A weed goes to war, and Michigan provides the ammunition


By Gerald Wykes

Content provided by Michigan History magazine

Late in World War II, the common milkweed was often the only thing that kept a downed aviator or soaking-wet sailor from slipping beneath the waves. The plant’s floss was used as the all-important filler for flotation devices.

The northwest part of the Lower Peninsula, particularly the area around Petoskey, became the country’s picking and processing center for milkweed floss. By the time the war ended, an army of citizens—including schoolchildren—led by a visionary doctor had helped keep America’s servicemen safe from harm.

In the early 20th century, the typical filler for life preservers was a material called “kapok.” A cottony fiber extracted from the pods of the ceiba tree, kapok was cultivated in the rainforests of Asia. America’s primary source for this material was the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia).

Then, in 1937, came Japan’s invasion of China, which initiated World War II in the Pacific. By the time the U.S. entered the war four years later, access to Asian kapok had been effectively cut off. A replacement for this critical material was needed to protect airmen and seamen from drowning. Cattail down, feathers, and “Bubblfil” (a plastic substance developed by Du Pont) were among the possibilities the military considered.

Enter Dr. Boris Berkman, a Chicago physician and inventor who was a champion of the milkweed, long considered a noxious weed to farmers. Berkman envisioned this plant as a new crop rivaling the soybean in usefulness. He suggested more than 20 uses for the plant’s stems, leaves, and pods: among them insulation, pressed board, oil, animal food, rayon, cellophane, dynamite, surgical dressing, and textile fibers. In his 1939 patent application for a milkweed gin to process the plant, he asserted that “milkweed is an American crop capable of producing untold benefits to the American farmer, and not subject to the uncertainties attending the importation of foreign raw materials.”

Milkweed floss as a filler for life preservers was another of his ideas. Berkman confidently proclaimed that the material was even better than kapok for the job, and could be processed more efficiently. He was invited to present his case before a congressional agriculture committee in March 1942. Extensive tests conducted by the U.S. Navy showed that a little over a pound of milkweed floss could keep a 150-pound man floating in the water for more than 40 hours. Based on the strength of this evidence, the federal government elevated the status of the weed to that of a wartime strategic material and quickly appropriated $225,000 to build a processing facility.


Petoskey Was Prime

Surveys conducted by representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had shown that the 12-county area surrounding the city of Petoskey was home to the “largest concentration of wild milkweed in the country.” Additionally, Petoskey was easily accessible by road, rail, and ship. All that was needed was a place to process the milkweed pods; the government solved that problem by appropriating the buildings and grounds of the Preston Feather & Sons Lumber Company, located along the Pennsylvania Railroad switch track at Sheridan Street. This transaction occurred in August 1942.

Boris Berkman was named president and L.J. Lyon vice president and treasurer of the organization created to spearhead this effort. It was placed under the umbrella of War Hemp Industries, Inc., which in turn was part of the Commodity Credit Corporation and answerable to the USDA. A huge sign on the road-facing side of the Preston Feather complex summed up this pedigree under the heading of the “Milkweed Floss Corporation of America.”

It took a year before the processing plant could realize its full potential. A huge commercial oven was required to properly dry the pods. But the lack of iron and steel resources delayed its construction. Other machinery was still being tested by a manufacturer in Chicago. And a concrete addition had to be built to expand the lumberyard’s existing facilities to 50,000 square feet.

A temporary setup enabled the plant’s 80 employees to process the 1942 harvest. Then, in November 1943, the new machinery was finally installed and turned on. Running at top capacity, the Petoskey works contained seven milkweed gins and a full dryer unit. The temporary space was converted to dry pod storage and a business office was set up downtown in a former Michigan Bell building.

Processing the Pods

As described by Berkman, processing was broken down into five stages. First, bagged pods were sent through the dryer on a conveyor belt to remove excess moisture (60 percent by volume) at the rate of 1,000 bags per hour. They were then lifted to the second floor, where the contents of the bags were emptied by hand into a hopper feeding the gins below. There, the pods were gently crushed between two rubber-coated drums, an action that opened them along their natural seams. A horizontal drum, equipped with beater bars, further agitated the pods and released the floss, to be carried off by air current and deposited into a collecting-and-bagging chamber. The broken pod shells and seeds fell onto a perforated grate and were gravity-sifted into separate collecting bins.

Only two parts of the process required manual contact: opening the bags of dried pods and picking the pods. Pod picking, however, was the most crucial step and relied heavily on the labor of children as well as adults. The fact that this operation worked at all was testament to a civilian army encompassing people in 25 states and two Canadian provinces.

Picking at the Right Time

Picking was a low-tech, labor-intensive task, requiring some knowledge of the plant and the seasonal variations that affected it.

There are more than 20 kinds of milkweed in North America, but the specific type targeted for the wartime effort was the common milkweed (Asclepius syriaca). A medium-sized perennial, it has a tough central stalk and thick, leathery leaves. The seed pods erupt out of the flower clusters located on the upper reaches of the stalk. Under natural conditions, these pods split open along a central seam, and the flat brown seeds—each attached to a tuft of silky fibers (floss)—are then parachuted away by the wind. The timing of this liberating event varies from year to year and can occur anytime between early September and mid-October.

