Histories of Hemp
by David P. West, Ph.D.
[Originally appeared in the Journal of the International Hemp Assoc., 1999]

The next morning I knew I had arrived when—leaving Shelbyville in Shelby County toward Lexington on the old state road 60 (long since backroaded by Interstate 64)—I encountered the first intersection: the marker identified the crossing road as "Hemphill Road."

Yes, of course, Shelby County Kentucky! I rifled through the manila folder on the passenger seat for the dog-eared xerox and flipped to the map. I was in the heart of old Kentucky hemp country! Weren't my chances pretty good of finding a copy of "Hopkins" at an antiquarian in University of Kentucky-Lexington town? That, at least, was the hope with which I rationalized turning south from Indianapolis rather than B-lining it for home in Wisconsin. In February, 1994.

The proprietor of the Black Swan took the words from my mouth when all I said was, "I'm looking for a copy of Hopkins..."

"History of Hemp in Kentucky," he finished my sentence and my hope crashed. "You'd be about third on the list. Do you want me to put you down?"

"Sure." (I think you just did.) "About how much would it go for, do you think?"

"100 plus." (Two years later I would receive a postcard from the Black Swan, they had a copy. $120. The Kentucky Hemp Growers' Museum and Library acquired it for their collection.)

Then the proprietor said, "He's still alive, you know."

Neither did I even know that Dr. James F. Hopkins lived in Lexington! That he had been a history professor at the University of Kentucky in the years after his doctoral dissertation became A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky, the coveted work I had presciently copied late one night on the company machine from the broken and tattered tome held in the library of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, the stacks of which I would years later spelunk to find the history of the hemp industry in Wisconsin, destined to become Fiber Wars: The Extinction of Kentucky Hemp. And here he was alive and in Lexington and in the phone book!

I called from the Black Swan and changed in a gas station. Suit and tie: if I was going to meet Dr. Hopkins, it would be as Dr. West. Clothes can be about respect.

The sales of U of Ky Press's reissuance of A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky will number the hemp activists in the world, as every one can be expected to purchase for themselves a copy of this indispensible account of the viscissitudes of the hemp industry during its halcyon period before the Civil War and its decline after, in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Though many may buy, fewer will read, as it is, admittedly, a fairly dry subject and the struggles of a local industry to supply plant material to a narrow market is not Gone with the Wind, though crop and industry may now be.

After its publication by the University of Kentucky Press in 1951 and with the final complete demise of hemp agriculture in the North America, "History of Hemp" became an obscure chapter of American agricultural history, soon out of print. Dr Hopkins had moved on to other matters. His wife, Bernice, answered the door of their quaint home in a tree-lined Lexington neighborhood and she actively joined our conversation.

Of late, Dr. Hopkins said, it seemed interest in hemp was increasing again. Little did either of us know then! And much. His memory of the details of his history was unimpeded at 83. We did our subject service in a conversation lasting over three hours on that serendiptious afternoon.

Hemp came to Kentucky by 1775, Hopkins chronicled, when Archibald McNeill first planted it on Clark's Creek near Danville. When Kentucky became a state, an official inspector was designated responsible for assuring the quality of hemp exported from the state.

The industry rose with the cotton trade because five percent of the weight of a cotton bale was actually hemp in the bale bagging and binding straps ("bale rope"). Only hemp had the strength to withstand the pressure of the compressed bales. (The greater the compression, the more bales on the barge.) The prospects of the Kentucky industry rose and fell with the fortunes of cotton. Optimism that hemp might usurp cotton markets during the Civil War went unfulfilled. When the war ended, cotton resumed. The great decline of this industry came after the war when steel bands replaced the hemp bands, and cheap imported jute, the baling cloth. A requirement that inland cargo barges use steel cables sundered another hemp market.

Throughout the century, political efforts by Kentucky legislators to encourage the domestic hemp industry in Kentucky managed to raise tariffs on imported fibers. These came and went. Cotton brokers often railed against the low quality of the Kentucky product and were willing to pay the extra, the bagging had such significance to them.

Despite the legislative encouragements, the Navy's hemp continued to come from Italy and Russia where traditional practices, particularly water-retting, produced a better fiber. Throughout its history, the Kentucky industry grappled with the need to implement improved methods of handling the crop, of retting, of rope production. Perennial low price compromised such undertakings.

In addition, the African-American population depended on the work hemp provided in braking and hackling the crop by hand, as depicted on the Paris, KY, Courthouse dome. It was the availability of this labor that obviated Kentucky's implementing technical advances, such as the mechanization of fiber processing later accomplished by the Wisconsin industry where labor was limiting. Fiber growing and processing moved north and Kentucky would be, in the twentieth century, primarily the seed supplier.

