The Tragedy of George Schlichten; Or Reconsidering Cannabis Conspiracies

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.  

There are a lot of conspiracy theories in the story of cannabis. The long, confusing, complex, and politically charged history of the plant in the United States, coupled with the absurdity of its current legal status at the federal level—and in a rapidly dwindling number of states—perhaps lends itself to this kind of thinking among American observers.

One alleged conspiracy involved the newspaper industry and the tragedy of German-American inventor George Schlichten. Schlichten made his name in the fiber industry, and he worked on improvements to decortication, the process of stripping the outer layer of fibrous plants prior to their further processing. But, the conspiracy theory alleges, his bid to manufacture hemp for newspaper production was sabotaged by scheming industrialists.

Schlichten Decorticator Machine 1919
Schlichten Decorticator Machine from George W. Schlichten’s 1919 patent.

In 1919, Schlichten received a US patent on improvements to the decorticator machine, which, according to newspaper reports at the time, promised to reduce labor requirements for hemp production by a factor of 100. After receiving the patent, he was brought out to California’s Imperial Valley, where he had already had contacts, to test his machine at the Timken Ranch [1]. As the story goes, Schlichten’s decorticator threatened major paper producers, and, so, they worked together to undermine his efforts.

The sources for this story are a series of letters, now housed at Ohio University, between Schlichten and Edward W. Scripps, founder of the United Press Syndicate. (The letters can also be found on the web). The letters narrate what appears to be a promising business relationship between Schlichten and Scripps to provide paper for the latter’s newspaper empire. At the very end of the correspondence, however, the deal appears to have fallen apart due to cost issues with the new technology.

Conspiracists jump on the suddenness of the deal’s demise to suggest that something nefarious had taken place. And according to one source, following the failed bid with Scripps, “Schlichten and his machinery fell into oblivion … [and] Schlichten’s name never appears in any historical records about hemp.” Even Wikipedia’s stub on the Decorticator, repeats this claim suggesting that after “failing to find investors,” he died a “broken man” in 1923.

With the benefit of newspaper digitization, we are able to find out what happened to George Schlichten after his failed bid to supply Scripps with newspaper. These sources paint a very different story about Schlichten’s fate. Unfazed by the Scripps rejection, and touting the eternal promise of domestic fiber production, Schlichten purchased ninety acres of land near the University State Farm (a farm school that would become UC Davis) in May 1919.

There, Schlichten established a “demonstration plot and factory site” for the production of hemp, ramie and other fibers [2]. By September 1920 and through the following January, he planned the establishment of a paper factory, and  he was publicly promoting his efforts in local newspapers. He sought investors to purchase 1,000 additional acres near Davis for growing hemp and offered to pay $30 a ton for any local farmers who grew hemp [3].

Schlichten Decorticator Machine 1913
George W. Schlichten’s Schlichten Decorticator Machine in action in 1913 six years before his patent was issued. The June 22, 1913 edition of the Bakersfield Morning Echo reported that “this picture illustrates the manner in which ramie or hemp stalks are fed into Schlichten Decorticator, producing one ton of fibre per day as a minimum and with only three to four men serving the machine.”

And, it was at this point that the operation could have gone the way of conspiracy lore. As efforts to ramp up Schlichten’s post-Scripps career were underway in late 1920 and early 1921, a potential disaster occurred in February. California had recently categorized cannabis as a regulated poison and was becoming a leading state in the growing anti-marijuana movement (as discussed in a recent Points post about Pharmacy Inspector Fred C. Boden). An undercover police operation near Schlichten’s farm led to the arrest of four men, two of whom were found with “a mattress stuffed with marihuana weed … together with a fifty-pound lard can and several paper bags” all supposedly stolen from Schlichten’s farm [4].

Following the arrests, H. E. Van Norman, Dean of the University Farm, strongly denied to the Sacramento Star that the university was responsible for—or connected to—hemp agriculture on the Schlichten farm. Even so,  evidence does suggest that Davis was very much interested in this work. Anyway, the Star mused: “is the hemp of enough value in legitimate commerce to warrant its being grown and if it is, shall the growers be required to surround their hemp fields with fences that will be proof against the marihuana addicts?”[5]

For those who take comfort on the lore of marijuana conspiracies, the answer to the Star’s question might be surprising. Just a few months after the arrests, a group of, “well known bankers, farmers and fruit growers” registered the California Hemp Industry, Inc., for the purpose of “exploiting the growing and milling of hemp throughout the state.” And they would use Schlichten’s decortication technology to do so, citing “three years” of success on his farm, “where the University of California Farm has watched the development most carefully.”

