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This photo shows a hemp production mill that operated in the Lexington area during World War II.

As part of the Illinois Medical Cannabis Pilot Program of 2013, state-regulated marijuana dispensaries have opened throughout the state, including one on Northtown Road in Normal. In order to supply these dispensaries with medicinal “pot,” state-approved “cultivation centers” were established throughout Illinois, including those tied to the communities of Delavan (Tazewell County), Dwight (Livingston County) and Lincoln (Logan County). 

Although it may come as a surprise, this is not the first time that we’ve had government-approved marijuana plots in Central Illinois. During World War II, thousands of acres of industrial hemp were grown around the northern McLean County community of Lexington and elsewhere. The federal government directed the cultivation of hemp back then, and it was grown not to ease the suffering of those with debilitating pain or anxiety, but rather to provide thread, rope and cordage to the U.S. Army and Navy.

By 1942, mounting military setbacks in the Pacific left the U.S. cut off from its prewar trading partners in fiber, the most important being the Philippines. Before the development and widespread use of synthetic materials, industrial hemp and similar fiber crops were needed by the Armed Forces for uniforms, buttons and leather goods. More importantly, hemp rope and cordage of various sizes, lengths and tensile strength were vital to the Navy, while finer cordage was used for shroud lines, harnesses and the like for airborne troops.

In 1942-1943, in response to the loss of the Asian fiber trade, the U.S. government established 42 hemp mill districts in Illinois and three other Midwestern states. The program required enough local farmers from each district to agree to plant sufficient acreage of this “patriotic crop” to supply the needs of each particular mill.

Illinois communities selected included Lexington, Minonk, Earlville, Galesburg, Galva, Roseville and Shabbona. “Hemp to hang Hitler” was one suggested propaganda slogan for this home front program. The U.S. government even released the 1942 documentary film “Hemp for Victory,” which, not surprisingly, became a cult hit among later generations of retro-loving pot smokers.

Construction of the $350,000 Lexington mill, one of at least seven built by Person Construction Co. of Chicago, began in June 1943. The 40-acre complex, located just east of Lexington, included five buildings for the storage, drying and milling of hemp “straw” and processed fiber.

In the spring of 1943, Lexington’s first wartime hemp crop involved 235 farmers seeding 4,290 acres. Of that, more than 800 acres were lost to late planting, too much or too little rainfall and other vagaries common to Corn Belt farming. Despite such losses, the Lexington area produced a bumper crop, outperforming most other hemp districts both in and outside the Prairie State.

Industrial hemp was grown to a uniform height of 7 to 10 feet before it was cut and tied, using specialized machinery brought in by the government. It was then left out in the open field to “ret” for two to eight weeks. During this process, the woody outer covering of the pencil-thick stalks would begin to loosen. The hemp “straw” was then trucked to the hemp mill and laid outside to season during the winter months.

Brought into the mill the following spring, the hemp was dried, the stalks broken and the fiber removed, combed, softened, and twisted into “hanks.” The baled hemp was then be loaded onto rail cars for shipment to a finishing mill.

The 1943 Lexington-area harvest produced 7,980 tons of hemp, or around 2.28 tons per acre. After deducting costs, including seed and equipment, the average net return for local farmers per harvested acre was $71.80, or the equivalent of more than $1,000 in current, inflation-adjusted dollars.

By late 1943, with mounting U.S. victories in the Pacific, resumption of the Asian fiber trade reduced the urgency for the home front hemp program.

Nonetheless, in early April 1944 the decision was made to proceed with a second hemp crop in the Lexington district, though the program was scaled back to 2,000 acres. There was no domestic hemp production in 1945, though the Lexington mill remained open, sorting and processing hemp harvested the previous year.

By mid-June 1945, the Lexington mill had turned out 75 rail cars worth of baled hemp fiber, with shipments sent to “New England spinners” and cordage and textile mills in Kentucky, Louisiana, California and beyond.

Hemp mills were true “war baby” enterprises in that their economic viability was wholly dependent on the exigencies of a world war. Even so, in the spring of 1945, Lexington business interests and area hemp growers investigated the prospects of a peacetime market for hemp linen (as opposed to rope and cordage), but little came of this and other related efforts.

The Lexington mill remained in operation for a few months after Victory over Japan Day (Sept. 2, 1945), for there were 70 employees on site at the time of an Oct. 30 bin blaze that injured two firefighters.

A month later, in late November 1945, the government shuttered the mill and placed many of the plant’s items on the auction block. It remained vacant for about a year before Iowealth, a hybrid seed company, repurposed the mill as a modern seed corn drying facility. Tomahawk, Cargill and Mycogen seed companies occupied the site over the years as well. The 73-year-old plant is still standing today, home to local seed equipment dealer Scott Murphy and Associates.

Back during World War II, Lexington-area farmers voiced concerns that hemp, if allowed to spread unchecked, could become a nuisance weed (no pun intended!) To prevent such an occurrence, the government program called for cutting hemp before it went to seed, as well as planting 20-foot buffer strips of soybean or small grain around the hemp plots to “absorb” stray seeds.

Nonetheless, some wartime hemp plants likely spread their progeny beyond the carefully monitored plots. This might be the reason area college students were known to take sightseeing trips through the northern McLean County countryside in the late 1960s and early 1970s just as Illinois counties began aggressive spraying programs to combat this hardy (and odoriferous) weed.

Industrial hemp, it should be noted, contains low levels of the psychoactive ingredient THC, so one certainly won’t find this type of marijuana baked into brownies in Colorado or other states where the retail sale of potent pot is legal.

Kemp is the archivist/librarian at the McLean County Museum of History.

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