Saturday, August 31, 2013

Getting High In Illinois

During World War II,  the Japanese seizure of the South Pacific cut off the worldwide supply of hemp.  The U.S. military needed hemp.  Fibrous hemp stalks became the rope used on naval ships.  The United States government desperately needed a new hemp source.

Government scientists conducted soil, water, and weather tests throughout the agricultural Midwest.  They isolated several areas perfect for hemp cultivation.  One of these locations was my hometown, Earlville, Illinois.
The government ran a contest.  The town that committed the most acreage to growing hemp would also get a processing plant, called a hemp mill.  This would give the local economy a boost and provide local residents with another source of employment.

Earlville beat out all the other towns and won the contest.

The government dutifully built a help mill on the outskirts of town.
Unfortunately, mill management couldn’t get enough people to work there.  Farmers and their sons were busy farming.  Farm wives and daughters ran the rural households. That left the townspeople.  There weren’t many of them – Earlville had a population of only 1,400 -  and most were already employed elsewhere.

So the government started a campaign to recruit more hemp mill workers. 

One aspect of this campaign involved interviews with hemp mill workers. They were instructed to talk about the benefits of working in the mill.  These interviews ran each week in the town newspaper, the Earlville Leader.

In the most interesting of those interviews, a woman says, “Working in the mill is hard and it’s dusty.  No question about that.  But at the end of the day, when we take the leaves out  back to the incinerator and burn them, and the smoke drifts through the plant and off across the town, we all go home so calm and mellow and happy.”

As you probably know, another name for hemp is marijuana.

And that’s how the government toked up my hometown.

The hemp mill closed soon after the war ended.  The plant eventually reopened as a manufacturing site for corn curls, a corned-based snack food.

The hemp went to seed.  Hemp started growing wild along the creek beds.  During the sixties in the summertime hippies in wildly colored Volkswagen vans would drive down from Chicago to harvest the crop.

Sadly, I never knew any of this until years later when, as part of a research project for a book I was writing, I read all the issues of The Earlville Leader from the war years.

Had I known in my youth what was growing wild in Earlville, I might have started seeing talking rabbits a whole lot sooner.

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