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1834 | Early survival of Transylvania University attributed to hemp wealth

Updated: Jan 18, 2019

Early 19th century view from Morrison College of Downtown Lexington.
Early 19th century view from Morrison College of Downtown Lexington.

In 1780, an act by the Commonwealth of Virginia Legislature set aside 8,000 acres of confiscated British lands in the County of Kentucky for "a public school or seminary of learning,” and a charter for Transylvania College was granted by the Legislature three years later. Deemed the first educational institution west of the Alleghenies, at the height of it influence in the first quarter of the 19th century, Transylvania rivaled both Harvard and Yale.

The first classes were held in 1785 near Danville, Ky., in the cabin of the first chairman of the Board of Trustees, the Reverend David Rice, founder of the first Presbyterian Church west of the Alleghenies (in Danville). In 1793 a gift of land, then called the College Lot and now known as Gratz Park, was accepted by Transylvania trustees in return for a promise to relocate and maintain the campus in Lexington. Transylvania University has remained in Lexington since 1789.

Early hemp-wealthy Lexington supporters of the university included Nathaniel and Thomas Hart, Peyton Short, Thomas January, and Charles Wilkins. Notable were numerous early trustees and especially the hemp- rich quintet of Col. James Morrison, John Wesley Hunt, Robert Smith Todd, Henry Clay, and Benjamin Gratz.

The Transylvania campus was bordered by hemp walks in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Hemp walks also were scattered around town adjacent to private residences, such as that built by Peter January on the northwestern corner of Second Street and North Mill Street. As early as 1791 he was buying raw hemp. In March 1801, he advertised in the Kentucky Gazette for “two good rope makers, who are sober.” Also on the northeastern corner of Second Street and the future Market Street was the rope walk of John Kerns, where the Bodley-Bullock house now stands, also built in 1814.

John Wesley Hunt later purchased a portion of the lot owned by Peter and Thomas January at the

the corner of Mill and Second street where he built his estate, Hopemont, in 1814. When Benjamin Gratz moved to "Mt. Hope" a house located at 231 N. Mill street just down from Hopemont in 1824. His descendants lived there for 160 years until the house was sold in 1985. Gratz Park was named in his honor. Click here to learn more about Gratz Park and the hemp history surrounding the area.

Local hemp-based wealth in Lexington is said to have contributed to student tuition and fees, and the private investments vital to Transylvania Seminary’s early existence. A 2015 publication by the Charles T. Ambrose, university suggests “that if hemp had not been the major cash crop in Kentucky during the early 1800’s, the school might not have survived its fiscally uncertain initial decades.”

[Click here to Download Charles Ambroses' "Transylvania University and its Hemp Connection."]

Transylvania College; Morrison Chapel, exterior, 1936 (ExploreUK).
Transylvania College; Morrison Chapel, exterior, 1936 (ExploreUK).

When it the original building burned down in 1829, the campus was moved north across Third Street into a stately columned Greek Revival building, designated initially as Morrison College.

Col. James Morrison

Col. James Morrison was the son of an Irish immigrant born in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania in 1755. He later served for six years in the army of the Revolution, and distinguished himself as one of Morgan's select corps of riflemen. After the war he went into business at Pittsburgh, and rose to be Sheriff of the county.

In 1774, he had, in company with Colonel William Thompson, visited, and surveyed with delight, the green fields and majestic rivers of this beautiful and fertile region, and had gained in that expedition such a degree of accurate local knowledge of the country as induced him to select one of its happiest portions for the theatre of his future fortunes (A discourse occasioned by the death of Col. James Morrison : delivered in the Episcopal church, Lexington, Kentucky, May 19th, 1823).

By 1792, he had commenced his business as a merchant in Lexington. He grew rich from the state’s expanding hemp industry, in addition to his roles as a land commissioner, legislator, tax officer, navy quartermaster, and bank president — all of which he leveraged to influence the state’s commercial interests for his own benefit (Cousins, 2016).

In 1794, Morrison advertised for “a quantity of well cleaned hemp,” and joined other merchants in floating their hemp down the Mississippi River to markets in New Orleans. He established a rope and bagging factory and pioneered the Lexington industry with business business partners John Bruce and later Benjamin Gratz, all three of which made a fortune from the industry and contributed greatly to the financial development of the local economy.

Col. Morrison was selected as the Navy’s administrative agent and was responsible for purchasing hemp cordage for naval stores. During the War of 1812, he was quartermaster general and promoted the use of Kentucky hemp products in U.S. naval ships.

Morrison continued in the hemp business until his death in 1823. The company was continued under Gratz and Bruce. He left the endowment of $50,000 to Transylvania University,