A Brief History of Hemp in Kentucky
The First Hemp Crop in Kentucky was grown near Danville on Clarks Run Creek in 1775. During the late 18th century, pioneers grew hemp for fiber near settlements to make homespun twine, thread, rope, and textiles for basic necessities when seed could be secured.
As trade routes and transportation methods improved, so did the ability to obtain hemp seed and hempen goods from abroad. Hemp is not native to Kentucky, and had to be brought from New England or European countries. Early settlers had difficulty growing surplus crops without a consistent supply of hemp seed, so once the supply was established, a local industry began to develop. Between 1790 and 1800, settlements were transformed into attractive communities of fine homes, landed estates, and diverse manufacturing and mercantile enterprises — and hemp was regarded “the most certain crop and the most valuable commodity” produced in the region.
Illustrations of early Kentucky settlements (Strode(s) Station and Bryan Station).
By the early 1800's, the bluegrass region of the state had become a major center for hemp production and exportation. A surplus in seed had led to a surplus of hemp fiber, so Kentuckians began to manufacture hempen goods. "Ropewalks" were installed in long, open, outdoor areas for spinning and twisting the hemp fiber into rope. According to Kentucky Historical Marker #1166, Elijah Craig installed one of the first ropewalks at Georgetown in 1789 to make cordage and rigging for vessels built on the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers. In 1801, John Wesley Hunt had discovered another growing market for hemp fiber in the manufacture of cotton bagging. Hunt established the first cotton bagging factory in Lexington with his business partner, John Brand, and made a fortune from hemp production. The factory shipped the bagging down South to fulfill the needs of the cotton industry. By 1809, Kentucky claimed to be supplying nearly the whole South with bailing materials made of hemp.
Slave labor was used to a large extent in the manufacture of hemp. A visitor at a Lexington hemp factory in 1830 claimed to be surprised at the “skill” demonstrated by the 60-100 “stout” and “healthy” bondsmen who performed the company’s spinning and weaving. The constantly increasing utilization of slave labor in manufacturing left no doubt as to its growing profitability. Slaves were responsible for taking hemp crops from the field to market. On average, a single enslaved person could reportedly cultivate 17 acres and process 700 pounds of hemp fiber per season. Additionally, slaves were often hired for a time to the ropewalk that were processing last year’s crop. If a slave holder had more labor than was necessary, which was often the case during the hemp growing season, he always had the option of hiring out the slaves to neighboring farmers or factories. Many antebellum farmers stated that the cultivation of hemp was the most profitable use of slave labor. Almost all hemp farms or factories relied heavily on the use of slave labor and extortion for their profits. Enslavement of humans is one of the, too many, dark chapters in American history.
This gouche drawing entitled "The Hemp Brake" is dated 1850 and depicts enslaved African Americans using hemp brakes and rail fences to break the stalk of the plant, while others load the broken hemp into the mule driven carding machine. An ox cart brings more hemp from the field of shocks depicted in the mid-range. People wearing in suits and dresses are interspersed among the workers indicating a social event.
During the late 1830’s and early 1840’s, Kentucky farmers began struggling to compete with large quantities of imported fibers coming into the United States in the form of jute and abaca. Abaca fiber, commonly called “manila hemp” was imported from the Philippine
Islands (and is not a form of cannabis). Its fibers are six to 10 feet long, pliable, and were cheaper to obtain than that from domestically grown hemp. In 1839, around 3,000 tons of Manila hemp were imported, and the amount increased in later years. Kentucky politician and hemp grower, Henry Clay, often advocated on behalf of tariffs on imported fiber in order to product the bluegrass industry.
Still, however, Kentucky hemp production thrived and remained the nation's leading hemp producing state into the mid-19th century. The counties that produced the most hemp were located in the “bluegrass region” and were either near or along the Kentucky River. Fayette, Woodford, Shelby, Clark, Scott, Bourbon, Jessamine, Mason, Franklin, Boyle and Lincoln proved to be the largest hemp-producing counties during the nineteenth century and were responsible for about three-fourths of all the hemp produced in the U.S.
