In the name of God, Amen!

When our ancestors wrote their wills, the first opening statement was almost always a declaration of faith, a realization of mortality and was as much a statement to God as it was to human authorities. They decided that their bodies would be committed to the earth and that their souls would be given up willingly into the hands of God. As they prepared for the afterlife, they took great care and concern to settle their earthly affairs. Money, land and property were to be divided up or sold to pay their just debts. Allowances were authorized, instructions were given and duties expected of family members or inheritors. Some of the most important instructions were those to make sure that the widow was well taken care of and provided with all the necessities of life to survive.

The wills recorded in the Lancaster County Courthouse Archives are a treasure trove of personal data and an important resource tool to study the day-to-day lives of the early Americans. There are many angles and approaches to studying these handwritten texts and many historical subjects can be explored this way. I of course, was interested in the homespun hemp industry so I sat down with these huge books – 22 of them – and scanned them line-by-line, page after page, looking for any and all references to hemp that I could find.

Early in my research in 1997, a research assistant at the Lancaster County Historical Society suggested that I look through all the wills written in Lancaster County during the years that hemp was prevalent. I thought that the challenge was too daunting so I resisted the idea. After two years and eight months of research later, I had already spent hundreds of hours combing through tax records, agricultural censuses, censuses of manufacturing, and much more. I had already amassed a huge stack of important data. Now a couple hundred more hours did not seem so unrealistic. I realized that the information contained in those wills would give us all unique insights available nowhere else and add another dimension to our understanding of the overall story of the Pennsylvania hemp industry. So on December 20, 1999, I descended into the Lancaster County Courthouse Archives, picked up book A-1, and began to read.

For me working many days in the archives was only a small sacrifice to make compared to the riches written on the pages before me. My heart raced at every discovery. I was finding out the truth and gaining the knowledge I had sought. Something else was happening too. I started to feel like I was really getting to know these people, their character and their way of life in all its fullness, detail and complexity. After reviewing a massive amount of data of all sorts about the people of one county, you start to understand their perspective, motivation, hopes, dreams, problems, successes, failures, hardships and humanity. You start to remember their names, know their families, neighborhoods, where they came from, how often they moved, where they lived, how many acres of land they owned, how many chickens, cows and horses, their skills, occupations, business ventures and place in the community. If you know your own personal lineage then you can really get deep into how all of our ancestors interacted with each other and the major historical events of their times. Reading our ancestor’s wills is one way of getting in touch with our roots.

Every will was unique; however, there were a few basic and standard formats. While there were many wills that went on for three to five pages, most wills were very brief. Some dealt mainly with financial matters while others went into minute detail of how their land and possessions were to be divided up and how their families were to be taken care of. Many people were very poor and left little. People at a very advanced age usually left extremely brief wills. Hundreds of Lancaster County wills were written in German. There are two books of German wills translated into English but many more are untranslated. Often times they specify that the needs of the widow and family members are to be met but do not give specific or detailed instructions. A merchant living in Lancaster City would write a will much different than a farmer in Earl Township. Women did not write wills as often as men did in the early days and many people wrote no wills at all.

There are a couple of books with typed copies of the wills but most of the books were written by hand in old colonial script and include up to 700 pages each. Many are hard to read and some are completely illegible. After a while though you learn the structure of how the wills are written, their styles, formats and intent and reading them becomes easier as you learn where to look in the will for specific types of information.

My favorite types of wills, and the ones most useful to this study were the ones that spelled out how the widow was to be provided with certain necessities that she would need to live. Common provisions that the sons were to supply their mothers with were wheat, rye, potatoes, a fat hog (often specifying a certain weight), cider, beer, firewood, sheep for wool, hay, flax and hemp. There were many other provisions that also appear frequently. As stated before, much can be learned by studying the wills of our ancestors and I could not help but get a good overview of their lives, but the focus of this study is on hemp so the question is – what do the old wills tell us about hemp?

