The Invention That Made Yucatán Rich
In 1857, an eighteen-year-old farm worker in Whitewater, Wisconsin invented a mechanical device to tie a knot in a piece of string. John Appleby’s invention transformed Yucatán from one of Mexico’s poorest states to one of the richest.
Although it seems trivial, the knot-tying device was a key development in revolutionizing the production of wheat. The grain had been important to human nutrition for thousands of years, even though harvesting it involved many labor-intensive steps. The mature stalks had to be cut, then collected, tied into bundles, stacked to dry, and finally taken to a central location where the edible seeds could be separated from the rest of the plant. Through human history, each step had been done by hand. During the 1800s, a series of inventions changed everything.
Horse-drawn mechanical reapers began appearing in the early 1800s. Cyrus McCormick obtained a patent (later contested) for what proved to be the most successful design in 1837. Farmers rapidly adopted the new technology, but exhausting steps remained — gathering the cut stalks and binding them together with a band of straw.
McCormick introduced a reaper-binder that employed twisted wire in 1877, but wire proved unpopular. It was heavy, relatively expensive, snagged in the machinery, and hurt workers’ hands. Metal fragments got into the grain, where they could interfere with milling and kill livestock.
According to legend, Appleby figured out how to make a machine tie a knot when he happened to see a girl drop her jump rope over a dog. The pup wriggled out, leaving the rope lying in a loose knot. Appleby put together a primitive wooden gadget, but army service in the U.S. Civil War interrupted his work. He made improvements, building on the work of other tinkerers, and in 1878 obtained U.S. Patent No. 208,137 for his device. The superiority of twine over wire was obvious.
A reliable supply of strong, inexpensive binder twine became essential. U.S.-grown flax and hemp fell short for cost and strength. Supplies of Russian hemp and East Indian jute were unreliable. Abacá fiber from the Philippines, known as Manila hemp, seemed promising, but it turned out that grasshoppers like to eat it. A fiber from tropical America called sisal hemp was finding some use in cordage for sailing ships. The discovery that it was unappetizing to grasshoppers quickly focused attention on Yucatán — close location, low costs, and open for business.
The Maya had used fibers from the long, gray-green, sword-shaped leaves of agave plants to make rope, hammocks, coarse textiles, sandals, and baskets. Two native species are similar and easily confused — Henequen (Agave fourcroydes, Spanish henequén blanco, Mayan sak-kih) and Sisal (A. sisalana, Spanish henequén verde, Mayan yax-kih). Small-scale production for the merchant marine trade was underway by 1850. Thorny and longer-lived henequen became the main cultivated species, although “sisal” is usually the term for its fiber in English.
Another invention completed Yucatán’s part of the grain-and-twine equation. Separating the fibers from the plant’s fleshy leaves had been done by hand — slow, backbreaking work. To encourage development of a mechanical rasper to extract the fibers, the Yucatán state government offered a prize of 2,000 pesos — a considerable sum at a time when a day’s labor might bring a workman one peso. Because of patent disputes, the prize was never awarded, but practical steam-powered rasping machines became available in 1862. They did for Yucatán what the cotton gin had done for the southern United States.
Reapers with twine binders swept the grain belt with startling rapidity. In the five years after introduction of Appleby’s binder, exports of North American wheat doubled. Introduction of steam-powered threshing machines in the next decade completed the revolution in grain harvesting. In 1830, production of a bushel of wheat required three man-hours of work; by 1900 it took ten minutes.
The demand for binder twine skyrocketed, and Yucatán monopolized the supply of fiber. From an unproductive and isolated backwater, Yucatán was transformed into a major exporting region linked to international markets. Sweeping change and immense wealth followed.
Yucatán rather suddenly experienced its first real upper-class wealth since the Spanish conquest. A small class of henequen growers and brokers were the principal beneficiaries, about three or four hundred families, with only twenty or thirty actually in control — the “casta divina,” a closed league of oligarchs.
