In 1917, the world was battling World War I. In this country, industrialists, just beset with the minimum wage and graduated income tax, were sent into a tailspin. Progressive ideals were lost as the United States took its place on the world stage in the struggle for commercial supremacy. It is against this backdrop that the first 20th century hemp drama was played.
The story begins in 1916, soon after the release of USDA Bulletin 404 (see page 24). Near San Diego, California, a 50-year-old German immigrant named George Schlichten had been working on a simple yet brilliant invention. Schlichten had spent 18 years and $400,000 on the decorticator, a machine that could strip the fiber from nearly any plant, leaving the pulp behind. To build it, he had developed an encyclopedic knowledge of fibers and paper making. His desire was to stop the felling of forests for paper, which he believed to be a crime. His native Germany was well advanced in forestry and Schlichten knew that destroying forests meant destroying needed watersheds.
Henry Timken, a wealthy industrialist and inventor of the roller bearing got wind of Schlichten’s invention and went to meet the inventor in February of 1917. Timken saw the decorticator as a revolutionary discovery that would improve conditions for mankind. Timken offered Schlichten the chance to grow 100 acres of hemp on his ranch in the fertile farmlands of Imperial Valley, California, just east of San Diego, so that Schlichten could test his invention.
Shortly thereafter, Timken met with the newspaper giant E.W. Scripps, and his long-time associate Milton McRae, at Miramar, Scripps’ home in San Diego. Scripps, then 63, had accumulated the largest chain of newspapers in the country. Timken hoped to interest Scripps in making newsprint from hemp hurds.
Turn-of-the-century newspaper barons needed huge amounts of paper to deliver their swelling circulations. Nearly 30% of the four million tons of paper manufactured in 1909 was news-print; by 1914 the circulation of daily newspapers had increased by 17% over 1909 figures to over 28 million copies.1 By 1917, the price of newsprint was rapidly rising, and McRae, who had been investigating owning a paper mill since 1904,2 was concerned.