Vermont and cannabis go way back in history


Montpelier’s Sylvanus Baldwin, architect of Vermont’s first State House and the famous arch bridge across the Winooski, had traveled to Europe to promote his device for spinning hemp and flax in 1812.


For the Times Argus

ST. JOHNSBURY — While promoting the propagation of hemp in 1830s Caledonia County, Erastus Fairbanks and his brother Thaddeus developed an invention that was to create a family fortune, transform the town of St. Johnsbury, and help inaugurate a political dynasty.

Subsequent to promoting the propagation of cannabis sativa, a plant that would, in the next century, be outlawed and classified as a narcotic, Fairbanks was also to become a railroad magnate, founding member of the Republican Party, and governor of the state of Vermont.

While hemp growing flourished for only a few years in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the Fairbanks brothers, in an attempt to calculate the volume of the crop in a horse-drawn wagon, invented the platform scale, a device that helped transform the national economy.

Growing hemp

From his home in Brimfield, Massachusetts, Erastus migrated to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom in 1813 to run a general store in Wheelock. He and his wife moved to St. Johnsbury in 1824 so that Erastus could join his brother, Thaddeus, in business. Their manufacturing facility initially fashioned stoves and plows, but by 1829 Erastus was taken with an exciting prospect, the cultivation of hemp in Vermont.

From its founding, America had always hoped to be self-sufficient in the production of hemp. The plant, cannabis sativa, is a variety of marijuana with low levels of the intoxicant, THC. It was an economically important fiber essential to various industries such as rope-making, textile production, and paper-making. It was grown by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the republic. In fact, an early requirement for colonists from England and some other European countries mandated the production of hemp. The fiber was essential to shipbuilding; the rigging on a ship of the dimensions of “Old Ironsides” included 100 tons of hemp rope.

Many textiles were manufactured from flax and hemp until the superiority of cotton claimed the largest share of woven goods. The plant was also useful for paper-making and it has been asserted that the first copies of the Declaration of Independence were printed on paper made from hemp. Although the crop was in such demand that colonial governments mandated its production, it was an onerous crop to process.

Tough to process

Hemp grew easily and vigorously in most parts of North America, but it was the processing of the fibers that proved labor-intensive and uneconomical for American farmers. Before the invention of the hemp-dressing machine, the plants had to be handled several times in what was called the “wet rot” process to produce fibers suitable for manufacture. Ernest Abel in American History Illustrated (June 1976) describes the procedure: “Come harvest times the plants had to be pulled up by the roots and subjected to a long, laborious process before the fiber could be removed from the stalk. First the hemp had to be laid out in the sun to dry, next it had to be rotted in water, and then it had to be dried again. After this second drying, the stalks had to be pounded by hand to free the fibers, which were cut from the stalk and drawn through a hackle. Next they were placed on a reel and fashioned into long threads that were bleached and dried once more before they were ready for the loom.”

The wet rot process occasioned an interesting observation by farmers whose cattle drank from the same streams that were used to treat the hemp. The following quote is from the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) July 31, 1854: “For many years a prejudice existed against water-rotting hemp, under the impression that the process caused disease among cattle in the neighborhood of the streams where it is carried on. It is true that in the streams where the hemp is rotted the fish come to the surface in a state of intoxication and to all appearances, dead, and cattle, after drinking the water, stagger about and cut up fantastic tricks, but this is owing to a narcotic resin in the hemp plant called in Asia hashish. Cattle, instead of being killed by it, actually become fond of drinking the water; and it is with difficulty they can be kept from the streams, as it causes the same delightful sensation that a small amount does on the human system.”

Interestingly, most experts agree that the variety of hemp grown for fiber has little potential as an intoxicant.

New innovation

With the availability of mechanization, everything changed. There had been attempts to employ mechanics for hemp processing for decades. Montpelier’s Sylvanus Baldwin, architect of Vermont’s first State House and the famous arch bridge across the Winooski, had traveled to Europe to promote his device for spinning hemp and flax in 1812. But extracting the fibers from the raw plant was essential to making hemp culture economically viable.

What was once a tedious procedure had been streamlined with a new invention called the Hemp Dressing Machine made by Hines and Baines. The device caught the fancy of Erastus Fairbanks, and he formed the St. Johnsbury Hemp Company, primarily a processing facility where raw hemp could be mechanically milled to a state where it was suitable for processing into finished goods. Other members of the company made hemp seed available to farmers and it was reported that “a large building for the new hemp works was put up at Fairbanks Mills.”

Future Gov. Erastus Fairbanks began promoting the cultivation of hemp in earnest. His 1829 “Compilation of Articles Relating to the Culture and Manufacture of Hemp in the United States” was printed at the Farmer’s Herald Office in St. Johnsbury and widely distributed. Erastus, in the preface, makes a reasoned and enthusiastic case for the cultivation of hemp, and later cites precedent-setting hemp production by notable Americans. Fairbanks, in a convincing manner, had brought together writers and essays that most Vermonters would find influential.

Changed economy

Thaddeus Fairbanks was named head of the hemp processing facility, and the Fairbanks brothers were awarded a franchise to manufacture the hemp dressing machines. It is likely that the inventive Thaddeus made his own improvements to the design. In May 1830 the brothers distributed a circular announcing that the St. Johnsbury Hemp Company would be buying dried hemp in the fall. They also suggested sources where local farmers could purchase seed.

After the harvest, the first commercial crops of hemp were brought to the processing facility in St. Johnsbury and Erastus and Thaddeus soon discovered that they needed a means to weigh the horse-drawn wagons laden with the crop.

Allen Yale’s 1995 dissertation “Ingenious and Enterprising Mechanics” describes the occasion that became historic for St. Johnsbury: “(Thaddeus) initially constructed a large unequal balance suspended from a high frame. Chains hanging from the load pivot were wrapped around the wheels of the cart carrying the hemp. Weights were loaded on the power-end of the lever until equilibrium was reached. By this means the approximate weight of the loaded cart was obtained. After the hemp was unloaded, the cart was weighed again to so as to obtain the weight of the load. Thaddeus was dissatisfied with the awkwardness and inefficiency of this device. He reportedly conceived the idea, wholly novel to him, of a platform resting on levers which embodied the principles of what is now known as the platform scale.”

Recognizing the importance of the new system for measuring weights, legend has it that Thaddeus rode all the way from St. Johnsbury to Washington, D.C., on horseback to obtain a patent.

Although the commercial production of hemp in Caledonia County and Vermont was never to prove economically viable, the idea of the platform scale was to inspire a great Vermont industry. Yale’s dissertation notes how this event was transformational: “Located in a small rural village distant from the sea, E & T Fairbanks and Company catered to a regional market along the upper Connecticut River Valley in the most rural sections of Vermont and New Hampshire. Yet, the demand for this new product resulted in dramatic changes in the size of the work force and methods of production and presented the company with new challenges. Within a couple of decades it would become one of Vermont’s largest manufacturers and, by the Civil War, the world’s leading manufacturer of scales.”

Hemp, on the other hand, became an outmoded crop as other agricultural and technological substitutes supplanted its use in shipbuilding, textiles and papermaking. By the early 20th century it would be reviled as a dangerous narcotic and its use and culture were made illegal.

One hundred years after its prohibition, hemp is again finding new proponents and advocates and its planting as a commercial crop has been, once again, approved on a limited basis.

Paul Heller is a writer and historian from Barre.

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