Smokestack is reminder of hemp history in Lake Lillian
A facility that processed industrial hemp during WWII in rural Lake Lillian is taking on a new look as an open-air museum after being purchased by a St. Paul man who didn't know — and initially didn't care — about the site's historic significance.
As part of the war effort, processing plants designed to turn hemp straw into fiber, which was used to make things like rope needed by the military during World War II, were being built across the Midwest.
The plants operated for just a short period of time. Some only processed one crop before they were shut down and put to other uses.
The Lake Lillian plant was on the 1944 list for closure, according to archived newspaper reports. It was used as a pickle processing plant in the 1960s and then as a fertilizer plant.
A fire destroyed at least one building and, for many years, the towering brick chimney from the building where hemp had been dried stood like a lonely monolith in the field.
In 2020 a big section of that chimney was demolished out of safety concerns. A remnant of the chimney remains, with a jumble of broken bricks at the base.
But the history of that site is not being forgotten and is, in fact, being reborn by the new owner of the property, Terry Rikke, who is creating an outdoor museum, called “Victory Ranch.”
Since purchasing about five acres of the site, Rikke has placed several pieces of farm equipment from the WWII era on the grassy field, like a life-sized diorama. He’s hoping to keep adding to the collection.
Rikke has also created a website, www.victoryranch.net , that talks about the benefits of industrial hemp, which area farmers and entrepreneurs have been attempting to bring back to Minnesota in recent years for uses in CBD oil and fiber.
Hemp in WWII
The 11 hemp processing plants that were authorized to be built in Minnesota each cost about $350,000 to build.
It was anticipated that the state’s plants would generate $12 million to $15 million worth of industrial hemp that would be dedicated to producing items the military needed to fight WWII.
A local source for hemp was needed after the war interrupted markets from places like Central America and the Caribbean.
The federal government temporarily suspended its 1937 “Marihuana Tax Act,” which had been passed to stop the use of cannabis as a recreational drug but also ended up curtailing industrial hemp, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection .
During the war the government even made a black-and-white movie called “Victory Hemp” that encouraged farmers to grow hemp for fiber.
It’s estimated that 400,000 acres of hemp were grown in the U.S. between 1942-1945.
With federal financial support, area farmers grew the hemp in 1943 and hauled it to the processing plants, like the one in Lake Lillian, which had nine buildings on a 40-acre plot of land. That same acreage and building format was replicated in Bird Island and Grove City.
There were 221 farmers contracted to bring the hemp straw to the Lake Lillian plant, according to an archived newspaper story. Most farmers were from Kandiyohi County, with additional contributing farms from Meeker and Renville counties.
The plant in Grove City had about 328 contracted farmers who were apparently pleased with a $184 net return on an eight-acre plot of hemp, according to a newspaper article from the time that’s on file with the Kandiyohi County Historical Society.
Farmers signed contracts for purchasing the hemp seeds and received tax stamps for selling the hemp fiber. Letters from the federal government praised farmers for being part of the war effort.
“When you and your family agreed to produce all you could of the foods and fibers most needed by your country, you demonstrated the kind of patriotism that makes certain the defeat of our enemies,” read a July 1, 1943 letter signed by the chairman of the Kandiyohi County USDA War Board.
Because it took about a year to process hemp, the crop produced in 1943 was processed in 1944.
According to an article from January 1944 in “The Daily Tribune” (now the West Central Tribune), the Lake Lillian facility was on a list slated to be closed later that year.
Locals objected, saying the crop that was harvested in 1943 wasn’t that great because the seeds were “poor” and fields were planted late. They hoped to “present this angle to the powers that be” in hopes the decision would be reversed.
It wasn’t and the Lake Lillian plant – and nearly all the plants in Minnesota and other Midwest states – was closed after processing just one crop.
The federal government’s attitude about cannabis (and by default hemp) resumed and is still creating challenges for farmers who want to grow, process and transport hemp.
New life for old hemp site
When Rikke, who lives in South St. Paul, purchased the Lake Lillian land in 2005, he didn’t know anything about the history of the hemp processing plant and didn’t know much about hemp.
His plan was to build a cabin there.
When he was first told his newly-acquired land had unique history attached to it his initial response was, “whatever,” he said. He liked the land for the view of the water in Lake Lillian and proximity to other area lakes.
But the more he learned about the hemp processing plant, the more it fascinated him and he started to embrace the history of the site and the future of hemp.
In 2013 he planted some trees and moved in an old grain bin, with the old chimney in the background.
Then came a 1929 McCormick tractor, a 1940s Ford pickup and a 1949 Chevy pickup.
His goal is to create an open-air museum that captures the nostalgia of the era.
“It’s all part of the plan. It’s not all willy nilly,” Rikke said.
While mowing around the chimney he suspected that if it fell he wouldn’t be able to outrun it, and had the top section knocked down in 2020.
At this point Rikke has forfeited his plans for a cabin and may build a tiny house on the flatbed of a vintage farm truck and become part of the historical diorama.