In 1850, the Kentucky reached peak hemp production at 40,000 tons worth $5 million. During the 1850s, the industry declined until the Civil War, which brought a halt to all American hemp production. After the war, slavery had been abolished, and hemp farmers and manufacturers in Kentucky found it difficult to find or pay for the intense amount of labor hemp crops required in the field or factory. Lack of mechanized processing equipment, and continued reliance on the old "hemp brake," made Kentucky hemp producers less efficient than other states that adopted more innovative machinery. Perhaps the biggest deterrer to the industry was the continued reliance and adoption of imported or synthetic fibers by the Southern and New England states. As a result, Kentucky hemp production fluctuated drastically during the end of the 19th century.
An early 1900s postcard illustrating a farm worker using the old hand operated hemp brake in Kentucky.
The hemp industry rapidly declined during early 1900s, experiencing a brief revival during the first World War as foreign sources of fibers were cut off. The government turned to domestic hemp to fill the need for rope, cables, twine, and engine packing for the war industries. After the war, the U.S. regained access to cheaper, imported fibers and over the next few years, the hemp industry almost ceased to exist. At its lowest point, only 23 acres of hemp were grown in Kentucky.
During the 1930s, hemp became intertwined with its cannabis cousin, marijuana. A smear campaign called "Reefer Madness" sparked a movement against cannabis production, including hemp. Theories suggest that it may have been the industrial potential of cannabis, or hemp, that led to its demonization. The paper, plastic, automotive, and oil industries were all threatened by the potential of hemp as a replacement, and the individuals behind Reefer Madness were heavily invested in these businesses. [Click here to read Kentucky Hempsters article in Leafly titled, "Did the Industrial Value of Hemp Spark Cannabis Prohibition?"] Reefer Madness worked, and in 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, making it difficult for farmers to grow hemp and make a fair profit after the cost. Farmers were required to pay for a Marijuana Tax Stamp to grow hemp, and with little to no markets for the crop, very few did so.
Example of Marijuana (Marihuana) Tax Stamp from World War II.
Just five years later, when foreign sources of fiber were once again cut off with the onset of World War II, the government sought domestically produced hemp fiber. In 1942, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the "Hemp For Victory" campaign, encouraging American farmers to grow hemp for the war with government contracts and incentives. Kentucky farmers fulfill the government's request, and provided the entire nation with domestically grown hemp seed.
Unfortunately, the terms on which they grew hemp were not met, and many farmers found themselves negotiating with the U.S. War Board for the payments they were promised. Predictably, the end of the war meant restored access to imported fiber. This left farmers without a market for their crop, and no reason to continue production. Farmers were fed up with the failed government hemp program and quickly turned back to the production of tobacco or more profitable crops. By 1944, only 23 Kentucky farmers received licenses to grow hemp, and in 1945, production had ceased across the state and country. James F. Hopkins, a University of Kentucky Professor and author of "A History of Hemp in Kentucky" published in 1950 wrote:
"At the end of World War II the hemp industry in Kentucky appeared to have vanished.
In time of stress, however, when fiber is needed and prices are high, it may appear again.
Once more perhaps the distinctive odor of growing hemp will hang heavily in the summer
air, and the fields of emerald green may once again add beauty to the Kentucky landscape."
In 1970, hemp was federally banned under cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. During the late 20th century, advocates began promoting the return of hemp, shedding light on its long lost history in Kentucky. It wasn't until 2012 that Kentucky representatives took notice. In 2013, Kentucky passed Senate Bill 50 which set the legal framework for hemp growth should the federal government legalize production. The 2014 Farm Bill allowed universities and state departments of agriculture to grow hemp for research and development purposes. After five years, Congress voted to remove hemp from the list of controlled substances and legalize it as an agricultural commodity nationwide. Click here to learn more about hemp legislation in Kentucky and the U.S.