Peter Elser walked along the banks of the Middle Creek in Clay Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He found the spot where in 1760 he erected a hemp mill that would stay in continuous family operation for 100 years.
All through the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and during long periods of peace, the Elser’s hemp mill processed fiber from the stalks of hemp grown by the farmers in the surrounding area.
Around the time of the Civil War, after providing a good living for the family for a full century, the mill ceased operations. The unique, conical-shaped 1600-pound millstone was taken from its place in the mill and moved to the Elser meadow. There it sat as a monument to the past for 88 years, slowly sinking into the fresh, fertile Lancaster county soil.
The story is unique, and yet not unique. During the same time period hemp mills could be found wherever there were settlements and men with plows.
As our view zooms out, we see that hemp was grown in all parts of the neighboring states of Pennsylvania—in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio. From the 1600 until the 1840s, hemp was nearly universal in all of those states.
We zoom out some more. We see the New England states—Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island all grew hemp in great abundance. We see the states to the south—Virginia, where the cultivation of hemp became legendary, grown at Mt. Vernon by George Washington, at Monticello by Thomas Jefferson, at colonial Williamsburg and all throughout the state. We see the Carolinas, both North and South, famous for their hemp. Georgia and Tennessee were also hemp-producing states.
All of the 13 original colonies grew hemp in abundance for many generations and, as settlements moved west, the industry naturally followed. We find Kentucky becoming the great hemp-producing state, famous the world over. We find Missouri eventually claiming the lead from Kentucky in hemp production. It spread and thrived in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, and all the states of the Midwest.
Hemp was grown in Pennsylvania from the 1650s until the 1940s—almost 300 years—but during the time of the Revolution the great, golden heyday of hemp spread far and wide throughout the young nation.
Hemp was grown in the Lone Star state of Texas at an early date and revived in the 1930s for a time. It was grown in California, Oregon, Iowa, and all throughout the Northwest.
Every state in the US can lay claim to at one time having a thriving industry. It is a fascinating story seldom told and, for a time, forgotten.
Religion characterized the life of those who toiled the soil of early America, as it still does to a great degree today. Their belief in God was unshakeable and deep. They gave thanks for all things. Many of the hemp mill owners in Lancaster County were Mennonites and, in some cases, Mennonite preachers. There are stories of church services sometimes being held in the old hemp mills.
Because the culture of hemp was so universally prevalent, we find that farmers of various religious denominations grew hemp. Presbyterian ministers were paid in grain and important items such as hemp cloth or hemp fiber so the preacher could make his own clothing.
The Amish grew hemp and so did Catholic farmers and Quakers. The religious community of the Ephrata Cloisters grew hemp as did the Labadist and the Harmony Society, the Shakers and the Schwenkfelders, the Baptist and the Methodists, Moravians and Mormons.
Who can count the thousands of workers then employed in the cultivation of hemp? Many thousands made their livings in the rope factories, the bagging factories, paper mills, oil mills, and hemp mills. They were hemp hecklers and weavers and simple farmers.
Ninety percent of the clothing worn by the early settlers was made with the homespun hemp, flax, and wool grown on their farms. The excess hemp not needed for home manufacture of cloth was sold to factories.
During the time of the Revolution, it became the patriotic duty of American farmers to grow as much hemp as they possibly could. It was a key component in the drive for independence and complete self-reliance and sufficiency. In town and country meetings, the people of the US entered into solemn resolutions not to purchase or consume British commodities until the acts they deemed injurious to their privileges were repealed—or be considered enemies of their country.
In 1774, the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to address the grave threat to American liberty by Britain. The resolutions passed by the congress were read, approved, and put into effect all around the US.
On December 21, 1774, the Pennsylvania Gazette published the news of a meeting in the city of Annapolis, Maryland, where the proceedings of the Continental Congress were read and unanimously approved. The home production of clothing was a chief goal of the congress, so the meeting at Annapolis stated, “To increase the manufacture of linen and cotton,—Resolved, That every planter and farmer ought to raise as much flax, hemp and cotton, as he conveniently can; and the cultivation thereof is particularly recommended to such inhabitants of this province, whose lands are best adapted for this purpose.”
They added, “As our opposition to the settled plan of the British administration to enslave America will be strengthened by an union of all ranks of men in this province, we do most earnestly recommend that all former differences about religion or politics and all private animosities and quarrels of every kind, from henceforth cease and be forever buried in oblivion; and we entreat, we conjure every man, by his duty to God, his country, and posterity, cordially to unite in defense of our common rights and liberties.”