It was crucial for processing that the pods be picked while they were ripe but not yet fully open. Too early, and the crop would be spoiled by moisture. Too late, and there would be no crop at all. Instructions were broadcast via newspapers and bulletins, containing tips such as “Pick in early fall when the seeds are brown” and “Top pods ripen first.” After picking, volunteers were advised that “the bags should be hung out in the open to dry… . A simple way of hanging up bags is to tie the tops of two together and saddle them over [a] fence.”

“Two Bags Save One Life”

Collection points and drying stations were set up throughout Michigan (and out of state from Wisconsin to New Hampshire), so that pickers didn’t have to deliver the pods directly to Petoskey. Rural stores and small businesses were among the collection points. The Emmet County fairground was used as a drying station, as were the Cadillac and Traverse City fairgrounds. Bags were hung from every available fence and building. In St. Ignace, the football field was used for this purpose as well.

Pickers entered their fields knowing that it took approximately two full bags, or about 20 pounds of ripe pods, to produce enough floss for one life jacket; “Two Bags Save One Life” was the government slogan. This fact provided a simple message to all involved: that they were doing their part for the war effort. And most of them understood this. In September 1944, Claude Wilson, supervisor of the Otsego County pod collection program, reported a rare incident to the local newspaper: Individuals had stolen bags from the Vanderbilt station and resold them elsewhere. He sternly reminded the unknown perpetrators that they were dealing with federal property and that “Uncle Sam is one fellow we don’t want mad at us.”

The first official milkweed crop was ready for picking by September 16, 1942, and families, community organizations, and schoolchildren answered that call with gusto. Proud of being the center of a new industry, Petoskey conducted a massive “Milkweed Picking Bee” involving members of the Rotary, Kiwanis, and chamber of commerce as well as local business owners. The group had a picnic lunch in the field near the Bear Creek fire tower, followed by an invocation and much speechmaking. At least 1,000 bags were picked before rain ended the day.

Caught up in the patriotic fervor of the time, farmer Ed Renkiewiscz pulled up to the chamber’s collection site and deposited six large burlap bags of pods onto the ground. “Here is a donation to the USO and Red Cross Fund from my two sons Edward and Michael,” he said. “They picked them Monday afternoon after school.” When re-sacked into the standard onion bags, the contribution amounted to 28 bags—enough for 14 life jackets. “We shall have more by the end of the week,” Renkiewiscz promised.

In spite of a rainy season that threatened the first year’s quota, nearly every available milkweed pod was picked. More than 15,200 pounds of pods hung from the fences of the Emmet County fairgrounds as of October 6 and 20,000 pounds were expected by mid-month. Even in subsequent years, when pods were sent in from all around, Emmet County consistently harvested more than any other Michigan county or state. It is believed that northern Michigan citizens in general contributed over 60 percent of the overall crop.

By the time the 1944 harvest was underway in early September, the milkweed processing operation was in full bloom. The 1944 quota was set at 3 million pounds of floss (to be extracted from 30 million pounds of pods). Emmet County had 13 buying stations. Charlevoix County boasted 10, including one administered by Sister Agnes Clare of Beaver Island. In Cross Village, the students and teachers at Holy Cross School collected nearly two tons of pods, ensuring that the local buying station would live up to its stated goal of “Much More in ’44.”

Schoolchildren Contribute

A campaign was undertaken in cooperation with the U.S. Office of Education to encourage children in rural schools to participate in pod collection. Every child in the field meant one more adult free to contribute to other wartime concerns. Public schools in 50 Michigan counties and four Ohio counties took part in the program, as did many private institutions. An informational brochure urged: “School children of America! Help save your fathers’, brothers’, and neighbors’ lives by collecting milkweed pods.”

There were countless stories about successful school drives. For example, members of Edna S. Galbraith’s 1944 class at the Red School near Gaylord picked 400 bags over the course of four days.

Berkman’s Vision

For these schoolchildren and others like them, the milkweed collection drive would be a passing memory in a full life. For Boris Berkman, the war years were a proving ground for his ideas and possibly the highlight of his career.

Berkman saw floss as only a small part of the milkweed miracle. He was looking forward to the post-war era, to a time when free milkweed seed would be distributed to farmers. Experiments were underway to develop cultivation methods as well as mechanical pod pickers, ranging from hand-held devices to tractor- and horse-drawn outfits. Milkweed held the promise of becoming a new industry, once the nation returned to normalcy. The citizens of Petoskey shared his enthusiasm and enjoyed the prospect of hosting this innovation.

Because of these developments, the 1945 crop of milkweed pods went unharvested. And that November, the processing plant was put up for sale. As advertised by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation’s Surplus Property Division, it consisted of “Concrete and Stucco; 47,500 sq. feet; Building, machinery, and equipment designed to process milkweed floss for use as filling in certain type preserver jackets.”

Still Considered a Success

Berkman continued to champion the milkweed cause, registering various patents including the use of the plant’s floss as an “ear defender” (ear plug) and clothing liner. But he was never able to raise interest in developing another processing facility.

Still, his achievements as the head of the Milkweed Floss Corporation of America did stand on their own. Under his leadership, it is estimated that enough material was collected and processed over the life of the Petoskey facility to fill 1.2 million life preservers.

Gerald Wykes is a historian, interpreter, and freelance illustrator living in Monroe.

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