Updated: Jan 18, 2019
By the late eighteenth century, Kentucky hemp was being manufactured into locally woven yarn goods, bagging, cordage and rope. Processing the dressed (retted and carded) hemp fibers to make rope was originally performed in an open field, or at home in small scale. This work was being done in 600 to 1,250-foot-long buildings called “rope walks” for protection against bad weather.
Spinning wheel and fiber in ropewalk factory (www.cindyvallar.com)
“Ropewalks” were long buildings, or temporary set-ups, for rope fabrication that often stretched entire city blocks. However, companies often produced both bagging and bale rope, and were equipped with storage houses, a spinning house, a weaving house and a ropewalk.
These were the first establishments for the manufacture of hemp in Kentucky, dating back to Elijah Craig’s ropewalk in Georgetown established in 1789. He began operating a fulling mill in the region in 1793. Both factories made cordage and rigging for vessels built on the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers.
The possibilities of transforming some of the raw material of the region into manufactured produced began to attract attention in 1790. A man by the name of John Hamilton was the first to advertise his ropewalk near Lexington.
The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 created a new demand for hempen materials. Cotton, after being ginned, had to be compressed into bales in order that it might be transported easily, and each bale bad to be held together by a binding of some strong material. Hemp was found to be well suited for that purpose, and bale rope and bagging became the forms into which by far the greater part of the Kentucky fiber was manufactured.
At the same time that ropewalks were coming into existence, other factories were being established to transform hemp fiber into cloth. One of the earliest, if not the first, manufacturersof cotton bagging was established by John W. Hunt and John Brand in Lexington in 1803. John Wesley Hunt, a Lexington businessman, was one of the first Kentuckians to make a fortune in the hemp and mercantile business, making him the first millionaire west of the Allegheny Mountains. [Read “John W. Hunt Pioneers Hemp Industry.”] By 1814, he had achieved enough financial success to build "Hopemont," his mansion that still stands on the corner of Gratz Park today.
As the eighteenth century drew to a close, new markets for Kentucky hemp were provided as capitalism and industrialism on a small scale gradually won a place alongside the self-sufficiency of frontier economy. Ropewalks had already sprung up in several communities, and other manufacturing establishments were soon to create an increasing demand for the fiber.
By 1809, Kentucky claimed to be providing nearly all the hemp bagging and bale rope used in the South. Ropewalks produced thousands of yards of hemp cordage, while factory looms stationed throughout Lexington, Danville, and Frankfort wove the bagging. In 1813, there were eight bagging factories operating in Lexington, producing about 480,000 yards of cordage annually. Within less than two decades, there were just over 60 ropewalks across the state.
Hopkins, J. (1951). A history of the hemp industry in Kentucky. University of Kentucky Press.