Hidden History of Hemp in America

The Past: Courtesy of the Farm Collector

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The Farm Collector is a monthly magazine focusing on antique tractors and all kinds of antique farm equipment....


By the mid-1600s, hemp had become an important part of the economy in New England, and south to Maryland and Virginia. The Colonies produced cordage, cloth, canvas, sacks and paper from hemp during the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Most of the fiber was then destined for British consumption, although at least some was used for domestic purposes. Ironically, the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were penned on hemp paper. 


Hemp fiber was so important to the young Republic that farmers were compelled by patriotic duty to grow it, and were allowed to pay taxes with it. Throughout his lifetime, George Washington cultivated hemp at Mount Vernon for industrial uses. The fibers from hemp held excellent properties for the making of rope and sail canvas, which was a major need in the age of the sailing ship. Thomas Jefferson bred improved hemp varieties, and invented a special brake for crushing the plant’s stems during fiber processing. 



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Hemp crops quickly spread, and arrived in Kentucky with settlers from Virginia just prior to the Revolutionary War, according to a 1919 article in the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin no. 22. These settlers set the stage for what would become one of the most important and long-standing hemp industries in America.


Along with Missouri and Illinois, Kentucky farmers produced most American hemp until the late 1800s, when demand for sailcloth and cordage began to wane as steam ships dominated the seas. By the end of the Civil War, Kentucky was the only state with a significant hemp industry until World War I, and that state remained the nation’s leading producer of hemp seed.


In 1918, virtually all stages of hemp growing and processing in the U.S. still relied on hand labor. It took the directed efforts of Wisconsin State Department of Agriculture and local hemp growers like Matt Rens of Waupun to convince the International Harvester Co. and others to embrace the task of mechanizing the hemp harvest and processing.


Ultimately, hemp’s use as a fiber crop was crippled by politics. In 1937, the federal government passed the Marijuana Tax Act, aimed at regulating the narcotic varieties of cannabis. Interestingly, this law turned over the regulation of hemp production to the Department of Revenue, which was then responsible for licensing all hemp growers.


“(The Marijuana Tax Act) didn’t really affect us as growers, other than we had to pay a small tax and sign a paper stating that we wouldn’t use the plant as a drug,” explains hemp farmer and Matt’s nephew, Junior Prange. “What really killed the hemp industry in the 1950s was the availability of cheap synthetic fibers."

POPULAR MECHANICS FEB 1938

New Billion Dollar Crop

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Publication Year: 1938

Popular Mechanics describes Hemp as the "New Billion Dollar Crop"


  American farmers are promised a new cash crop with an annual value of several hundred million dollars, all because a machine has been invented which solves a problem more than 6,000 years old. It is hemp, a crop that will not compete with other American products. Instead, it will displace imports of raw material and manufactured products produced by underpaid coolie and peasant labor and it will provide thousands of jobs for American workers throughout the land. 

Read the New Billion Dollar Crop Article at Google Books, Special Features:


https://books.google.com/books?id=e9sDAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=new%20billion%20dollar%20crop&f=true

POPULAR MECHANICS DEC 1941

Publication Year 1941

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"Why use up the forests which were centuries in the making and the mines which required ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the hemp fields?" ~ Henry Ford

Popular Mechanics Magazine reveals details of Henry Ford's plastic car made using hemp and fueled from hemp. Henry Ford continued to illegally grow hemp for some years after the Federal ban, hoping to become independent of the petroleum industry. 


Read About Henry Ford's Plastic Car at Google Books: 


https://books.google.ca/books?id=9dkDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA1&dq=popular+mechanics+1941+hemp+ford&hl=en&ei=M-vwTKHWIouYnweYmdX6Cg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=hemp&f=false 

HENRY FORD'S HEMP CAR

Publication Year: 1941


Popular Mechanics Magazine reveals details of Henry Ford's plastic car made using hemp and fueled from hemp. 


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In 1914, the United States $10 bill featured an image of hemp being harvested in the fields, a symbol of the glorious productivity of our nation at that time.     

Hemp For Victory 1942

This film was made to encourage farmers to grow hemp for the war effort because other industrial fibers, often imported from overseas, were in short supply. The film shows a history of hemp and hemp products, how hemp is grown, and how hemp is processed into rope, cloth, cordage, and other products.


Before 1989, the film was relatively unknown. Hemp for Victory was produced by the US Department of Agriculture yet the United States government denied ever having made such a film.