Growing Like a Weed
(Page 3 of 4)
Once retted, the hemp stalks were bundled, shocked, stacked or hauled to the fiber mill. Shortly after World War I, wheel-driven hemp gatherer-bundler machines were available from International Harvester. 'The gatherer-bundler would pick up the stalks and tie them in a bundle,' Harold says. 'I used to ride on a stone boat pulled behind (the gatherer-bundler) and tip the bundles behind the tractor.' Later McCormick-Deering gatherer-bundlers (still in use into the 1950s) dropped the bundled hemp out of the way automatically.
The bundles of hemp stalks were next shocked to dry until the fiber was extracted, although often after a period of drying, the shocks were collected and the bundles assembled into large stacks designed to protect fiber from further weathering, much like haystacks.
The Matt Rens Co. was well-known for its 50/50 deal with contract growers. The farmers provided the land and growing expenses, and the company provided the specialized machinery, labor and milling. 'It was not unusual for us to make $100 per acre,' Junior says. 'That was quite a bit of money in the Depression.'
Although hemp-processing mills were in existence in the mid-1750s, much of the hemp fiber produced in this country was still processed by hand until the early 1900s. Taking the dry but fully-retted stalks to useable fiber requires three steps: braking, scutching and hackling. The first involves mild crushing or bending of the stalk, which loosens non-fibrous material from the fibers. The second involves scraping the non-fibrous material from the fiber, and the third involves combing the fiber to further clean it and separate long and short fibers.
Primitive hemp brakes continued to be used as long as cheap labor was plentiful. These devices consist of two or more wooden beams fixed to a frame with a set of hinged beams fitted between them. A handful of hemp stalks was placed across the fixed beams and the operator raised and lowered the hinged beams while pulling the bundle of stalks across the fixed beams.
Engine-powered braking mills typically used a stone or rollers to crush the stalks. An early successful hemp mill in Pennsylvania employed a cone-shaped stone rolling on a circular table to crush stalks. Later designs generally used intermeshing fluted rollers much like conditioning rollers on a modern mower-conditioner.