First, and foremost, the wills reveal that the primary use of hemp in the colonial and early American household was the making of homespun clothing. Hemp was no minor fiber either. Although the use of wool as a fiber in homespun clothing is more widely known, far more clothing was spun and woven from hemp than wool. The cotton gin was invented in 1791. Until that time, there was almost no cotton grown or used at all, especially in the northeast. There the dominant fibers for homespun clothing were hemp, flax and wool. The hemp, flax and wool fibers needed by the farmers were not purchased at the store but raised right on the farmers own land. It took more than a half century after the introduction of the cotton gin and the erection of cotton factories before the raising of hemp to make homespun clothing faded out almost completely.

It is common to believe that hemp could produce only coarse, heavy material and that only flax was used for making fine linen. This idea has been proven to be 100% false. Hemp fiber that had been well-retted, rough-broken, scutched, milled and heckled could be spun and woven into linen equally as fine as the best flax linen. During many years, especially in years that flax could not grow so well, hemp was used much more than flax. Many sources report that hemp and flax linens were both of equal fineness and were virtually indistinguishable. The Pennsylvania Germans (also known as the Pennsylvania Dutch), were said to grow some of the best hemp in the world and make the finest hemp linen.

Only a few pounds of wool were needed on the farm per year to make homespun but anywhere from 10 to 100 pounds or more were needed of hemp or flax. Every pound of hemp yielded 1.4 yards of cloth, more or less depending on the type of cloth being spun and woven. Hemp and flax were sometimes blended. Hemp was also used with wool, cotton and silk. The hemp tow fibers were sometimes carded like wool and made cotton-like. The cloth was often bleached or dyed and then woven into a variety of styles and fashions.

Wool was produced on the farms also and many wills specify that two to six sheep be kept for the widow’s wool. For example, in addition to the hemp or flax that the two sons of Esther Hershey were to give her every year, they promised to each give her five pounds of wool “as good as the sheep has it.”

Wherever the culture of flax was prevalent, hemp was also grown there. The 1928 Lancaster Sunday News article on hemp said, “The terms flax and hemp are used so loosely that it is difficult to say when flax was meant and when hemp was the source of the then highly valued “fine linen”. Indeed many of the wills say that either hemp or flax would do. Jacob Fuchs of Rapho Township said in 1775 that his two sons could give their mother “hemp or flax, whichever they may happen to have.” Emmanuel Herr of Lancaster Township said that his wife could have “all my spinning stuff either hemp or flax or whatever it is of my spinning stuff.”

Hemp had some advantages over flax. An acre of hemp would typically yield up to a thousand pounds more of raw fiber. An eighth of an acre of hemp could easily yield more fiber than a half acre of flax. Besides this fact, it was widely expected that flax would often fail while hemp was steady and reliable year after year. Jacob Brubaker of Martic Township said in 1775 that his wife should have one half acre of flax sown for her every year on his plantation but “in case the flax should miss to have an equivalent quantity of hemp.” Christian Balmer of Warwick Township in 1775 instructed his two sons to plant ¼ of an acre of flax every year, “but if the flax should fail then my two sons shall jointly deliver to my said wife 50 pounds of hemp from the break…” Martin Bare of Lampeter Township in 1757 instructed his son Christian to give his mother both flax and hemp “but if the flax miss then he shall deliver all in hemp.” Ulrich Hackman of Mount Joy Township said in 1790 that his beloved wife should have hemp or flax “whatsoever of the two articles shall grow best.” In 1772 Michael Overkirsh’s wife in Bethel Township was to be provided with flax if grown but “in case the flax not growth so shall she have 12 pounds weight of hemp yearly.”
The subtitle of this book is All the Heckled Hemp She Can Spin. I chose these words as a representation of a common type of quote found in the wills. It is primarily based on Michael Baughman’s will of Manheim Township in 1755. He said that his wife Catherine should have “as much hackled hemp and flax as she can spin yearly and every year during her natural life.” Frederick Bletz of Warwick Township in 1780 said his wife could have “as much as she will spin yearly.”

