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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.

The most powerful piece of evidence for hemp activists might be a photograph contained in an album with a battered black cover. In it, Dewey poses next to a stand of 13-foot-tall hemp plants. The caption reads: "Measuring a hemp plant 4 m. high. Arlington Farm. Aug, 28, 1929." In a dress shirt with cuff links and tie, he looks every bit the part of the proud gentleman farmer.

Yard sale discovery

None of this might have come to light if not for sheer luck and a sequence of coincidences. It all starts last summer at a yard sale in Amherst, N.Y., 15 minutes outside Buffalo, where a man named David Sitarski was prowling for small treasures. For decades, Sitarski has dreamed of starting a Web site that archives historical artifacts from the Buffalo area.

Even though he'd recently been laid off from his computer-equipment manufacturing job of 20 years, Sitarski decided to pay $130 for the diaries and one of the two albums, thinking they pertained to Buffalo. He would have bought the second photo album, but another man snatched it up.

Six months later, Sitarski says, his wife spotted their yard-sale rival while running errands. Sitarski jumped out of the car and talked him into selling the photo album to complete his set. The man casually mentioned that there were hemp pictures within, and Sitarski started Googling. He didn't make the Pentagon connection, but he quickly figured out that Dewey was a crucial hemp pioneer. Still jobless and needing money, Sitarski listed the material on eBay, asking $10,000.

A second man with a dream emerged: Michael Krawitz, a 47-year-old disabled veteran from the town of Ferrum in southwest Virginia. Krawitz has spent 10 years scheming to build a hemp museum that he hopes will inspire construction of similar museums throughout the world. "I picture myself with a team of people dragging some hemp artifact out of a mountain in Tibet," he says. He spotted Sitarski's listing but, alas, there was no way he could afford it.

But the hemp association could. The group has a sugar daddy: David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, which has grown from a $5 million company to a $31 million firm in the past decade since adding hemp oil to its products to "improve skin feel" and produce a smoother lather. Bronner agreed to pay about $4,000 for the trove -- an easy call, given his court battles with the Drug Enforcement Administration when it tried to ban food products containing hemp. Bronner was also arrested last October after planting hemp seeds on a lawn at DEA headquarters.

"It's kind of ironic that we dug up DEA's lawn to plant hemp seeds and highlight the absurdity of the drug war, but you take it back 50 years and that's what the government itself was doing," Bronner says in an interview from his company's Southern California headquarters.

Krawitz tried to deliver the Dewey materials to the D.C. hempsters in February, but he got stuck in the "Snowmageddon" storm that paralyzed the area. Finally, when the weather cleared, he made it to Eidinger's Adams Morgan apartment.

Feeling like this would be a Moment, they pulled out a video camera and began to sift through the materials with Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a nonprofit dedicated to changing hemp cultivation laws. Each turn of the page brought Dewey into sharper focus.

It didn't take long for Eidinger to conclude they'd found "a major gem" and a kindred spirit. He thought: "I can totally relate to this guy."


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