Cannabis Museum exhibit and community fair celebrate hemp “from seed to sail”

A new exhibit and upcoming community fair at the Cannabis Museum showcase, explore and celebrate the rich history of the hemp plant.

CANAANVILLE, Ohio — A new exhibit at the Cannabis Museum showcases, explores and celebrates the rich history of the hemp plant, which, before getting caught up in bans on its sister plant within the cannabis family, provided much of the world’s fibers.

The exhibit titled “Hemp and Hackles,” which opens today, explores hemp material production, from its original plant form, through the processing of the plant into a fiber, to the spinning of the fiber into usable material for rope, cloth, ship sails or a number of other uses. It will run through the end of the year, according to museum executive director Kristyn Robinson.

The “hackles” in the title — also sometimes written as “heckles” — refers to sharp-toothed combs used to process the inner fibers of the hemp plant. The tools are also used for processing flax, a similar fiber that fulfilled much of the role hemp played after it became less accessible. Though their use is benign, the wall full of hanging hackles isn’t far off from a horror movie set. The words are also reportedly the origin of the same modern English words.

A wall full of hackles at the Cannabis Museum (Sam Stecklow / Athens County Independent)

True to its title, the exhibit is made up of historical photos and paintings, physical artifacts used in the processing and storing of hemp and its seeds, and examples of hemp rope, cloth and clothing. A clockwise walk around the room takes patrons on that chronological journey, providing historical context and information about how specific tools were used throughout. 

The earliest uses of hemp can be traced to East Asia, thousands of years before the common era, and is “generally recognized to be native to Central and Southwest Asia,” according to a history published by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Its use for centuries in Asian and European cultures has been well documented.

Hemp first arrived in the Americas through European colonization in the 1500s. Like other fibers, it was a cash crop in the U.S., and the industry in much of the country was built on the labor of enslaved people.

A postcard showing laborers in a Kentucky hemp field (Courtesy Cannabis Museum)

Hemp has very low psychoactivity, yet, like its relatives in the cannabis plant family, it got swept up into the anti-drug propaganda of the mid-20th century, and was essentially banned from industrial production in the U.S. between 1970 and 2014, according to the University of Florida history. In 2020, Ohio legislators legalized the industrial growth of the plant.

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The nonprofit museum opened in the old Canaan Coal Company store in Canaanville last April after operating for a few years out of founder Don Wirtshafter’s former hempery business building in Guysville. It’s an educational, research and exhibit space “dedicated to the preservation and education of the hidden histories of the mainstream global culture, prohibition, and politics of cannabis and other sacred plants,” according to its website.

The museum will also host its first Community Hemp Fair this Saturday, April 22, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. It will feature live music, speakers, food, artists, vendors and more.

Cannabis Museum, 16050 Canaanville Rd., Athens. Open 12 to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and by appointment. (740) 589-5254,

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