Book Reviews

Kentucky hemp history

A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky. James F. Hopkins. Foreword by Thomas D. Clark. The University Press of Kentucky, 1998 (1951), 244 pages w/ 8 pages of B/W plates.

        I knew I had arrived when, leaving Shelbyville in Shelby County, and heading toward Lexington on the old State Road 60 (long-since a back road, superseded by Interstate 64), I encountered the first intersection: the marker identified the crossing road as "Hemphill Road."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 photocopy 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 this University of Kentucky-Lexington town? That, at least, was the hope with which I rationalized turning south from Indianapolis rather than bee-lining it for home in Wisconsin, during February of 1994.
        The proprietor of the Black Swan bookstore 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 for $120. The Kentucky Hemp Growers’ Museum and Library acquired it for their collection.)
        Then the proprietor said, "He’s still alive, you know."
        I did not even know that Dr. James F. Hopkins lived in Lexington! 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. I had presciently copied the coveted work late one night on the company machine, from the broken and tattered tome held in the library of the Wisconsin State Historical Society. I would, years later, spelunk their "stacks" to unearth 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 clothes in the gas station. If I was going to meet Dr. Hopkins, it would be as Dr. West. Clothes can be about respect.
        Sales of the University of Kentucky Press’s re-issuance of A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky should number the hemp activists in the world, as every one can be expected to purchase for themselves a copy of this indispensable account of the vicissitudes of the hemp industry in Kentucky and Tennessee during its halcyon period before the Civil War and its decline thereafter.
        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 both the crop and its local 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 that interest in hemp was increasing again. Little did either of us know then, how much! His memory of the details of his history was unimpeded at 83. We did our subject good ser-vice in a conversation lasting over three hours on that serendipitous afternoon. I think it was a Wednesday.
        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 was substituted for 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 Kentucky baling hemp and were willing to pay extra for the foreign bagging that 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, and of rope production. Perennial low prices compromised such undertakings.
        In addition, the Black population depended on the work that hemp provided in breaking 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 creditors. He persisted nonetheless, moving on the 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 during the winter. Myerle’s experience would be repeated, but never with success. All this is chronicled in Hopkin’s tome.
        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 discussion 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." (pg. 213). It was, after all, 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. When he asked why it interested me so, I talked about hemp as weed control, as hemp people always must while others are peering deeply into your eyes for signs of duplicity.
        "Would you consider re-issuing ‘History of Hemp’?" Hopkins didn’t think there would be sufficient interest. That was then. The new edition is now in paperback, with a durable binding and an attractive photo of a hemp seed harvest. You can see it’s a seed harvest by the spacing and diameter of the stalks. The back cover blurb is back-shadowed with a photo of a 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? That same year I met Hopkins, a newspaper story on an eradication effort—no doubt a DEA press release recycled as news—informed us that, "Hemp is the plant from which marijuana is extracted."
        Hopkins’ book is not about the dark hemp times in this century. And there is little in the study which 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-on 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.
        Not far away and only 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 inter-view 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 of the Hopkins book contains a citation in its updated bibliography to this evanescent organization, and 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 re-vivified 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. Who’d I forget? Cam Wood’s subsequent piece in Ace Magazine (Feb. 1994) opens with reference to the Hopkins book and goes on to provide an account of a nascent revolution sparked 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, Kentucky, 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 outings, 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 become recently 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, dating from the first decades of the century. (This actual letter can be viewed at the NAIHC website, www.naihc.org). He had sorted stacks of these documents and he gave us each a handful which 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 drug (tobacco), which is responsible for 400,000 deaths a year, is today sanctimonious about growing a plant (hemp) which once was its agricultural base and is not a source for a non-addictive drug (marijuana), which 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 was to become. 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" strains of yore. In any case, the only remnant we have of these unique genetics are the feral plants around Shelby County, down Hemphill and other old roads of a history denied, which are annually the object of attack by DEA 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 current quagmire. That book hasn’t been written, and the clichés are wrong. Dr. Hopkins does mention, in his conclusion, the rise of hemp growing in Wisconsin and the War Emergency hemp production. However, the rise and fall of the "unorthodox" industries (as B. B. Robinson called them at the 1938 Marihuana Conference) in Minnesota and Illinois, which were the subject of the famed 1938 Popular Mechanics article, and the object of the FBN’s marihuana enforcement effort that proved fatal to the hemp industry, are not within the titular scope of this history. These industries began their expansion in 1933, but were gone by 1939 and did not participate in the War 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 1930s acreage. The Kentucky seed producers would have had to ramp up production substantially to fill orders for these new markets.
        We know our current 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 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 over regulate these new hemp industries until they choked to death on the red tape. 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 Master’s thesis at Pepperdine University as "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’ book 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 re-issue Hopkins’ book. And, too, it would be great if the Feds would get their boot off this crop.
        1998: one down, one to go.

Dave West

Hemp in Canada

A Maritime Industrial Hemp Product Marketing Study. Prepared by: Gardner Pinfold Consulting Economists Ltd. and Dr. Jim White of InfoResults Ltd. Prepared for the Departments of Agriculture of the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. September 1998. 65 pages
        The primary objective of this study was to gather statistical and market information on hemp so as to provide insight into the opportunities for hemp production and processing for the Maritime provinces of Canada. With respect to this objective, the study concludes that: "at this time substantial effort will be required to develop a maritime industry for many of the markets claimed for hemp products such as textiles, building materials, alcoholic beverages, livestock feed, bedding and biomass fuels. The main reasons include insufficient processing and value-added infrastructure and in-complete research and development results." The study goes on to conclude that there may be more potential for oil production, in the health food market, and for paperboard products.
        This study is of primary interest to the maritime provinces of Canada. However, for those who are from other parts of the world, it may also be of some interest. One learns, for example, that 5,300 acres of hemp are grown in Canada in 1998. More remarkable are the assessments of the production costs of hemp, which are provided. Pessimistic studies from Australia (Shaun Lisson, 1998) and the Pacific Northwest of the United States (Daryl Ehrensing, 1998), re-viewed in the June 1998 issue of this journal, concluded that at current fiber and seed prices, hemp production is economically not feasible. How-ever, this Canadian study cites a re-cent analysis of the University of Kentucky suggesting that hemp farmers would enjoy greater profits than producers of alfalfa, corn, barley or wheat.
        The study further provides interesting information on the world production of hemp fiber and tow, which was at about 350,000 tons in the 1960s, reached a low of 50,000 tons in 1994 and has been rising since then (69,000 tons in 1997). The existing North American market for hemp is estimated to range between US $28 and US $ 30 million, with annual increases of $8 to $10 million. The global market for hemp is now valued at between $100 and $200 million annually. Perhaps the best is yet to come.

Hayo van der Werf

Hemp in South Africa

South African Hemp Feasibility Report. Commissioned by the Interim Task Team on Bast Crops On behalf of the Hemp, Flax, Sisal and Kenaf Cluster. Financed by the South African Bast Crop Consortium. By James Wynn, Director of the Southern Africa Hemp Council. July 1998 48 pages.

        This study identifies and assesses existing markets, and lists current hemp research and development initiatives and contact persons across the world and in South Africa. It is of interest primarily to readers from South Africa.

Hayo van der Werf