The growers established large haciendas in the countryside, but they and their families enjoyed the comforts of Mérida, and they used their new fortunes to improve their city. Mérida underwent an extraordinary metamorphosis. The dirty, dingy town of 1850 became by 1900 the White City, rebuilt on European and North American models. Paved streets appeared, numbered in the “modern” fashion, with drainage, streetcars, and electric lighting. A public market replaced old fort San Benito, last vestige of Maya T’ho. A new hospital and prison were built, telephones installed, and garbage collection begun. Modern windmills pumped water, 3,500 in the city alone, 10,000 across the state. A railroad to the new port of Progreso went into service in 1881, and lines soon extended throughout the henequen-producing region. By 1890, Yucatán had more miles of railroad than any other Mexican state.
At the end of the century, Mérida was said to have more millionaires than any other city in the world. Conspicuous consumption and a mania for all things French swept the casta divina. Mansions designed by prominent European architects graced the transformed city. Construction of the glorious Peón Contreras theater began in 1900, the luxurious Gran Hotel in 1902, the elegant Paseo de Montejo in 1904.
As a notable example of the new henequen millionaires, consider the Molina family. The Molinas were nouveau-riche entrepreneurs, without landed wealth. Led by Olegario Molina Solís, the extended family acquired riches and power unrivaled since the days of the Montejos. Don Olegario, using political connections to leverage his degrees in law and topographical engineering, moved into railroads, then henequen exporting and land. At one point, the Molinas and associates owned or controlled one-quarter of the land area of the state.
Mérida became the dominant city in the Peninsula. The capital had enjoyed significant political power, but it had never overshadowed other cities in the region as it clearly did by 1900. Declines in sugar and logwood exporting severely impacted rival Campeche. Cities in the east and south suffered catastrophic population loss during the Caste War. Mérida lost only about ten percent in that era, then doubled from 1880 to 1910 to become the fifth largest city in Mexico. Climate and transportation bound henequen cultivation to Mérida, which also became the financial and technology center. By 1900, seven-eighths of the state population was involved in the fiber industry, and other cities in the Peninsula had become poor colonial appendages of Mérida.
The wealth came with terrible costs.
At the lower end of the economic spectrum were the workers’ barrios, small towns, plantations, and labor camps that surrounded the wealthy White City. Urban development contrasted sharply with the miserable conditions of the poor — overcrowded, dirty, perennially short of drinking water, racked with frequent epidemics of yellow fever and malaria.
The transformation in land use was dramatic. Henequen requires a lot of land. Harvesting the leaves can only begin seven years after planting, the yield is low, the plants die after fifteen to twenty years, and the cycle begins again. In earlier days, when Indian labor was more valuable than land, traditional villages were little disrupted. Henequen completely changed that. With government support, haciendas expropriated communal land, destroying self-sufficient Maya communities by ending traditional subsistence corn growing and restricting hunting, grazing, and access to firewood. Forests disappeared, cut down to fire boilers. Much of the state became a monoculture, row after row of spikey henequen plants.
An initial wave of workers required for the labor-intensive plantation economy came from refugees fleeing the Caste War, glad to have work and security. Residency on a hacienda assured them of food, firewood, and exemptions from corvée labor and military service. Many Maya changed from temporary laborers to resident peones.
But henequen growers found they could increase profits by exploiting the workers. Debt peonage and draconian vagrancy laws became keys to haciendas’ profitability. Extreme fluctuation in fiber prices created boom-and-bust cycles, leaving overextended owners deeply in debt. They transferred the burden to workers. Though there was variation, the situation for many workers increasingly resembled slavery, with escape prevented by police and bounty hunters.
As expansion continued, labor shortages were a chronic problem, raising myriad related social issues. With a third to half of the Peninsula’s population lost in the Caste War, henequen growers developed various schemes to obtain workers, producing a complex workforce. They imported contract workers from central Mexico, the Canary Islands, Korea, and China. They pressed criminals, vagrants, and captured rebels into service. Most shamefully, they bought thousands of Yaqui people, forcibly removed from Sonora in what today we would call “ethnic cleansing.” Starved, abused, and totally cut off from their culture, two-thirds of the Yaqui laborers died within a year of arriving in Yucatán.