Hopkins described in detail the efforts of one entrepreneur, David Myerle, to produce quality, water-retted hemp for the Navy. He failed to meet the deadline of the contract more than once and ultimately ended in financial ruin, his hemp seized by his creditors. He persisted nonetheless, moving on to Missouri, which became a major hemp producer, but water-retting never caught on. For one thing, the odor and pollution from retting ponds was objectionable to the community, and, for another, there was a loss of slaves to pneumonia from working in the ponds in winter. Myerle's experience would be repeated, never with success. All is chronicled in Hopkins.

On that afternoon, we reviewed these events of over a century earlier, and they begged the question, why hemp? It was 1994, and I had barely thrust my toe (or tow) into the deep waters I would soon be swimming in. I came with a different point of view, and Dr. Hopkins was intent on my description of the crop as seen by a plant breeder. He did not know that hemp was not marijuana. He had written, "Between the two world wars hemp assumed a sinister aspect in the United States owing to a growing use of the drug, marihuana, which is produced by the same plant from which fiber is obtained." (p213, 1998) It was, afterall, the official line.

"People don't smoke hemp," I told him. "At least, not twice." It was a point no one had ever made to him, his field was historiography, not biology. I discussed plant genetic variation. And I talked about hemp as weed control, when he asked why it interested me so, as people always must, while peering deeply into your eyes for signs of duplicity.

Would the U consider reissuing "History of Hemp?" Hopkins didn't think there would be sufficient interest. That was then. The new edition is in paperback, with a durable binding and an attractive photo of the hemp seed harvest. You can see it's the seed harvest by the spacing and diameter of the stalks. The backcover blurb is backshadowed with a photo of the Kentucky hemp brake in action. Thus the two aspects of the Kentucky industry—fiber and seed— are sensitively represented. These pictures are also inside among the fifteen perfectly reproduced images of the old industry. The paper is recycled, but not hemp.

Noted Kentucky historian Thomas D. Clark has contributed the Forward. Blacks, Clark suggests, smoked the hemp. Actually, as he tells it:

Then, in the late 1930s there appeared a slight suspicion that the hemp plant had a narcotic or mind-altering chemical property. Soon after World War II the Federal Bureau of Investigation appealed to the Department of History at the University of Kentucky to supply possible information about the smoking of hemp blooms and leaves in earlier years. There seemed to have been some on the parts of slaves, and later field laborers. A case of a slave smoking hemp in the neighborhood of Owensboro could be documented, but there was a vagueness about other instances.

Seems enough to ban an entire crop, doesn't it?

Neither is he to blame for the confusion of hemp with marijuana. Nor are Bonnie and Whitebread. Nor Herer. That same year I met Hopkins, a newspaper story on the eradication effort—no doubt a DEA press release recycled as news—informed us that "Hemp is the plant from which marijuana is extracted."

Hopkins is not about the dark times in this century. And there is little in the study that would recommend the crop to modern times, although Hopkins managed to end on a wistfully optimistic note:

At the end of World War II the hemp industry in Kentucky appeared to have vanished. In time of stress, however, when fiber is needed and prices are high, it may appear again. Once more perhaps the distinctive odor of growing hemp will hang heavily in the summer air, and the fields of emerald green may once again add beauty to the Kentucky landscape.

It was five o'clock and Dr. Hopkins was needing to rest. He would pass the following year. But he said there was someone else in town I should meet who was also interested in hemp. He made a phone call.

A few minutes later, the door opened and Joe Hickey said, "We can't believe yer here."

Neither could I. That very evening a reporter was coming to interview Joe and his then-associate in hemp, Dan Wooten, about their "club", the "4-F's Club" ("Future Fuel and Fiber Farmers of America"). The new edition contains a citation in its updated bibliography to this evanescent organization, a "proposal" modestly addressed to the President of the United States in 1993. "Hemp is not marijuana," I told them. "That's not what the law says," they said. That night went late.

The 4F's Club would eventually become the revivified Kentucky Hemp Growers' Cooperative Association. And Joe would visit the Governor to say, "What about hemp, Gov?" whereupon the Gov would appoint a Task Force initiating a succession of tumbling dominos of hemp action from Colorado to Ontario to Vermont and Missouri and California and Oregon and Minnesota and Wisconsin. Cam Wood's subsequent piece in Ace Magazine (Feb. 1994) opens with reference to Hopkins and goes on to provide an account of a nascent revolution sparking to life in a kitchen in Lexington.

