By John E. Dvorak
As a Hempologist living in the Boston area, I've had an excellent
opportunity to learn about the role that hemp played in America's
past. Cities and towns up and down the northern seacoast can boast
that boats built and maintained with hemp were one of the primary
factors influencing America's independence from Britain's tyranny.
By sharing this information with you, we may be able to once again
determine how humanity can become independent of the current
tyrants of petroleum, pollution, and poverty.
This article is the culmination of several visits to the
Newburyport, Massachusetts (MA) library coupled with numerous hemp
fact finding excursions. I would like to thank my wife, Pam, for
loaning me her library card, humouring me on our road trips, and
editing my grammar and typing. Although we couldn't locate the
alleged site of a rope walk on Winter Island in Salem, MA, we will
try again in the future.
The History Of Hemp In The Greater Newburyport Area
For over 200 years, the people of Newburyport, and several
surrounding towns, which lie approximately 40 miles north of
Boston, grew and processed hemp to supply many of the needs of the
sailing ships which were vital to the early transportation,
shipping, and defense industries. Before steam power and
electricity, hemp was needed to provide people with the raw
materials to survive and, to eventually prosper.
Early settlers found the going tough as the following quote from
Joshua Coffin's book, A Sketch of the History of Newbury,
Newburyport and West Newbury, attests [emphasis on the word HEMP
added by the author]: "All foreign commodities at this time 
grew scarce. Corn would buy nothing - and no man could pay his
debts, and so forth. These straits set our people on work to
provide fish, clapboards, plank, and to sow HEMP and flax (which
prospered very well) and to look out to the West Indies for a trade
for cotton. The town of Rowley made laudable efforts to raise HEMP
and to some extent succeeded."
Two years later in 1643, Coffin relates that supplies from England
continued to decrease thereby increasing the pioneers' emphasis on
self reliance. Hemp was now being processed locally and "Rowley, to
their great commendation, exceeded all other towns." In 1676, hemp
and butter both sold for sixpence a pound. Does hemp and butter
cost the same amount per pound today?
Currier's book, History of Newburyport, mentions that in 1764
"Cordage factories, employing from twenty-five to fifty hands,
produced from two to three hundred tons of white lines and tarred
cordage annually." This cordage was made almost exclusively from
domestically grown hemp. The rope walk portion of the cordage
factories were also used as temporary barracks by revolutionary
troops. Economic times were tough after America gained her
independence and hemp played a key role in "keeping America free".
Coffin summarizes this sentiment with the following statement about
life in 1779: "In the preceding year, the general court had passed,
from the best of motives, an act to prevent monopoly and
oppression, and the towns of Newbury and Newburyport, had, in
pursuance of this act, adopted and published a scale of prices,
affixed to all the articles they had for sale, and also all kinds
of labor. These prices were never to be exceeded. No imported
goods, except HEMP and warlike stores, should be sold at more than
two hundred and fifty pounds sterling, on one hundred pounds prime
cost." This quote verifies that hemp played an integral role in
Colonial America's defense and economy.
Records indicate that in 1781, there were three rope walks in the
greater Newburyport area. By 1840, the number of rope walks in the
area had increased to seven. In addition to providing employment
for farmers, manufacturers, and businessmen, hemp kept local fire
departments busy fighting fires that were only too common in the
tar laden rope walks. One significantly catastrophic hemp related
event, which occurred on October 19, 1843, was described by Coffin
thusly; "This morning, about half past six o'clock, an hour after
the workmen had commenced operations, the boiler of a six horse
power engine in the patent cordage manufactory of Michael Wormsted
& Son, on South and Marlborough streets, exploded. Mr. John Green,
the engineer, who was probably standing in front of the furnace,
was instantly killed, . . . This was the first steam engine erected
in Newbury, and had been in use five or six years." The fact that
the town's first steam engine was used to process hemp exemplifies
the value that people placed on hemp.
Hopefully, in the not too distant future, society's cutting edge
technology can once again be applied to hemp. The Internet could be
hemp's next "steam engine" as it processes and carries
hempformation to all corners of the globe.