Jacob Brua of Lampeter Township in 1823 said his wife Esther could have “so much hemp and flax as she may choose to take.” John Brubaker of Elizabeth Township in 1828 said his wife could have “as much linen, flax, hemp and wool as she may want.” Jacob Kilheffer of Manor Township in 1828 also said that when it came to hemp, flax and tow cloth his wife could have “as much as she wants.” Likewise George Diffenbaugh of Lampeter Township said in 1833 that his wife could have “as much of my hemp, flax and tow as she may want.”

Jacob Krebil of Donegal Township said in 1810 that his wife shall have “as much hemp and flax as she pleaseth – hackelt or unhackelt.” John Landis in 1826 of Lampeter Township said his beloved wife Barbara could have “as much of my flax, hemp and wool as she may want for her use.” John Weaver, 1755 in Lampeter Township instructed his son Jacob to provide his mother with “heckled hemp and flax – as much as she used to spin.” Jacob Weaver of Lebanon Township wrote in 1776 that his beloved wife Barbara “shall have full power to get in her possession what flax, hemp and linen cloth she thinks proper.” Finally, Christopher Zuck who died in 1838 in Leacock Township said that his beloved wife should have “as much of my linen cloth, hemp, flax and yarn as she may choose to take.”

Hemp was widely cultivated in the soil all over Lancaster County and for many years. This is clearly indicated in a variety of sources including the wills. William Bishop of Mount Joy Township in 1779 said his wife was to have “the third part of the hemp that is raised.” Peter Bricker, living in Cocalico Township in 1760 said that his wife was to have “an acre of land to raise hemp.” Abraham Eshelman’s widow of Rapho Township in 1784 was to receive “all the flax and hemp if there is any raised.”

Jacob Funk, a Manor Township weaver, said in his will of 1809 that his wife Barbara was to have “a piece of land for potatoes at the upper end of my meadow adjoining the hemp acre.” John Grebill’s wife in Earl Township was to receive in 1797 “all the hemp and flax now in the ground.” The wife of Phillip Grosh of Hempfield Township in 1806 was to have “the land that borders Mathias Grosh’s hemp piece.” George Houtz’s wife of Bethel Township in 1782 was to have “what hemp or flax of this last year is growing.”

Rudolph Huntzaker of Bethel Township instructed his son in 1769 to sow “a quarter of an acre of hemp” yearly for his mother. Christian Kauffman of Hempfield Township gave his wife “1 acre of land where my hemp land is” in 1804. Patrick Kelley of Londonderry Township declared in his will of 1769 that his wife “shall have sufficient flax and hemp sowed for her.” Henry Neff’s son of Lampeter Township in 1755 was to “sow ¼ of an acre of flax and ¼ of an acre of hemp” every year for his mother.

Andrew Shade of Tulpehocken Township made mention of a “hemp house” in his 1786 will and gave his wife land for a garden “above my hemp piece.” Elizabeth Temple of Colerain Township stated in her will of 1786 that her daughter should have “the use of the hemp patch for two years.” Jacob Springer of Rapho Township in 1781 declared that his wife “shall have a right to the field near the hemp patch.” Phillip Sneider of Earl Township promised his wife in 1799 that she could have “the hemp and flax now in the ground.”

In Mount Joy Township the wife of Phillip Shumaker was promised in 1786, “the land where the hemp is now and the field adjoining.” In 1784, John Wagner’s wife in Hempfield Township was to be given “1/3 part of all the hemp that may be raised every year on said plantation.” Christian Wohlgemuth of Mount Joy Township promised his daughter 1811 that she could have “two apple trees in the orchard and four along the lane towards the hemp patch.”

