the Chempco and Cannabis, Inc., ventures.

I found the Articles of Incorporation for these companies that identify the men who were involved. There were five at Cannabis, Inc.: Dr. J. T. Schlesselman, President, Harry Pribnow and F. E. Holten, all listed as being from Mankato, Minnesota; C. F. Witt of Winona and D. L. McDonald of Burt, Iowa. Dr. Schlesselman was an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist at the Mankato Clinic. A long-time resident of the area, he was for many years the only doctor available to the rural residents; a man active with the Boy Scouts, a pillar of the community. According to his son, Edmond, a doctor himself, now residing in California, Dr. Schlesselman got interested in the hemp idea from a fellow traveling through the area (Anslinger's "promoter?"). Edmond Schlesselman who still remembers the episode well, recognized Holten as the man's name. The man had an invention, he recalls, a decorticator. At Cannabis, Inc., they were making mops, and they were very interested in the hurds. When asked what he remembers about why the venture failed, he said it was because at every step it needed official approval from the narcotics people. Pressed as to whether he is saying, unequivocably, that the failure of this effort, as he witnessed it as a young man in his twenties, was a result of government anti-marijuana red tape, he said, "Yes." He elaborated further that an agent had to be called to okay every move of the operation: the planting, the harvest, movement of the crop from field to mill. He said it was unworkable because of the government's obstruction.175

This testimony confirms that the chemurgic effort to revivify hemp agriculture in Minnesota was the object of special scrutiny that the traditional industry in Wisconsin—we know from Willard Rens—did not receive. By the time the War Emergency called for increased hemp acreage, the Minnesota experiment had already failed. They did not participate in the short-lived War Hemp Industries expansion. The Marihuana Tax Act was the tool used to target and encumber this undertaking.

It was different in Wisconsin. According to Mr. Rens, the final demise of the Wisconsin hemp industry occurred because it was unable to beat its competition, not directly because of the drug issue. A local newspaper article revisiting the "Hemp King" explained that "Willard Rens operated the plant until 1957, when synthetic fibers took over the market."176 This industry was in slow decline already and it was not exploring new uses for the crop.

Moreover, the crop from the Wisconsin industry was shipped to the east coast to be made into cordage, an economic disadvantage since substantial transportation costs were incurred. This disadvantage undermined hemp's ability to compete with the tropical fibers delivered by ship, other markets having been lost to the synthetics (twines and carpet backing). Clearly, to be economical, the end-use of the crop needed to be located nearer the mills, such as in Wisconsin's paper industry. Mr. Rens says that there was some interest in the fiber for paper in his time, but not the hurds. But this use never developed since supplies of wood pulp in the state had not become limiting, and, in those years, sulfate pulping was developing.

The fresh vegetable canning industry in Wisconsin took over the hemp acreage when the industry was gone.

With the final, complete elimination of commercial hemp production, there remained no commercial interests to restrain anti-cannabis political action. Legislation tightened on cannabis with a death grip.177 In the United States, as a result of regulations enacted in the 1970s, a plant with any detectable THC is now classified as a Schedule One narcotic, joining a list of chemically synthesized substances that have no redeeming utility.

The Extinction of Kentucky Hemp

Fiber Wars: Table of Contents