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Bound in Twine

The History and Ecology of the Henequen-Wheat Complex for Mexico and the American and Canadian Plain

By Sterling C. Evans

Publication Year: 2007

Before the invention of the combine, the binder was an essential harvesting implement that cut grain and bound the stalks in bundles tied with twine that could then be hand-gathered into shocks for threshing. Hundreds of thousands of farmers across the United States and Canada relied on binders and the twine required for the machine’s operation. Implement manufacturers discovered that the best binder twine was made from henequen and sisal—spiny, fibrous plants native to the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. The double dependency that subsequently developed between Mexico and the Great Plains of the United States and Canada affected the agriculture, ecology, and economy of all three nations in ways that have historically been little understood. These interlocking dependencies—identified by author Sterling Evans as the “henequen-wheat complex”—initiated or furthered major ecological, social, and political changes in each of these agricultural regions. Drawing on extensive archival work as well as the existing secondary literature, Evans has woven an intricate story that will change our understanding of the complex, transnational history of the North American continent.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Environmental History Series


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

The redwoods on the foggy hills outside the window of the loft where I wrote this book represent a very different environment from that of the story within it. Here, I leave the Coastal Range and rocky coasts of northern California to address a part of history from the landscape of my origin and where I have returned—the flatter but every bit as beautiful North American Great ...

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pp. xiii-xvi

Because my work on this project lasted for several years, there are many people in Mexico, the United States, and Canada to whom I owe my sincerest gratitude. First, at the University of Kansas where I began this project when I was a graduate student in the 1990s, I thank my advisor Charles Stansifer for his pragmatic editorial comments on an early paper (which is now chapter 3) and for always taking a keen interest in this project then and since. Hailing ...

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Introduction: Dependent Harvests

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pp. xvii-xxiii

Bound in Twine is a continental tale. It is about the transnationalization, and indeed globalization, of the henequen-wheat complex upon which North American grain production depended for several decades. The importance of that agriculture, its growth and technological changes, speaks for itself, yet a broader understanding of the connections that made it possible ...

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Chapter 1. On the History of Binders and Twine: Agricultural and Industrial Transformations in North America

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pp. 1-32

The history of the henequen-wheat complex begins with the transformation of the American and Canadian plains from a land of prairie grass where bison and later cattle grazed to a region of cereal grain production. As Donald Worster explains it, “The grassland was to be torn up to make a vast wheat factory: a landscape tailored to the industrial age.” 1 In tune with ...

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Chapter 2. Yucatán’s Henequen Industry: Social and Environmental Transformations

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pp. 32-66

The invention of the power reaper/binder with its wondrous mechanical twine knotter created a “nearly limitless demand” for henequen and sisal fiber. By 1900 more than 85 percent of all binder twine in North America was made with Yucatecan fiber.1 That reality set the Mexican state of Yucatán (situated on the northern third of the Yucatán Peninsula [Figure ...

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Chapter 3. Yaquis in Yucat

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pp. 67-90

After Refugio Savala was born in a Sonoran village in 1904, Mexican soldiers took his mother from her tortilla stand and held her in jail to await deportation to the henequen fields of faraway Yucatán. Amazingly, unlike most of the other thousands of detained Yaquis, she talked herself free and hurriedly moved her family to safety in southern Arizona—a refuge (and ...

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Chapter 4. Twine Diplomacy: Yucatán, the United States, and Canada during the “Sisal Situation” of 1915

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pp. 91-120

The year 1915 proved to be a landmark one for the henequen-wheat complex. It was the year that the Mexican Revolution hit Yucatán—a fact that the Woodrow Wilson administration in the United States and the Robert Laird Borden government in Canada had to confront when the revolution threatened the supply of sisal fiber for binding that year’s harvests of wheat. ...

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Chapter 5. Prison-Made Twine: The Role of the Penitentiaries in the Henequen-Wheat Complex

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pp. 121-160

One of the least known aspects of the history of the henequen-wheat complex is the role played by North American penitentiaries in the manufacture of binder twine. The literature on henequen, the fiber industry in general, and U.S. and Canadian agricultural history has either ignored this aspect entirely or alluded to it only in passing. Yet the prison twine industry ...

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Chapter 6. Decline, Depression, and Drought: Economic and Environmental Change in the Great Plains and Yucatán, 1916–1939

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pp. 161-196

The years from 1916 through the 1930s featured dramatic economic and environmental changes in North America, and together they had a significant impact on the henequen-wheat complex. First, with a heightened demand for grains during World War I, the demand for Yucatecan fibers greatly increased—demands that both wheat farmers and henequen planters ...

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Chapter 7. Competition and Combines: The End of the Henequen-Wheat Story

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pp. 197-231

The end of the henequen-wheat story can be attributed to a variety of factors. Price hikes on Yucatecan fiber during the Mexican Revolution and exogenous economic factors, especially the one-two punch of the Great Depression and drought in North America in the 1930s that reduced the demand for binder twine, played significant roles in the decline of both the ...

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Conclusion: Bound in Twine

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pp. 232-240

Cawker City, Kansas, is home to what residents there claim is the world’s largest ball of twine. Many travelers and tourists motoring on U.S. Highway 24 in north central Kansas may not take the time to stop and admire this landmark that is preserved under a metal pavilion complete with park benches on which guests can relax and ponder the enormous ball, but if they ...


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pp. 241-282


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pp. 283-306


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pp. 307-314

E-ISBN-13: 9781603444484
E-ISBN-10: 1603444483
Print-ISBN-13: 9781585445967
Print-ISBN-10: 1585445967

Page Count: 334
Illustrations: 28 b&w photos. 3 line art. 10 maps. 4 tables. Notes.
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Environmental History Series
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OCLC Number: 652361127
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Bound in Twine

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Subject Headings

  • Yaqui Indians -- History.
  • Twine industry -- Mexico -- Yucatán (State) -- History.
  • Twine industry -- North America -- History.
  • Great Plains -- Economic conditions.
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