Some of the wills specified that the hemp was to be sent to the hemp mill before being delivered. John Bender’s wife of Leacock Township in 1805 was to have 20 pounds of milled hemp annually. Michael Horst’s wife of Lebanon Township in 1771 was to receive 90 pounds of milled hemp every year from her three sons. Her son Joseph was given the duty of taking the hemp to the “rubbing mill.” John Kauffman’s wife in 1755 Hempfield Township was also to receive “rubbed hemp,” 100 pounds from his plantation every year.

Christian Kauffman’s sons in Hempfield Township were instructed in 1804 to provide their mother yearly “with 50 pounds of hamp from the break to be milled and hackled for her.” Hempfield Township’s John Long wanted in 1782 for his wife to have “50 pounds of good pounded hemp” every year. John Rohrer in 1768 Lampeter Township wanted his wife to have “60 pounds of milled hemp” per year. There were hemp mills in every township in Lancaster County. Every major stream, creek or river powered one or several hemp mills. It is no surprise therefore to find hemp mills mentioned in the wills.

In 1794, John Herr of Manor Township passed his hemp mill on to his son, John Herr. He had received the land containing his hemp mill from his mother and father in 1760. In 1838, John Herr passed the land along with the hemp mill to his son, also named John Herr. Herr’s hemp mill appears consistently in the Manor Township tax-assessment records.

In 1828, John Herr of Lampeter Township gave his hemp mill and 23 acres of land to his son Francis Herr. John Ream, of Reamstown in Cocalico Township handed down his hemp mill to his son John Ream in 1784. Peter Reist promised his hemp mill to his son Jacob Reist in 1835, dying in 1842. The Reist mill ran for at least 40 years. Peter Rutt, living near Elizabethtown in Donegal Township promised his hemp mill to his son Peter Rutt in 1797. The Rutt hemp mill also ran for many years. John Shirk of Earl Township left his hemp mill to his son David Shirk in 1812 although David was not yet of age. The Shirk hemp mill first appears in the Earl Township tax records in 1770. It ran until at least the 1840’s. Jeremiah Wolf of Cocalico Township willed his hemp mill and oil mill to his son Jacob Wolf in 1779. Several early citizens recorded taking their hemp to Wolf’s hemp mill in their log books.

There were other hemp mill owners listed in the wills whose mills are documented but not mentioned in their wills. Christian Bricker who died in the village of Cocalico in 1782 owned a hemp mill, grist mill, oil mill and saw mill. In 1831 Abraham Hostetter of Manheim Borough instructed his son to remove the carding mill machinery in his lower mill and construct an oil mill or anything that would not be more expensive than an oil mill. Jacob Hostetter built a hemp mill and offered it for sale in 1843. Daniel Lindner’s will of 1804 in Warwick Township made no mention of his hemp mill but shortly after his death his “very valuable” hemp, grist and saw and merchant mills on the Conestoga River were offered for sale. Lindner had acquired the mills from Henry Sheibly and Christian Wenger.

I have actually heard it taught that hemp fiber could not be spun on the spinning wheel. We know now that in those days, every woman who ever spun a wheel spun hemp. Millions of yards of homespun hemp material were woven in Lancaster County alone – all of it first spun on the thousands of spinning wheels owned by virtually every woman in every household. The same scene was multiplied many times in counties throughout Pennsylvania and all over the new nation. A Manor Township weaver named Rudolph Funk specified in 1804 that his wife would get all his “yarn, flax and hemp ready for spinning.” Funk also left his wife the weaver’s loom. In 1767, Jacob Kauffman of Hempfield Township specified that his son should give his mother “100 pounds of hemp hackelt and made ready for spinning.”

The title of the second book in the Hempstone Heritage Series is Hemp in the Old House. It is a direct quote from the estate inventory of William Arbuckle. When he died in Little Britain Township in 1782, it was recorded that he had “Hemp in the Old House.” The concept of the title was reinforced by similar quotes in the wills. Phillip Brenner who died in Maytown in 1788 said his wife could have “all of my yarn, flax and hemp in my house or at the weavers.” Jacob Erhart who died in 1784 in Rapho Township also said that his wife could have “all the fax, hemp, wool and tow in the house.”

