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Column: The wayward days of hemp growers and bootleggers

WORTHINGTON — May 8, 1942, the day the Philippine islands were surrendered to Japan, was a fateful day in part because it cut off America’s supply of hemp. In that time three-quarters of a century ago hemp was used by everyone — everyone in Worthington, everyone in Nobles County, everyone in our area.

Hemp was the substance of rope, and there were ropes everywhere. Ropes were used to lift things and to lower things and to secure things. Ropes were used for towing. Some ropes were used for clothes lines. Some trees were kept straight with ropes and some trees were brought down with ropes. Ropes were used to lead around cows. Ropes were used to hold back crowds and to keep people off newly seeded lawns.

Nearly everyone had a length of rope in the basement or in the garage or in a shed. You never knew when you might need some rope. States hanged convicts with ropes. People hanged themselves with ropes. The U.S. armed forces used thousands of miles of ropes in total.

And now the Philippines were lost. The U.S. supply of rope — hemp — was lost.

Minor panic.

Well, said agriculturalists, “We can grow hemp in America. We can grow hemp in a year.” The U.S. government paid volunteer farmers to substitute crops of corn for crops of hemp. By 1943, there were fields of hemp in Nobles County.

Now if you are a bit uncertain, hemp is cannabis. Cannabis is marijuana. In this day you most certainly know people are more likely to smoke hemp than to weave it into a rope.

I remember a morning when Sheriff Harry Nackerud drove me out not far in the country to show me a road ditch lush with hemp. Hemp seed had escaped from the fields in its wartime heyday and hemp grew wild — oh, everywhere. “We watch it,” Harry said. “Sometimes we can see where people have harvested some of it.”

Probably for medicine.

I don’t know if hemp still is found in Nobles County road ditches. In this day, ditches are kept mowed. Ditches are sprayed. There surely is no half-mile of hemp waving in an August breeze.

But this forbidden fruit, now a daily part of news menus, could once be harvested at no expense on the outskirts of Worthington or Bigelow or Lismore or Ellsworth. Nobles County: marijuana land.

This brings to mind another product of Nobles County once denounced and prohibited. Booze.

In the Prohibition years before America was much interested in marijuana, the land thirsted for booze. Liquor. Moonshine. Nobles County was in the forefront once again. Outside Wilmont, to the north, there was an illicit liquor operation which some judged to be the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi River. Nobles County had a significant liquor enterprise.

I remember two men — I had two men pointed out to me — who had been bootleggers at Worthington. The kids said people would call these guys and they would deliver whiskey to the callers. One of these bootleggers was a grown son of a customer on my paper route (if the identification I had was correct). Another of the bootleggers was an uncle of a boy who was a playmate. When now and again I would see one of these guys I would look at them in wonder, trying to appear not to be looking at them. I was afraid of them.

“How could this be?” someone wondered. “How could a paperboy know of bootleggers? If paperboys knew, wouldn’t bootleggers be arrested?”

Well, they were arrested. There would be stories about their court appearances in the Worthington newspapers. Police would pick up bootleggers and haul them off to courts. There would be hearings and there would be fines. The men would be punished.

But the thing was: Worthington wanted someone to deliver liquor around town. Brewster wanted someone. Fulda wanted someone. Sibley wanted someone.

Nobles County bootleggers were hauled into courts, but they never were held long nor were they fined heavily. The nation depended upon people who would sell liquor.

America outlawed liquor in a day, but there were millions across the land who loved beer and booze. They weren’t stopped in a day.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.