The company planned to have 100,000 acres under cultivation by 1924, and while they initially planned to ship the processed fiber east for production, they planned “a big manufacturing plant at Sacramento for making the finished product, including thread, cloth and fine fabrics” [6]. In fact, they planned to build a “hemp city”—an effort that I will explore further, along with the history of California Hemp Industry Inc., itself, in a future post [7].

George W. Schlichten Jr in 1913
George W. Schlichten Jr. in 1913 with “hemp 85 days after sowing.” Picture from the June 22, 1913, edition of the Bakersfield Morning Echo.

It’s not clear how successful George Schlichten was as a part of this endeavor. And by the early 1920s, he was beginning to suffer from the serious health problems that would eventually lead to his death in 1923. But George’s son, George Schlichten Jr., and to some extent his daughter, Olita Schlichten, were prepared to maintain the business. During a 1922 meeting of the California Hemp Industries Inc., for example, George Jr. presented about “the culture of hemp and the processes of production from the planting to the finished product” [8].

After their father died, his children announced that they would continue to produce hemp and ramie on their ninety-acre ranch [9]. Two weeks after Schlichten senior’s death, in fact, H. A. Wadsworth, from the Engineering Department at the University Farm at Davis, wrote an extensive piece promoting hemp as “one of [the] most valuable of crops available” in the state. He urged those interested in learning more about the culture of hemp to “visit the fibre plantation of G. William Schlichten of Davis, California, and see the growing hemp and the production of the fibre thereof, as well as getting information as regards the marketing of the crop, etc.” [10].

When Schlicten died, not a single mention of his failed deal with Edward Scripps appeared in local newspapers. Instead, the stories focused on “his recent activities in the promotion of the hemp-growing industry.” He was remembered as “a figure of statewide importance … interested in the manufacture of textile fibers from raw materials … [who] had carried on experiments with vegetables fibers other than hemp” [11].

There are still many places to go to uncover more on the story of George Schlichten and his decorticator. So, I’ll stop short of proclaiming the end of the story for the Schlichten family and the experimental farm at Davis. But it is surprising how easily expanded access to digitized newspapers allows us to debunk long held assumptions about the fates of more and more people in the history of cannabis.

The tragedy of George Schlichten was not that he was a victim of conspiratorial newspaper interests. In retrospect, the tragedy is that Schlichten’s story has been (mis)told through inadequate evidence. As this tale demonstrates, it’s vital that we promote the continued (and expanded) access to digitized primary sources and continue efforts to preserve digitized (and digital) sources so that we can accurately understand the historical record in the information age.


References

[1] “Mount Wilson Observatory Mirror Ready,” Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer, June 26, 1917.

[2] “Ramie Growing in Valley Planned; Land is Bought,” Sacramento Bee, May 5, 1919.

[3] “Plans Factory,” Sacramento Bee, September  22,1920; “Plan Hemp Paper Factory at Davis,” Los Angeles Herald, October 5, 1920; “Expert Advises Yolo Ranchers Could Profit from Raising Hemp,” Woodland Daily Democrat, January 11, 1921.

[4] “Deadly Marihuana Weed Is Stolen From Davis Farm; 4 Drug Addicts Are Arrested,” Woodland Daily Democrat, February 12, 1921.

[5] “No Jag Weed on State Farm,” The Sacramento Star, February 12, 1921.

[6] “Hemp Industry is Permanently Established Here,” Sacramento Bee, December 17, 1921; “Company Formed to Grow and Mill Hemp,” The Sacramento Bee, November 8, 1921.

[7] “Lodi May Become a Hemp Center in the Near Future,” Stockton Daily Evening Record, December 23, 1921; “Hemp Growing in Yolo County is Urged at Meeting,” Oakland Tribune, December 25, 1921; “Hemp to be Grown on Large Scale in Rich Section Northwest of Lodi,” Stockton Daily Evening Record, December 28, 1921.

[8] “Hemp Culture at Rio Oso,” The Sutter County Farmer, December 30, 1921; “Hemp Men Hold Meeting Here,” The Sacramento Bee, February 12, 1922; “Davis Hemp Project is Boosted,” Woodland Daily Democrat, January 13, 1922.

[9] “Davis Ramie Plant to be Continued,” Woodland Daily Democrat, February10, 1923; “Schlichten Family to Continue Ramie Industry,” The Sacramento Bee, February 17, 1923.

[10] H. A. Wadsworth, “Hemp, Though Overlooked, Is One of Most Valuable of Crops Available in Cal.,” Woodland Daily Democrat, February 19, 1923.

[11] “Inventor Dies,” Sacramento Bee, February 5, 1923; “G. W. Schlichten of Davis Dies,” Woodland Daily Democrat, February 5, 1923.

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