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Polo, Illinois hemp mill

Posted on January 1, 1976

For two years (1943–1944), Polo was thrust the limelight because during those World War II years, hemp (marijuana) was raised in the area, and a mill for preparing the hemp into rope or cordage was built.

With the fall of the Philippines and Java to Japan, the major supply of harder fibers was cut off. So in 1942 the United States government decided it would be necessary to produce large quantities of hemp fiber in this country to meet the armed forces’ demands for rope, binder twine, and other types of cordage.

The entire program was assigned to the Department of Agriculture. The program for planting and processing the hemp plant was directed by the Commodity Credit Corporation. It was planned to establish 42 hemp mills in the midwest, 11 of these were to be in Illinois.

Stack of hemp stalks

Since the plant at Polo was to serve as the pilot mill for the entire program, the AAA in Ogle county faced many problems. The major problem was that of recruitment. Skeptical farmers were reluctant to put some of their acreages into hemp for a number of reasons. They were dubious that the grain drills would be ready for seeding; they feared a labor shortage at harvest time (turning the hemp at Felting time had to be done by hand at that time); fear that hemp prices would be lower than corn prices. Furthermore, they knew nothing about raising hemp, its yield, the labor required, or production costs.

By the middle of January 1943, it was expected that no farmer could participate in the AAA soil conservation plan unless he raised hemp. The Ogle County AAA program set up allotments for hemp for the different townships. The largest was 1,200 acres for Buffalo township.

Meetings were held at Polo High School to acquaint farmers with the growing of hemp. Over 200 farmers attended the third session on March 8, 1943. Forrest Gillespie announced that 4,055 acres had been signed up by 179 farmers. Fred Butcher, president of the War Hemp Industries, Inc., reassured the farmers that the necessary equipment would be provided for every 100 acres of hemp.

The first carload of Kentucky hemp seed arrived in Polo about April 29 and farmers were soon busy planting. Average acreage was 11 acres per grower. Trouble developed when the government was unable to deliver all of the drills needed.

The Commodity Credit Corporation agreed to advance the seed, and it also agreed to furnish harvesting machinery for cutting and binding the hemp at a rental cost of $5 per acre.

Work continued on the plant (mill) one mile south of Polo on land bought from Howard Dennis. The plant consisted of mill building, a dryer, a storage building for bales and one for straw, and a boiler house. Overall cost was $350,000.

The new hemp manager, Harold R. Dyas, was chosen after considerable opposition to Frank B. Wilson, a local farmer, as manager. Main opposition to Wilson’s appointment was that it appeared to be made on the basis of politics.

The cutting and retting process began the first week on October. After being cut, the hemp was turned by hand. After the hemp had been completely retted, it was to be bound by machines. But most of the hemp was too tangled to go through the binders, and the stalks had to be straightened by hand. Soon the binders began to break down, and some farmers tied hemp by hand.

German prisoners of war

To help ease the labor shortage, German prisoners of war were brought in by bus from Camp Grant near Rockford to work in the hemp fields and to stack straw as it arrived at the mill.

By January 6, 1944, four thousand five-hundred and fifty-two truck loads of hemp had been hauled to the mill. At the peak of the milling, 144 workers processed the hemp into line fiber. By February, 151 tons of fiber were recovered and the fiber was shipped to the East coast. Fifteen spinning mills received the fiber.

The Tri-County Press, of Polo, reported that on March 16 the Polo mill processed more tonnage than any other mill in the United States for the 1943 season. The Polo plant received hemp from 365 farmers whose total crop from 1,825 acres was 10,635 tons of hemp straw. Hemp brought an average of $93.19 per acre to farmers on the Polo area.

The government was undecided about continuing the program in 1944 because victories in the Mediterranean and Caribbean made it possible to secure hemp from the Mediterranean region and Central America. Twenty-eight plants in the Midwest were closed. Four mills in Illinois (Shabbona, Earlville, Kirkland, and Polo) were still to be in operation.

Difficulties arose because the farmers feared the government might not buy their hemp in the fall and refused to pledge their acreage.

The finale for Polo’s hemp mill came on September 29, 1945, when the plant was turned over to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

Copyright © 2001, Bicentennial History of Ogle County. All rights reserved.