On the same day as the meeting in Annapolis, a general meeting of the inhabitants of Gloucester County, New Jersey, was held in the Gloucester county courthouse to agree with and join in the resolutions of the General American Congress in Philadelphia. They resolved unanimously, “That it will be proper, and appears to this meeting to be absolutely necessary, that our farmers should, as much as possible, apply their grounds to raising flax and hemp; and that our young women, instead of trifling their time away, do prudently employ it in learning the use of the spinning wheel…. The time calls for diligence and no hand ought to be idle, that is capable of contributing in the least degree, to support of the public cause.”
On January 2, 1775, a meeting was held in Reading, Pennsylvania, where a letter was read proposing a provincial convention that was proposed to be held in Philadelphia on January 23 of that year. The committee agreed to the proposed convention and appointed a committee to attend.
Jonathan Potts, the secretary of the meeting, and one of those appointed to attend the convention in Philadelphia, wrote the following:
“To the INHABITANTS of BERKS County
Friends and Countrymen, THE affairs of America grow every day more serious, and our unhappy disputes hasten to a conclusion. It becomes us now to call into exercise every public virtue, and to act as become men engaged in the solemn cause of Liberty. The least disunion, the least neglect of duty, will be fatal. The wise regulations pointed out by the Continental Congress, for the preservation of our rights, must be faithfully observed, if we expect to succeed in the present just and necessary defense of our Liberties.…
We also beg leave to recommend to the good people of this county, an attention to the raising of flax and hemp, and to promote every kind of manufacturing in their respective families. And finally, we request that at this awful crisis of affairs you will carefully attend to the important advice given by the Congress, to avoid every species of extravagance, luxury and dissipation.”
The convention for the Province of Pennsylvania went on as planned and they made a collective statement:
“WHEREAS it has been judged necessary for the preservation of our just rights and liberties, to lay a restraint on our importation, and as the freedom, happiness and prosperity of a state greatly depend on providing within itself a supply of articles necessary for the subsistence, clothing and defense, a regard for our country, as well as common prudence, call upon us to encourage agriculture, manufacturers and economy. Therefore this convention resolves as follows.…
Resolved unanimously, That each person, having proper land, should raise a quantity of flax and hemp sufficient, not only for the use of his own family, but also to spare to others on moderate terms. And that it is recommended to the farmers to provide themselves early with a sufficient quantity of seed for the proposed increase of the above articles of hemp and flax.”
“Resolved unanimously, That we recommend the erecting of a great number of fulling mills, and mills for breaking, swingline, and softening hemp and flax. And also for the making of grindstones in this country.”
As the crisis wore on, much evidence shows that the people of the US responded to the patriotic calls of their government. Hemp was grown everywhere and was indeed the most important material in homespun fabrics. True to the recommendations of the convention, hemp and fulling mills were erected in virtually every township in Pennsylvania.
The Revolution had given birth to a new nation and this young nation needed a flag. George Washington asked Betsy Ross in Philadelphia to make a proud banner to wave above the nation and she made the first American flag from homespun US hemp, run up the flagpole with US-grown and manufactured hemp rope.
To our forefathers who founded the United States, hemp was a symbol of all of our values—hard work, self-sufficiency, independence, family, home manufacturers, industry, and liberty itself.
The Lancaster Sunday News wrote in 1928:
In colonial times many a rider would hear from a distance a rumbling like low-voiced thunder in the direction of the “hanf muhl” (hemp mill) and nod his head approvingly at this sign of industry, for work was the foundation of the colonist creed. When the winter threshing and butchering was done then came the time for the breaking and preparing of hemp for the rope-walk or for spinning at home and weaving at some neighboring loom.
The past is the great informer of the present and combined the two conspire towards the future. We honor our ancestors by learning from them and taking inspiration. They had all the qualities so sorely needed today—industry, jobs, work ethic, tradition, strong families, religion, and deep spirituality, a connection to the land, roots. They were clothed by the work of their own hands that skillfully wrought the products of the soil grown from the seeds handed down through the long ages.
Hemp, grown throughout the world over the long span of history, was brought to the New World and became thoroughly American. It was a part of our everyday culture and widespread. It is indeed a proud part of our heritage and a shared collective memory, forgotten for a time, but now remembered and revived in the spirit of our forefathers who founded the United States of America.