The rich as well as the poor paid another price for prosperity: political repression. In order for Yucatán to become a reliable supplier of fiber, it needed a measure of political stability. In the years between 1848 and 1875, Yucatán had twenty-six governors, seven in 1873 alone. In 1874 there were three competing legislatures, each with its own governor. Stability came with the ascendancy of Porfirio Díaz to the Mexican presidency. Díaz brought modernization and increasingly dictatorial rule during the long “Porfiriato” from 1876 until 1911. Díaz personally selected state governors to be “elected.” For better or worse, after 1876, governors of Yucatán followed each other in orderly four-year terms. Patronage networks ruled, based on family and friends, and linked directly to don Porfirio. An iron fist enforced his “Order and Progress” dictum when necessary.
Yucatán also surrendered control of its own finances. Henequen culture is highly capital intensive. Without a single bank (the first one opened in 1883), Yucatán became almost entirely dependent on North American financing. The Díaz regime encouraged foreign investment, and Yucatán fared better than some parts of Mexico, retaining ownership of land and technology. Although local producers and brokers could become very rich, foreign companies really controlled them. By the late 1800s, Yucatán’s economy depended on the requirements of North American capitalists, who profited without the risks of ownership.
North American control also inhibited industrial development and diversification. The creditors demanded payment in raw fiber, sent north for conversion to twine. Yucatecans developed technology but purchased machinery from the United States, Britain, and Germany. Some 2,800 miles of prefabricated tramways for transporting henequen came from the French Decauville company, which shipped tracks from their plant at Val-Saint-Lambert, Belgium.
In 1902, a secret meeting took place in Havana between Cyrus McCormick, Jr. and Olegario Molina. Backed by the financier J. P. Morgan, McCormick had swallowed five competitors to create the International Harvester Company, largely eliminating competition. Olegario Molina y Compañía increased its domination of the export trade by agreeing to depress the price of fiber and to pay only what IHC dictated. The partnership created a near-total monopoly, driving out other brokers and depressing already scandalously low wages. Chronic instability of henequen fiber prices, along with failure to diversify, destroyed smaller producers. In 1910, International Harvester controlled 99.8% of the Yucatán henequen market.
Olegario Molina served two terms as Governor of Yucatán, then went into the Díaz cabinet as Secretary of Development and Industry. When the Mexican Revolution swept out Díaz, Molina fled to Havana, where he died a rich man in 1925.
Success in the henequen business had always been linked to political power and patronage. The Revolution brought reform and fairer prices, and the oligarchs’ house of cards began collapsing. In about 1910, combine harvester-threshers began appearing, gradually eliminating the need for binder twine. Demand for fiber during the great wars and for hay balers brought brief periods of optimism, but the trend was inevitably down. Other producers and other fibers moved into what remained of the markets. Yucatán’s incredible Gilded Age ended, and the henequen industry slowly faded, leaving only traces of the ambitions it nourished.
By Robert D. Temple
Mérida’s mansions and impressive public buildings give abundant evidence of the Golden Age of henequen millionaires. A conspicuous example is the Palacio Cantón, the immense pink and white Beaux-Arts structure on the Paseo Montejo at Calle 43. It was built between 1904 and 1911 as the home of General Francisco Cantón Rosado, an early supporter of Porfirio Díaz, owner of railroads and many haciendas, governor of Yucatán, and one of its wealthiest citizens. The Regional Anthropology Museum now occupies the building.
Henequen haciendas exist across the Yucatán countryside, many in ruins, some elegantly restored and open to visitors as hotels, restaurants, and museums. Hacienda Sotuta de Peón, near Tecoh, is still a working plantation, growing and processing henequen fiber.
The murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco illustrating the struggles of the people of Yucatán vividly depict henequen workers. The murals are in the Government Palace on Mérida’s main plaza.
Olegario Molina is interred in the chapel of his former estate, Hacienda Sodzil, in northern Mérida. The fields of henequen have vanished and the hacienda is now surrounded by the Sodzil Norte neighborhood.
The author thanks Jan Brown for providing helpful reference material.