Friday, June 16, 2006
HEMP IN MASSACHUSETTS
One might say that hemp was first grown in Massachusettts by European settlers, citing early laws ca. 1630 which mandated hemp. A Virginia law of 1619 did the same; some assert that this was America's first 'marijuana' law. However, it may well be that the indigenous people grew it long before the Mayflower ever touched the shores of New England.
Early explorer Thomas Heriot noted: "The truth is, that of hempe and flaxe there is no great store in any one place together, by reason it is not planted but as the soule doth yield of itself." Lord Delaware related quite similarly: "The country is wonderful fertile and very rich, Hempe better than English growing wilde in abundance."
Many other records of hemp exist to support pre-Columbian cultivation of this plant. It would be fair to say that some of the settlers were instrumental in the cultivation of hemp, and that many of them were in Massachsetts, where America's first textile mill was built by Ezekial Rogers in 1638.
The state went so far as to subsidise hemp farming, giving farmers one farthing per pound of hemp produced starting in 1701. Later that century many of the Founding Fathers wrote about hemp, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. In the nineteenth century Bourne Spourner, an abolitionist, started the Plymouth Cordage Co. in Plymouth, Massachusetts. At that time, most of America's hemp was grown in the south, mainly in Kentucky, and was produced by slave labour. For this reason, Spourner used Russian hemp; he may have also used Russian hemp as it was water-retted as opposed to dew-retted, which was the typical practice in the US at that time. This fact led to lively debates in Congress over whether it was better to buy from Russia or use 'made in the USA'; it was the US Navy who settled the debate, taking the Russian hemp rather than the domestic. Because of this import, St. Catherine's Day came to be celebrated in Massachusetts on the 25th of November each year, with the rather innacurate idea that Catherine was a Russian saint, possibly mixing her up with the Empress by that name.
By the middle of the eighteenth century Massachusetts had become very industrialised, and there is scant record any hemp raised on its soil. The tabular statements from 1840-1870 record but two tons produced, both in 1870. On the other hand, ports in that state, including Boston and Salem, took in more than those of any other state. An 1804 record shows Massachusetts as the destination for over half of US hemp imports from Russia.
The Plymouth Cordage Co. grew to become the largest of its kind in the world. However, as hemp became fased out after the Civil War, other fibres came into play. When WWII broke out, the company was seen as strategic to national security, and hemp was once again used there, this time, though, not made in Russia, but in the good ol' USA, most of which came from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinios.
This wartime crop was encouraged by a US government film titled Hemp for Victory, which came about after some rather un-American laws that were enacted to the detriment of the hemp industry in 1937. After the war there was much demand for hemp to be reintegrated, but this was not to be the case. For decades industrial hemp was neither grown nor processed in Massachusetts.
As interest in hemp was resumed in America with such books as Jack Herer's The Emperor Wears no Clothes, hemp items were once more to be seen, although the plant itself is still illegal to grow in the US (or rather, illegal according to the federal govenment, though some states have legalised forms of it). Herer's book debuted in 1985, and in the '90s there was a grassroots movement to restart the industry.
At present Boston has the state's leading hemp business, The Hempest, at 207 Newbury Street, Boston, not far from the Copley. This was the flagship 'Hempest', there are now three more Hempests, two of which are in New England, with a fourth in Santa Barbara, California. In these shops one can buy a number of clothing brands including Nibus and Minawear, as well as other hemp items, many of them made in the USA. This company is one of the oldest and largest in the US hemp world, and it may well become to the hemp scene what the Plymouth Crodage Co. became to the ropemaking industry. One thinks the early settlers and the Founding Fathers would be proud.