Dr. Hopkins made yet another contribution shortly before his death when he passed to Joe the information that the Woodford-Spears seed company in Paris (KY) had been a hemp seed producer. We had a get-together later that year when I was introducing Joe Strobel to Joe Hickey so the Kentuckians and Ontarians could share their experiences and conspire. We planned some outtings including a trip to Paris where we could see the murals on the courthouse dome and stop by Woodford-Spears to learn what they might know about the old seed.

Steve Spears was letting his sons run the company now. But he had recently become quite curious about the boxes of business correspondence nary a piece of which had ever been discarded in the company's entire history and was piled high in the "tower." We found him in back sorting papers. These, it turned out, were letters to and from such parties as the Rock River Hemp Mills in Wisconsin [EXAMPLE] dating from the first decades of the century. He had sorted stacks of these documents and he gave us each a handful that we accepted greedily giving each other looks like we had landed on a planet where the natives were innocently adorned in diamonds, and generous.

He said, "You know we have the old equipment out back."

Never was there such a group of happy hempsters. The Woodford-Spears "find" turned out to be the King Tut's tomb of hempobilia, including old scutched fiber, probably left from the last war crop. A hank of it hangs on my office wall as I write this. Indeed, they did have the old equipment out back.

Steve Spears told us, "My sons were bugging me to get that old stuff out of here. But I knew someday you would come."

It's been like that.

Kentucky's hemp history runs deep and has not ended. It is at least ironic, perhaps pathetic, that a state whose agricultural base is an addictive crop that is responsible for 400,000 deaths a year is today sanctimonious about growing a plant that once was its agricultural base and is only related to a non-addictive plant that has killed no one. Most peculiar, I'd say. A sad moment in the history of the hemp industry in Kentucky, and elsewhere.

History of Hemp does not delve into the later events and Dr. Hopkins was unaware—as was I in 1994—of how complex it all became. Hemp moved elsewhere although Kentucky continued to grow seed for Wisconsin until the end in 1957. We don't know to what extent the improved USDA varieties like Chinamington had entered commercial usage. It is unlikely that the industry would not have substituted the latest developments for the "Common Kentucky" of yore. In any case, the only remnant we have of this unique genetics are the feral plants around Shelby County, down Hemphill and other old roads of a history denied, that are annually the object of attack by the Eradicators.

History of Hemp is not a book to shed light on much that is current with hemp. Nor is it a book to explain how we got into our contemporary quagmire. That book hasn't been written and the clichés are wrong. Although Dr. Hopkins mentions in conclusion the rise of hemp growing in Wisconsin and the War Emergency hemp production, the rise and fall of the "unorthodox" industries in Minnesota and Illinois —that were the subject of the famed 1938 Popular Mechanics article and the object of the FBN's marihuana enforcement effort until it choked them to death—are not within the titular scope of this history.

These "unorthodox" (as B. B. Robinson called them at the 1938 Marihuana Conference) industries began their expansion in 1933, but were gone by 1939 and did not participate in the Emergency. They were unorthodox, chemurgic, and secretive. It would be of interest to know from where they got the seed to plant over four times Wisconsin's contemporaneous acreage. The Kentucky seed producers would have had to ramp up production substantially to fill orders for these new markets.

We know our latter-day problems trace in part to the US Government's response to the unorthodox industries. Something about them troubled the FBN to distraction. It was completely distracted from all the evidence that the fiber hemp differs from pharmaceutical cannabis. (If pharmaceutical houses had begun using "Cannabis americana" it may explain the lost efficacy of their potions. The US Pharmacopoeia at one time specified cannabis from the East Indies for medicinal preparations.) It was also so distracted that FBN agents never visited the Wisconsin industry, focusing all the bureaucratic power given them by the Marihuana Tax Act to inspect and regulate these new hemp industries until they choked to death on the redtape. One might question whether their interest had anything to do with either drugs or fiber.

In 1994, another historian of hemp, John Lupien, was completing his Masters at Pepperdine, Unraveling an American Dilemma: The Demonization of Marihuana. He has persisted in his quest for answers, burrowing deeper into the historical records than anyone before him. Perhaps when it appears his history of hemp will contain the final answers to what happened in 1937 and why. It's not something we will understand outside the full context of that decade. Hopkins is not the place to look for answers to such questions. His is a tale of halcyon days when hemp was simply a source of strong fiber, when the suggestion that the crop somehow bore a surreptitious message to children would have been met with the derisive laughter it deserves.

In 1994, we fervently agreed with each other around Joe Hickey's kitchen table that it would be great—however improbable— for the University to reissue Hopkins. And, too, it would be great if the Feds would get the boot off this crop.

1998: one down.