My name is Les Stark and I have been on the trail of hempstones for the past 22 years. I first discovered them in my hometown of Ephrata back in 1997 and then found them all over my native Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
So far, I have found about 30 hempstones and heard about a few more that I have not verified yet. Some of these stones are found in museums, a few at the sites of the old hemp mills, but most are in private collections.
By now you are probably wondering, what’s a hempstone? Well, a hempstone is an abbreviation for hemp-millstone.
The hempstones are fascinating relics of the old historical hemp industry. They are numerous in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania but I suspect that they can be found in many parts of the country.
They are very distinct. They are cone shaped and weigh between 1,600 and 2,000 pounds. They are not all 100% uniform in size and weight but they all are the same distinct conical shape.
Hemp was an important fiber in the early production of homespun linen, especially in the Northeast where the only fibers used extensively were hemp, flax and wool. Up until around 1840 virtually every farmer grew at least a patch of hemp, a patch of flax and raised some sheep for wool. It is estimated that 90% of the clothing worn by farmers in Pennsylvania was manufactured with the hemp, flax and wool raised on their farms.
The purpose of the hempstone was to roll over top of the fiber after it had already been roughly broken with a hand break in order to break apart the more firmly adhering bark and to soften the fiber that was destined to become fine linen. The stones were made conical so that they would roll in a circle over an oak floor board with a raised bed.
Between the years of 1720 to 1870 there were over 100 water-powered mills for processing hemp fiber in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania alone and dozens more in all of the surrounding counties, hundreds throughout the state.
Although I date the existence of these mills up to 1870 (possibly the 1880’s) most of these type mills were gone by the early 1840’s when the industry that centered on homespun fabrics came to a close.
The later the date that hemp mills existed the less likely they used these distinct conical-shaped stones. There was a natural evolution as more technology became available and the old hemp mills were considered more primitive, though the hemp they produced was considered excellent.
It is commonly thought that flax produced the fine linen while hemp was used only for coarse cloth and tough durable products such as rope, twine, Conestoga wagon covers, grain bags, rugs, sailcloth, etc. However first hand accounts from the 1700’s said that the Pennsylvania Dutch people raised some of the best hemp in the world and produced the finest hemp linens and that they were so fine that even experts could not tell the difference between the best hemp linen and the finest flax linen.
Sometime in the 1920’s the Landis brothers, founders of the Landis Valley Museum were searching through old mills in northern Lancaster County and they found a conical-shaped millstone nearly half buried in the soil. They scratched their heads and asked, “What is that?”.
The question was not answered until sometime later when they were exploring the old hemp mill owned by Peter Elser in Clay Township. The grandson of the owner still lived on the property and he provided some information, supplemented by notes from Mr. Henry Stauffer of Farmersville.
The Elser hemp mill operated from at least 1760 to about the start of the Civil War in 1860. It had a useful operation for at least 100 years though some evidence points to the mill being erected many years before 1760 and continued many years after 1860.
The Landis brothers collected four hempstones from hemp mill sites in northern Lancaster County. There were dozens of hemp mills in that section as indeed there were in every section of Lancaster. Some operated for 10 years, some 20 years and others such as the Elser hemp mill ran for a century or more.
Hemp was grown from the very first settlements of Lancaster County in 1710 and the first known hemp mill in the current bounds of the county was erected in 1720, where the Little Chickies Creek empties into the Susquehanna River by John Gardner. It passed through many hands, including the famous Hershey family and it lasted for 100 years.
The settlement surrounding the mill became famous for hemp, so much so that when Lancaster County was officially formed in 1729 it contained the original Hempfield Twp. named for the “vast quantities of hemp raised there”. The township divided into East and West Hempfield in 1818. Because of the fame of this early industry many do not realize that hemp was grown equally in all parts of the county as it was in Hempfield.
One day in March of 1997 I decided to start looking into the history of hemp in Pennsylvania, starting with the county I lived in. My first stop was the Landis Valley Museum. On my way out I grabbed a pamphlet that showed silhouettes of the millstones they had in their collection and explained what each of them were.
The pamphlet showed the four hempstones in their yard and explained that in 1810 there were 20 hemp mills in Lancaster County. I was hooked. I wanted to know where those mills were, who owned them, how they worked, the years they were in operation and everything I could about the history of hemp in Pennsylvania.
Little was written of the old hemp industry but as I delved deep into the historical records I discovered that the story was way bigger than anyone had ever imagined.
In spite of the hempstones at the Landis Valley Museum almost nobody actually knew what they were. The stones were not labeled and only those who picked up the pamphlet learned of their nature.
