Henequen fields on the Don Peón plantation. Henequen is a hardy plant resistant to most diseases and pests and decay. Note the spiky leaves which were harvested for henequen fibre. Plants take five to seven years to mature and continue to produce leaves for about 20 years.
Green gold was the name given to the henequen plant in the Yucatan because this green member of the cactus family became a goldmine for local landowners in the late 1800s. In 1878 an American man named John Appleby patented a reaper/binder machine that could cut stalks of grain and bind them together. That invention made the Yucatan rich because the reaper/binder machine used twine. A cheap way of making twine was with the fiber of the henequen plant which grew in the Yucatan.
A bale of henequen fibre ready to be shipped. It takes about 9,000 henequen leaves to make a bale like this.
By 1915, 1.2 million bales of henequen was being exported from the Yucatan annually and nearly 70% of the cultivated land was planted in henequen. Interestingly abroad henequen became known as sisal, because it was shipped out of a Yucatan port named Sisal and that name was stamped on all the containers holding the henequen.
Our friend Rudy talks to our tour guide Juan about the henequen industry in the Yucatan
We visited the former Sotutua de Peon plantation established by a man named Don Peón in the late 1800s near the village of Tecoh. It was one of thirteen plantations owned by the Peón family.
I have already blogged about the elegant hacienda on the plantation where the owner’s family spent their weekends. Learning all about how the green gold or the henequen plant was processed was another aspect of our tour.
A henequen plant can only have thirteen leaves chopped from it a year- first seven and then at a later time six. Here the chopped and bundled leaves are waiting to be processed.
First the henequen leaves were chopped with a macheteThen the stalks were fed into a machine that separated out the fibre inside and liquified the rest of the leaf to be used as fertilizer or animal feed.
Steam operated machine used to extract fibre from henequen plants in the past
The machine we saw was run by electricity but earlier versions were steam operated and before that operated by mules. The extracted fibre is dried on racks in the sun and finally packed into bales with another machine. Then it was sent abroad.
Juan shows us one of the machines used in Europe to turn the bales of henequen fibre into rope
We also saw a whole variety of machines that were used in various European countries to turn the henequen fibre into twine or rope.
Our friend Rudy photographs some of the processed henequen fibre
The guys in our group talk about one of the machines used to turn henequen into twine
This machine could combine six strands of twine to make a strong rope but there were machines that could twist together up to 36 individual pieces of twine to make heavy duty ropes for ships
Some of this twine or rope was used for binding crops but also for many other purposes including making ropes to be used on ships, making burlap bags and weaving carpets.
Maya farmers would use a board with nails to comb the henequen fibre and then twist it into twine with their hands.
Our guide Juan showed us how before and after the great heyday of the henequen industry from 1880-1930 the Maya people continued to use a simple method they had devised to make the henequen fibre into twine and rope.
This machine twisted together lengths of twine to make a stronger rope
The Maya farmers had a machine that combined the twine lengths into ropes of various strengths for agricultural use on their farms, and for making bags, sandals and hammocks.
The strength of your rope depended on how many strands of twine you had twisted together
Dave tests out the rope Juan made
The lucrative henequen trade ended in the late 1920s when plastic twine began to be used. Interestingly henequen twine or rope has been making a comeback in recent years because it is so environmentally friendly and decomposes easily. I found several articles online advocating for a renewal of the henequen industry and one about a retired fashion designer who is trying to get Saks Avenue stores to sell henequen handbags made by local Maya women in the Yucatan. Who knows? Maybe in the future henequen or sisal will become green gold once again for the farmers of the Yucatan.
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