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The Souvenir of Western Women/The Oregon Women's Flax Industry


The Oregon Women's Flax Industry

By MRS. W. P. LORD, Salem. Or.

AT the present time we, as a nation, are in the enjoyment of such great prosperity it is difficult for us to look back to those years in the '90s when the reverse was the case. When we see the market quotations, "hops 31 cents," can we recall, not so many years ago. when hops were 4, 5 and 6 cents a pound—a loss of 2 cents a pound to all those unfortunate people who had grown them? Wheat was 38 cents a bushel, butter 15 cents a pound, and so on down the long list of the commodities, which our farmer friends depend upon for existence. While on a visit East in 1893, the agricultural depression being everywhere the subject uppermost in discussion, some ladies connected officially with the Chicago Fair urged upon the writer that she should bring to the attention of the people of Oregon the fact that the world's supply of flax is year by year failing to meet the demand of manufacturers for raw material; also to call to their attention the remarkable showing made at the Centennial, when Oregon's flax took first prize in competition with the best product of Ireland and of Belgium. Surely the time had arrived when Oregon's long "buried talent" should see the light of day.

Mrs. Candace Wheeler, who had been a factor in the development of the silk industry, was greatly interested in the idea of an American linen industry, which she felt could be realized in a country where soil, climate and water combined to produce ideal conditions for the growth of flax. Mrs. Oberg, of Minnesota, had already started a flax crusade in her state, and my introduction to her by letter brought a prompt response, with literature and personal information on the subject. The writer returned to Oregon pledged to do her uttermost to start the ball rolling.

At this time a station in Whatcom, Washington, under the auspices of the fiber department of the Agricultural Bureau, was being conducted under Dr. Thornton. He consented to give some illustrated talks at the State Fair, and bring with him specimens of flax he had grown. This was the opening wedge. The writer supplemented it with talks at Farmers' Institutes and Grange meetings, and with frequent personal visits to farmers.

This work continued the first year. An opportunity was then offered to present the subject through the medium of a talk at the Woman's Club in Portland, the outcome of which was the forming of an association for the development of flax culture. A stock company was formed and the members devoted themselves industriously to the work. Farmers responded beyond our expectations in willingness to make the effort, and offered of their best land for planting. A scutching mill was established, a superintendent secured, and every detail was carefully attended to. Some of the foremost of Portland's business men gave us freely of their time and counsel in conducting the financial affairs of the company. It was our hope that, beginning in a modest way, carefully studying the methods employed in each flax-growing country and proving by experiment their adaptability to conditions prevailing in our own, we could finally merge into a company, which would offer to home capital a safe and remunerative investment.

"The cotton crop has made the South; why not the flax crop make the Northwest?" was our plea, for surely flax and linen are quite as important as cotton.

By investigation we found that linen is protected by the highest rate of duty, from 44 to 65 per cent, while raw material, in shape of fiber, had received no consideration. The attention of the Dingley tariff being called to this unjust discrimination, Senator Hoar became our champion and urged the justice of our claim. Notwithstanding the allied interest of the linen trust was quickly on the ground to defend its protected privileges and to assert its claim that flax cannot be grown in the United States, our claim was recognized, and in the readjustment raw fiber received from $10 to $60 duty per ton.

When the finished fiber was ready for sale, samples were forwarded to Eastern mills, and the contemptuous reply was received, that "the stuff was not worth 3 cents a pound." The Fiber Bureau also came under the displeasure of the trust, and was therefore abolished. Up to the time of the work on the Pacific Coast the bureau had been considered harmless. However, Mr. Dodge, chief of the bureau, was sent to the Paris Exposition. He took with him some of the despised 3-cents-a-pound fiber, and received for it the bronze medal. This recognition was supplemented by many requests from foreign manufacturers to furnish their mills with fiber.

We had gone through four years of hard work; we were then looking for development through a foreign firm, one that had tested our fiber in various grades of linens and found that it met all requirements. It was the intention of this company to further our work, but severe domestic affliction occurring at this time in the family of the head of the firm, the plans were retarded.

At this juncture, in behalf of an Eastern company, Mr. Bosse, a foreign expert of great reputation, pre-empted the field. He supposed that he was engaged in a legitimate enterprise, and was surprised to find he was wanted merely as a tool to prevent the development of the industry. After some months of work and much expenditure of money, he was told to abandon the field, and was offered heavy remuneration to write a report that flax cannot be grown profitably in Oregon. Mr. Bosse was too honest to lend himself to such a scheme. Aided by capital which has taken great interest in the work inaugurated by the Woman's Flax Association, he has devoted his efforts to the work of development. Mr. Bosse, being familiar now with the conditions, and realizing all the discouragements encountered by the association, asserts that it would have been well nigh impossible for him to succeed in this work but for the labors of the association which had paved the way. Farmers are now following up the work. Large farms are being divided, dairy farming sharing the interest, and, as dairying can go hand in hand with flax culture, we look for a speedy development of what must prove one of the greatest resources of the Northwest.

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