I found an interesting book called The Bethlehem Oil Mill and through the references listed discovered that there was also a hempstone at the Hans Herr House Museum (marking the center of the oldest permanent European settlement in Lancaster County) and one Lancaster County hempstone that made it to the Mercer Museum in Doylestown.
Once I knew what a hempstone was suddenly it hit me that I knew where a bunch of these stones were – on Main Street of my hometown of Ephrata.
I went to the address of the hempstones and knocked on the door. I spoke to Dawn Rapschinski and she told me that her father, David Musselman collected the stones. He was the founder of the Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley and he collected them because as it turns out our area was famous for millstones and he wanted to preserve the history.
There were eight hempstones in the collection in all – six of them behind a white picket fence, one in a side yard with millstones of all types and one behind a bush hidden from view, possibly the world’s largest collection of hempstones.
Mrs. Rapschinski did not know what her father had collected so she retrieved his research and sure enough they were indeed hempstones. An old newspaper article explained that the stones were placed behind the fence as added protection to protect his children from cars while they played in the yard. For this reason they became known as “The Guardian Stones” or as I refer to them as “The Guardian Hempstones of Ephrata”.
Within a few short weeks of my search I had already found 14 hempstones and I was eager to find more. One day I went to investigate the site in northeastern Lancaster County where Peter Lichty owned a hemp mill in the early 1800’s. The mill was no longer there and scant evidence remains but I found this beautiful stone. The current property owners informed me that they had found it out back by the stream and then hauled it out with a horse. They knew it was a millstone but not what type it was. They were pleasantly fascinated to find out.
I found this one in the tiny village of Penryn…
And this one in the village of Elm…
I found a couple hempstones in the little village of Schoeneck. Actually, it’s a long story. We found one in Schoeneck and the other in Newmanstown and then reunited them together. The owner moved and now the stones reside in Mount Joy Twp. somewhere but I have not found them.
Hempstones started popping up all over the place. I found that a couple of the Lancaster County hempstones went to a mill museum in Virginia called the Flower Dew 100. I found one less than a mile from the Hans Herr House. I found one in Lebanon County in Schaefferstown and another in the village of Millbach, also in Lebanon.
Hempstones started popping up in unexpected places. There is a hempstone in Union County, Pa. that stands as a tombstone monument in the town or Laurelton. The stone is nearly sunken into the soil and it belonged to the hemp mill owned by John Melchoir Smith and his son in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.
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One time I was reading a book that told of a hemp mill in Cumberland County owned by a man named Adam Weaver. The book was written in the 1880’s and it said that the hempstone that served in the mill was still there in the bed of the stream. In 2014 my wife and I visited the site and were pleasantly surprised that the hempstone was still there after all these years.
There are more hempstones than I am showing you and this is the very abbreviated story behind them. I’m leaving out the hempstone at Peddlers Village in Bucks County. Someone sent me a picture of a hempstone in Mifflin County. Then of course there is the hempstone of Ickesburg in Perry County.
The hempstones of Ephrata were sold in 2001 and I came to possess two of the Guardian Hempstones which my wife and I still own.
This is the short version of course and there are more stones but these are just some of the Pa. hempstones. I believe they are all over the country and many more to be found in the Keystone State. My friend Daniel Isenstein found this hempstone in Kentucky.
Here is a hempstone in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia…
Diana Sunshine Wulf found this hempstone at the Shenandoah Germanic Heritage Museum…
I have also discovered a hempstone online in West Virginia owned by a man named Reist, a relative of a hemp mill owner from Lancaster County, Pa.
The hempstones must be in all parts of the country. There must be many of them in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, New England and the southern states, perhaps Missouri and Indiana and Ohio.
Any place that had a thriving hemp industry before the Civil War would be prime candidates for finding these unique conical-shaped hemp millstones known as “Hempstones”.
Do you know where any hempstones exist? I know of around 30 of them in Pennsylvania so if you live in central Pennsylvania there is a chance I already know about it but there is also a good chance I do not. If you live in another state it would be great fun and highly enlightening to find hempstones all around America.
In 2000 I got to show pictures of the hempstones to the legendary Jack Herer. He was very excited because he had never heard of them. He excitedly exclaimed, “Now they will NEVER be able to deny they grew hemp!”
If you have a hempstone or know where they are please contact us at the National Hemp Association and we will do a follow-up story with updated photos of hempstones in various parts of the country.
So, get out there and let’s find those hempstones!
~Les Stark is a hemp historian and NHA volunteer. He is the author of Hempstone Heritage I and a board member of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council