SOURCE: John Dvorak – Hemp Historian
In 1619, because hemp was such an important resource, it was illegal not to grow hemp in Jamestown, Virginia. Massachusetts and Connecticut had similar laws. During the 1700’s, subsidies and bounties were granted in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, North & South Carolina, and the New England states to encourage hemp cultivation and the manufacturing of cordage and canvas. Unfortunately, these actions failed to establish a permanent hemp industry in any of these states.
Most hemp used for naval purposes was imported. During the first six months of 1770, the colonies imported over 400 tons of hemp from Great Britain, 3,400 tons in 1800, and about 5,000 tons were imported each year between 1820 and 1840, which compares to the domestic production in the 1800’s, usually in the 5,000-10,000 ton range, except in the 1840s and ’50s when 30,000-plus tons of hemp were annually produced.
In 1839, the Navy’s showcase ropewalk in Charlestown, Mass., used 2,733 tons of hemp: 2,500 tons Russian hemp, 200 tons Manila hemp, 33 tons American hemp. This quarter-mile ropewalk was constructed of granite walls and a slate roof that still stands strong.
Kentucky first planted hemp near Danville in 1775. In 1790, hemp fiber was first advertised for sale in local papers. The hemp industry rapidly expanded and Kentucky became the industry center for the next 100 years. Most of Kentucky’s hemp was grown in the “bluegrass” region that includes Fayette, Woodford, Jessamine, Garrard, Clark, Bourbon, Boyle, Scott and Shelby counties. In 1811, there were almost 60 ropewalks in Kentucky, and by the late 1850’s, more than one-third of the 400 bagging, bale rope and cordage factories in America were located there. Later in the century, the production of cordage and bagging did not prove to be profitable using domestic hemp, so production was ceased as imported Manila and jute fibers were substituted.
Hemp was first grown in Missouri in 1835. By 1840, the “Show Me” state produced 12,500 tons. During the Civil War, Confederate Missouri State Guardsmen advanced behind mobile breastworks made of hemp to defeat the Union troops entrenched at the Masonic College, in Lexington, Missouri. The battlefield grounds can still be toured, and every three years in September, a reenactment is held. Hemp was grown in the eastern part of Illinois near Champaign and Rantoul from 1875 to 1902. Trial crops were grown successfully near Houston, Texas in 1899 and 1900. Nebraska’s hemp industry existed between 1887 and 1910 near Fremont and Havelock. In 1910, the areas of hemp cultivation outside of Kentucky included fields near Lincoln, Nebraska, Kouts and North Liberty, Indiana, and Hanover, Pa. It was also being grown experimentally in Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Arkansas.
California, too, grew hemp in many areas from around 1900 to around 1920, including Gridley in Butte County, the Courtland in the lower Sacramento Valley, Rio Vista in Solano County, and Lerdo near Bakersfield.
The Wisconsin hemp industry began in 1908, when nine acres were grown in Mendota and Waupun. By 1915, 400 acres were grown and 7,000 acres in 1917. The leading hemp producing counties in Wisconsin in 1918 were Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Dodge and Racine. Matt Rens, later known as the “Hemp King,” started growing hemp in Wisconsin in 1914, and continued until 1958. Rens built several hemp processing mills, and rented equipment to the farmers to sow and harvest their crops.
From 1804 through 1929, the average price paid for hemp fiber was close to or below the farmer’s break-even point. Sharp increases in demand and price occurred, usually in conjunction with wars; in European in the early 1800s, the American Civil War, and the two World Wars. In 1915, 8,400 acreage of hemp grew in the U.S.: 6,500 acres in Kentucky, 2,000 acres cumulatively in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and California. Because of the fiber shortage of WWI, Minnesota, South Dakota, Michigan, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois, increased domestic production of hemp to 41,200 acres in 1917.
Hemp rapidly declined in the 1920’s. By 1929, only b600 acres of hemp were being grown in the United States, 140 acres in 1933, and no more than 2,000 acres were grown in any year throughout the 1930’s. It wasn’t until World War II’s Hemp For Victory campaign that domestic hemp fiber was once again in demand as 146,200 acres were harvested in 1943.