Ramie seemed to hold great promise. But this crop, whose fibers played an important role during World War II, never became a commercial success. Here, an unidentified farmworker harvests ramie in 1955 in Belle Glade.
Ramie certainly seems like a miracle plant. It “may well prove to be a revolutionary development in the textile world. … Its unusual strength and toughness make it the most durable fiber of any in use, and fabrics made of it wear indefinitely. … When thoroughly cleaned … the fiber is pure white in color, without bleaching …”
The superlatives continue: “this plant would seem to lay a foundation for a wide range of economic opportunities … not only in the manufacture of final products but also in the growing of the plant by farmers …”
No, this isn’t the overheated hyperbole of a ramie manufacturer. Instead, its author was Earle L. Rauber. He was writing for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s Monthly Review publication for the Sixth Federal Reserve District, which then, as now, included Florida.
The publication is dated June 30, 1945. Rauber’s six-page article is titled “Ramie: A New Economic Opportunity.”
He believed that the ramie plant – whose fibers were used in Egyptian mummy wrappings and that had been “known and utilized in China” for more than 3,000 years – held “revolutionary possibilities for the South.”
Rauber’s optimism, as it turns out, was misguided.
Ramie’s wartime role
As early as the 1930s, the Everglades Experiment Station in Belle Glade (now the Everglades Research & Education Center) was studying “the new fiber crop,” according to its website.
During World War II, the military, especially the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine, quickly found uses for ramie. Rauber wrote, “One of the earliest uses was as a packing for the stern tubes of vessels to prevent sea water from backing up along the drive shafts.”
Furthermore, its strength – much higher than that of other fibers – made it “a superior material for the manufacture of halyards and other naval cordage (such as) … canvases, awnings, sails and fish nets,” according to Rauber’s article.
In his section “Postwar Uses” (Japan would not formally surrender until Sept. 2, more than two months in the future), Rauber envisioned ramie being used in a variety of products. They included clothing, upholstery fabrics, table linens, carpet backing and bank notes; as well as surgical pads, dressings and bandages.
Yet another use for ramie
“Botanically,” Rauber wrote, “ramie belongs to the hemp family.” Moreover, ramie leaves, “when dehydrated, produce an exceptionally good cattle and poultry feed. In many respects, ramie meal surpasses alfalfa meal. … With the expansion of ramie growing, therefore, Florida may be able to supply her thriving cattle industry with a feed superior to the more expensive imported alfalfa.”
Ramie had a lot going for it, including Florida’s climate. In 1945, the crop was growing in various places in the U.S. Nevertheless, as Rauber noted, “the Everglades region in Florida is generally conceded to be the best location.”
But the great location alone wasn’t enough. As the ramie exhibit at the Lawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades (530 S. Main St., Belle Glade) explains, “Unfortunately, harvesting, processing and merchandising problems precluded commercial production.”
The problems were exactly what the ramie exhibit at the Will Museum notes. The first issue: harvesting difficulties. Mechanical harvesting was not then, and isn’t now, viable. That’s because the stalks don’t all mature at once, so a field must be cut by hand.
The second step in the production of ramie fiber is decortication; i.e., separating the stalk from the bark and the adhering fiber. But only a few machines invented for this purpose were successful. One, invented by Krupp Works in Germany, was first used successfully in 1943.
The final problem was degumming. The decortication process leaves behind some residue of the plant’s gum; if it isn’t completely removed, the fibers harden rapidly and become coarse. No acceptable, and financially feasible, degumming process was ever developed.
As a result, ramie – the plant that Earle L. Rauber saw as a way to markedly increase farmers’ incomes; to provide a variety of jobs, in decorticating and degumming plants; and to “lay the raw-materials foundation for a great many industries producing final products” – disappeared from the Glades.
At least one vestige of ramie remains in the state: Ramie Road in Clermont. Charles R. Short, who lived in Clermont, died May 8, 1955. According to his obituary two days later in The Orlando Sentinel, “His latest invention … was the Short Process Decorticator, a machine to process ramie … He had spent several years in research on ramie to produce this machine.”