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Hemp Once Grown Around Lexington To Support War


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In the summer of 1943, there were more than 4,000 acres of marijuana being grown around Lexington. The buyer for this crop, though, wasn't some downstate gangster or crime syndicate. No, in this instance, the buyer was none other than Uncle Sam.

During World War II, industrial hemp, a variant of marijuana which contains lower levels of the psychoactive ingredient THC, was used to make rope and other items, such as parachutes, harnesses and shroud lines for airborne troops.

Hemp has been around for a long time. Although not as valuable as other fiber crops such as flax, the long, soft fibers of hemp were put to good use by early pioneers to fashion myriad items, from twine to coarse fabrics. In the early 1900s, Kentucky was the center of U.S. hemp production, though there were several other areas where it was still commercially grown, including northern Champaign County.

The domestic market eventually bottomed out, only to revive during World War II. When the Philippine Islands fell to the Japanese, the U.S. lost its leading supplier of hemp. In response, the federal government built 42 hemp mills in rural Middle America, including one in Lexington, with each mill processing locally grown (and legal) hemp.

Of course, marijuana was not always welcomed in Central Illinois. In August 1938, McLean County Sheriff Elmer G. Swearingen declared war on "dope weed" when he found patches of the pungent stuff growing on many farms. The Pantagraph informed its readers that smoking pot led to "delusions of grandeur, hysteria, melancholy, etc." And Swearingen warned that livestock that grazed on marijuana became "stark crazy."

By the middle of World War II, the war on marijuana was long forgotten. Many farmers embraced the industrial hemp program as a patriotic duty, with one representative of the local Agriculture Adjustment Association suggesting the propaganda slogan, "Hemp to Hand Hitler."

Construction of the mill, located on the southeast side of the Lexington, began in July 1943. Other hemp mills in Illinois were built in Galesburg, Minonk, Shabbona, and a half-dozen other downstate communities. From the start, the federal government financed and directed the hemp industry.

Out in the fields, farmers cultivated hemp to reach a uniform height of seven to 10 feet, with stalks no thicker than a lead pencil. In 1943, about 235 Lexington-area farmers raised a total of 4,000-plus acres of hemp. By 1944, with slackening demand, the local crop was down to about 2,000 acres.

In the late summer, special machines cut and tied the hemp, which was then left on the ground in windrows for two to eight weeks. This "retting" process loosened the woody outer covering of the stalk. Farmers then brought their hemp "straw" to the mill, where it remained stacked outside to "season" over the winter months.

Once in the mill, the hemp was dried, the stalks broken, and the fiber combed, softened, twisted into hanks, baled, and finally shipped to cordage mills and elsewhere.

As predicted, hemp proved little more than a "war baby," a term for an industry wholly dependent on the peculiar economics of wartime. The Lexington mill closed in 1945.

It eventually reopened as a seed corn plant, and over the years, occupants included Tomahawk, Cargill and other seed companies. Today, the mill is used as a seed equipment sales office.

Although area farmers converted their hemp fields into pasture and cropland, rumors persisted of "pot" plants aplenty in northern McLean County. And, or so it's said, "sightseeing" along these county roads became a popular pastime with college kids in the late 1960s.

News Mod: CoZmO - 420Magazine.com
Source: The Pantagraph (IL)
Author: Bill Steinbacher-Kemp
Contact: newsroom@pantagraph.com
Copyright: 2007 Pantagraph Publishing Co.
Website: Pantagraph.com
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