Hemp fans look toward Lyster Dewey's past, and the Pentagon, for higher ground

Hemp advocates dig into the details of a diary kept by Lyster Dewey from 1896 to 1944. Dewey cultivated hemp on a plot called Arlington Farms, which today is the site of the Pentagon.

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hemp needed a hero. Needed one bad.

The gangly plant -- once a favorite of military ropemakers -- couldn't catch a break. Even as legalized medical marijuana has become more and more commonplace, the industrial hemp plant -- with its minuscule levels of the chemical that gives marijuana its kick -- has remained illegal to cultivate in the United States.

Enter the lost hemp diaries.

Found recently at a garage sale outside Buffalo but never publicly released, these journals chronicle the life of Lyster H. Dewey, a botanist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture whose long career straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. Dewey writes painstakingly about growing exotically named varieties of hemp -- Keijo, Chinamington and others -- on a tract of government land known as Arlington Farms. In effect, he was tending Uncle Sam's hemp farm.

What's gotten hemp advocates excited about the discovery is the location of that farm. A large chunk of acreage was handed over to the War Department in the 1940s for construction of the world's largest office building: the Pentagon. So now, hempsters can claim that an important piece of their legacy lies in the rich Northern Virginia soil alongside a hugely significant symbol of the government that has so enraged and befuddled them over the years.

All thanks to Lyster Dewey.

A small trade group, the Hemp Industries Association, bought Dewey's diaries. The group's leaders hope that displaying them for the first time on Monday -- the start of what they've decreed the "1st Annual Hemp History Week" -- will convince the universe that hemp is not a demon weed and was used for ropes on Navy ships and for World War II parachute webbing. The ultimate goal is to spur the government to lift the ban on hemp production, a policy that especially riles activists because foreign-produced hemp oils and food products can be legally imported.

Diary of daily progress

Dewey lived, at various times, in Washington's Petworth and Shaw neighborhoods. In photographs discovered along with the diaries, he cuts a dapper figure in suit coats with vests and a top hat, or merrily pedaling a bicycle with the District's iconic rowhouses behind him.

Dewey's meticulously labeled diaries start in 1896 and end in 1944, the year of his death at age 79. They read like artifacts of a bygone Washington. In 1937, he goes "downtown by street car and up the avenue past the White House to see the beautiful reproduction of Andrew Jackson's 'Hermitage,' which will be President Roosevelt's reviewing stand tomorrow, then down to the Capitol to see the inaugural stands."

Adam Eidinger, a consultant to the hemp association, stores the diaries in two sturdy, combination-locked cases. Pages are held together by fraying oxblood leather covers; others live in drab, gray notebooks.

"I'm getting the impression he was very disciplined," Eidinger says. "He was hands-on -- preferred digging around in Arlington Farms, rather than being in the office."

As early as 1914, Dewey writes of inspecting hemp at Arlington Farms. For nearly a quarter-century, he carefully notes his quotidian progress as a grower and hemp advocate: "Thursday, October 19, 1922. Fair, cool. Go to Arlington Farm on the 9 a.m. bus and work all day," he wrote. "Harvesting Kymington, Yarrow, Tochigi, Tochimington, Keijo and Chinamington hemp."


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