Hemp Tour, Yankee Style
Well, if sitting in a library on weekends searching the index of
books for the words: hemp, rope, cordage, oakum, line, rigging,
sails, and etc., doesn't tickle your fancy, you could always take
your own New England hemp tour. Below, I'll touch on a few of the
hempstoric places to go in MA and Connecticut.
As most devotees of Jack Herer's landmark book, The Emperor Wears
No Clothes, know, thousands of pounds of hemp line was used as
rigging on the U.S.S. Constitution. Visitors to Boston can still
clamber aboard the world's oldest commissioned warship to get an
idea of what sea going life was like in the 1800's. A nearby museum
contains some of "Old Ironsides'" original hempen artefacts. While
there, be sure to ask why hemp is not being used during the
restoration of this historic ship in preparation for the
celebration of her 200th birthday. Where's the hemp!?!
Travelling north from Boston on scenic Route 1A will bring you to
the town of Essex and the Essex Shipbuilding Museum. Here, one can
learn how the great sailing ships of yore were constructed. In
addition to pictures of rope walks, the Essex Shipbuilding Museum
has a hands-on oakum exhibit. Oakum, which is defined as "loosely
twisted hemp or jute fiber impregnated with tar or a tar derivative
and used in caulking seams (as of wooden ships)", is hammered in
between the planks that make up the hulls and deck of some wooden
ships. The museum's curator related the following anecdote about
oakum to me. Apparently, during long ocean-going journeys, if a
crew member did something that deserved punishment, he would be
sent to the brig to "pick oakum". This involved the laborious task
of taking worn out, tarry line (rope) and pulling the fibers apart
so that they could be used as oakum. The euphemism "pickin' oakum"
was therefore associated with someone who was in trouble. i.e.,
Where's JD? Ahhhh, he's pickin' oakum again. Oh, he should have
learned better by now.
A few miles north of Essex is Newburyport, where the former site of
one of the area's first rope walks has been turned into a park.
Bartlett Mall, which is now the site of summer festivals and
concerts, contains a plaque commemorating the rope walk's legacy. A
rope walk's length represents the maximum length that a piece of
cordage made there could be. The advent of steam power brought
advances that eliminated the need for these peninsular appendages.
Keep this in mind as you stroll through this part of America's
During the 1995 Eco Expo in Boston, MA, I had the pleasure of
meeting the venerable Don Wirtshafter and his family. During one of
our conversations about hemp, he mentioned that a portion of an
actual rope walk had been moved to the Mystic Seaport Museum in
Connecticut. This tip resulted in a roadtrip to a place where we
found numerous examples of how hemp was used by early Americans.
Oakum is used to caulk the museum's restored sailing ships. The
shipyard's Office Manager, Ted Kay, is Mystic's resident
hempologist. Ted's knowledge of hemp's role in the sailing industry
is impressive. The Mystic Seaport Museum's most notable exhibit
associated with hemp, however, is the aforementioned rope walk
which was moved from the Plymouth Cordage Company in MA. Here,
visitors can walk through the long, narrow building and see how
tiny strands of hemp fiber were fashioned into heavy duty cordage.
Plymouth, MA, where the Mayflower made her historic landing, is
approximately 40 miles south of Boston. After visiting "The Rock",
drop by the original site of The Plymouth Cordage Company. Cordage
Mall, as it is now called, contains many shops and restaurants as
well as several displays detailing the history of the company that
made rope out of cannabis hemp for over 100 of its 150 years of
existence. On a final research related topic, the book, "The
Ropemakers of Plymouth. A History of the Plymouth Cordage Company",
written by Samuel Eliot Morison in 1950, is a must read for any
It covers the history of the North American sailing industry, the
price of hemp fiber and cordage throughout the 1800's, the type of
hemp rigging used on the sailing ships of that era, and an
explanation of why hemp fell out of favor in the early 1900's. So,
even if you can't visit the above mentioned places, you can still
sail through time on hemp's historic wind.
Hemp History, Hemp Future
I hope that this article has increased your understanding and
awareness of the role that hemp played in this country's history.
From the earliest settlers scratching out a meager existence to the
great sailing ships which dominated the seas, the integral nature
of cannabis hemp overshadows all other resources. After a 100 year
reprise, hemp is poised to regain its place as this planet's most
utilitarian plant. It is everyone's responsibility to do as much as
they can to help hemp complete its comeback.
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