I found a marijuana plant in my garden the other day, made a post on Facebook, and learned that it used to be a huge industry here in Wisconsin. That just piqued my curiosity, so I began researching it.
Jeremiah Rusk, governor, Civil War hero, and the first Secretary of Agriculture, began the fiber crop movement in Wisconsin in the late 1890s because the US faced a fiber shortage. For 40 years, this industry continued expanding and finally gave way to the hemp industry. Since 50,000 tons of binding were used yearly and since sisal and jute were imported, it just made sense to try to grow this domestically. Most hemp was used for naval purposed but it was also used to make burlap, canvas, and twine.
Wisconsin’s hemp industry began in 1908 in Waupun, Mendota, and Viroqua. By 1917 with the collapse of the stock market an organized effort began to promote and market hemp, thus the Wisconsin Hemp Order was formed. Unfortunately, the 1918 drought was a setback to these efforts. Additionally, no mechanical means of harvesting and processing hemp has been discovered and the labor-intensive harvesting methods were pricing it out of the market. Between cutting and shipping, hemp was handled 11 times.
By 1920s, the mills on the east side of the state continued operating. This was due to the efforts of Matt Rens of Rens Hemp Company, who became known as America’s Hemp King. When the Great Depression hit, prices for most things dropped and hemp was no exception; it reached a low of 3 centers per pound in 1932. Although there were a variety of specific uses for hemp, they were merely variations on twine and it was much easier to import the cheap tropical fibers.
In 1937, the recreational drug market was flourishing and marijuana prohibition was enacted in Congress. Since hemp fiber did not have the potential to be a psychotropic drug, Wisconsin was not the target of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics campaign. When Japan moved against the tropical fiber plantations, domestic hemp became more strategically important. The US built 42 mills at the price of $300,000 each with the majority in Wisconsin, making it the major site of War Hemp Industries. When the war ended, these mills became obsolete and were auctioned off.
The last crop of hemp was produced in 1957. Although the development of synthetic alternatives eroded the market, the ultimate demise was the prohibition of all cannabis.
I figure the plant must have come in on the hay that I’ve been using for mulch. We found this large square bale in the woods and surmised that it got there because the hay shooter continued shooting even though the truck was turning!! We found another large round one that must have been a bit out of control and rolled down the hill. Our good fortunate! We have great mulch and learned a bit of history.
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