John Greider died in 1830 in Hempfield Township. His will gave to his wife all his “hemp and tow that may be in the house at the time of my death or in growth on my plantation where I reside.” Andrew Gross of Elizabethtown died in 1829 and his wife was allowed to get “what yarn, flax or hemp, or woolen there is in the house made into cloth for herself and the children, the weaving of which I allow to be paid out of my estate.” Henry Heart of Derry Township promised his wife in 1771 that she could have “what flax and hemp and yarn and wool is in or about the house.”

Jacob Hiller of Rapho Township wrote his will in 1791 saying his beloved wife “shall have all cloth, hemp and flax and tow which shall be in my house at the time of my decease.” Samuel Huber of Lancaster Township promised his wife in 1788 that she could have “all the linen and all the hemp and flax that is in my house.”

Christian Kuntz of Donegal Township gave his wife Christena Kuntz “all the pork, beef and hemp in the house.” Samuel Rank of Lititz said in 1815 “My two daughters, Elizabeth Rank and Anne Rank, shall have the flaxen and tow yarn which is in my house as well as the hemp I have in my house, when it is prepared my two daughters shall part it.”

Christian Risser of Warwick Township also promised his wife in 1825 that she could have all the “hemp, flax and tow which may be found in my house at the time of my death or as much as she likes to take.” Jacob Stouffer of Mount Joy Township wrote in 1795 that his wife should have “all the linen, hemp, flax and wool in the house.”

Women wrote wills also but less frequently than the men did. And Brandt of Rapho Township wrote her will in 1828 and directed her hemp, flax, wool and other cloths “be divided among my several children.” Barbara Bear died in 1844 in Leacock Township. She ordered her hemp, flax and tow linens to be divided up between her daughter and three sons “share and share alike amongst all my children.” Since her daughter Mary had died, her share was to be divided up between Mary’s children.
Feronica Brenneman of Conestoga Township left bleached hemp linen to her daughter in 1805. Ann Mary Geiger of Cocalico Township left her hemp to her friend in 1769 saying “I bequeath unto Catherine Magdaline Leigin, the hemp which I leave.” Susanna Margaretha Spickler who died in 1783 in Warwick Township gave her oldest daughter 20 lbs. of heckled hemp. Her youngest daughter received the same amount of hemp with two hemp tablecloths.

Hemp was important in every family. It clothed them every day of their lives. Daniel Kapp of Rapho Township instructed his wife in 1829 to take all of his hemp, flax and tow and “dispose of them among the children in such a way as she may think proper.” George Kelly died in 1768 in Derry Township. His wife was to receive “all the flax and hemp that is now in the place for the use of her and her children and her little wheel.” David McClure of Donegal Township said in 1749 “the hemp above mentioned is to be sold to pay my just debts and for the schooling of and bringing up the children until they come of age.”
Henry Landis of Manheim Township said in his will of 1834 that his wife was to have the things she needed “in proper time and season.” David Martin of Earl Township said the same in 1835, “from time to time in proper season.” Frederick Mennard of Conestoga in 1774 ordered that the necessities be “delivered to her door.” George Zeltenreich of Leacock Township had a great request in 1786. He asked that these things be “performed and done in peace, love and unity.” It was in this way that our ancestors carried on the tradition of their fathers and mothers before them and continued the cultivation of hemp. It was a long tradition going back thousands of years before the beginnings of recorded time. It was a tradition continued in accordance with their wills.

*This article is excerpted from the book, Hempstone Heritage I: In Accordance with their Wills, “All the Heckled Hemp she Can Spin” – A Study of the Early American Homespun Hemp Industry as Revealed by the Wills of Old Lancaster County, Pennsylvania: 1729-1845 by Les Stark