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The Past: Courtesy of the Farm Collector 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. George Washington grew hemp and encouraged all citizens to sow hemp widely. Thomas Jefferson bred improved hemp varieties, and invented a special brake for crushing the plant’s stems during fiber processing.
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.”
World War II brought on the final burst in American hemp-fiber production. The USDA’s Hemp for Victory campaign successfully convinced growers to again embrace hemp. But when the war ended, so did the demand for domestic hemp fiber. Many Midwestern towns (and farmers) were left high and dry with empty or partially constructed plants, and cancelled hemp contracts. By 1958, the last significant hemp crop in the U.S. had been harvested and processed.