Updated: Jan 18, 2019
Beginning in the nineteenth century, competition from foreign sources, along with low prices, forced Kentuckians to explore new methods of cultivation and new markets for their fiber. Producers especially desired to furnish ship rigging for the navy, since fiber used for that purpose commanded a steady market and much higher price than that made into bale rope or bagging.
The Navy required a particular method of crop management, called "water retting" for hemp, a process many Kentucky farmers were unwilling to undertake. As a result, many attempts to capture the naval demand for hemp from Kentucky farmers failed and import Russian hemp was preferred.
Retting is a process which creates bacteria and moisture on plants to dissolve or rot away much of the cellular tissues and gummy substances surrounding bast-fibre bundles, thus helping the separation of the hemp fiber from the stalk. Basic methods include dew retting and water retting.
In water retting, bundles of hemp stalks are submerged in water. The water enters the central stalk portion of the plant, swells the inner cells and bursts the outermost layer, resulting in an increased absorption of both moisture and decay-producing bacteria. Retting time must be carefully judged; under-retting makes separation difficult, and over-retting weakens the hemp fiber. In double retting, a gentle process producing excellent fibre, the stalks are removed from the water before retting is completed, dried for several months, then retted again.
Natural water-retting employs stagnant or slow-moving waters, such as ponds, bogs, and slow streams and rivers. The stalk bundles are weighted down, usually with stones or wood, for about 8 to 14 days, depending upon water temperature and mineral content. Tank retting relies on concrete vats, requires about four to six days and can be done in any season. This method allows greater control and produces more uniform quality. Waste retting water, which requires treatment to reduce harmful toxic elements before its release, is rich in chemicals and is sometimes used as liquid fertilizer.
Henry Clay often advocated for the use of Kentucky hemp over Russian hemp, and attempted to treat his own crops using the water retting method. Clay grew acres of hemp at his Ashland estate, having it turned into rope and cotton bagging. In 1843, he regretfully declined an invitation because he was “so busy at home with my vats for water rotting hemp…. that I cannot conveniently leave it.”
Various attempts to encourage farmers and teach them to harvest using the water-retting method of treatment took place during the early-to-mid 19th century. However, many continued to rely on the preferred the dew-retting method and refused to adopt new practices.
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In 1838, delegates from thirty-four counties met and organizations the second State Agricultural Society. Its program was ambitious, calling for periodic reports on the crops of the various sections of the state, undertaking to encourage the water rotting of hemp for naval use, and offering premiums for essays, one of which referred to “water rotting hemp, showing the advantages resulting to producer and consumer from this method of preparing the staple, and practically describing the mode of conducting the process.
After four years of activity, the society disappeared, however, the Bourbon County Agricultural Society stepped into the breach with an offer to “The Hemp Growers of the United States” of “a premium of a Silver Mug, worth $20, for the best article of Hemp for Naval Purposes, also a Cup worth $10, for the second best, and a Spoon worth $5, for third best, the growth of the United States. The prizes were won by Issac Wright, who produced 1,355 pounds of hemp on one acre, by Michael Neff with 1,200 pounds, and by John Allen Gano with 1,192 pounds.”
Original format modified for viewing purposes. (Kentucky Digital Library)
A third Kentucky State Agricultural Society was organized in 1856 and it remained active to the Civil War. Fairs were numerous in Kentucky on the eve of the war, for in addition to those held by the organization and by the county associations others were operated by the Kentucky Society, which conducted an exhibition in Louisville in 1857. Since the purpose of all these organizations was to encourage agriculture industry, all offered premiums for crops and manufactured articles, and always hemp and hempen goods received a large share of attention.
The agitation of the agricultural societies for improvement in methods of crop management, the desire to capture the market for marine cordage, and the fluctuating and frequently low prices obtainable for fiber sold to the local manufacturers of bale rope and bagging caused some hemp growers occasionally to try to prepare their product for a different market by methods other than dew rotting. Consequently, beginning about 1840 more attention than ever before was given to this method of preparing the fiber, the activity being noted by an observer who described it as follows:
The water-rotting of hemp is exciting great interest amongst the farmers of Kentucky. The efforts made in the South to do away with the use of domestic bagging and bale-rope [have led] some of the planters…[to the] length of bailing their cotton in thin cottonwood boards, bound, together with hoops! The Scotch and Russia articles,…made of tow, having also lately been used to a great extend, together with the experiments made at the Navy-yard, proving incontestably, that the hemp of Kentucky and Missouri, properly prepared, is infinitely superior to that of any foreign growth; ought to be convincing proof to the hemp growers of the west, that the article can be turned into much better and profitable used than the mere manufacture of cotton bagging.
The Frankfort Commonwealth noted that the hemp crop of 1842 promised to be greater than any ever before produced in a single season. It urged the farmers for their own sakes as well as for the good of the bagging and rope industry to water rot a large portion of their product and went so far as to say that “they will be given over to unredeemable stupidity if they do not avail [themselves] of so tempting a means of promoting their solid prosperity.”
Variations of the process of water rotting hemp were publicized in the newspapers, and hemp growers held meetings in several counties to discuss their problems. Though much of this fiber was probably prepared with the hope that it might be sold to the navy, most of it was sold in the local market. The price was higher than that obtained for dew rotted hemp, but all prices sank to low levels during much of the decade before 1850. Water rotted hemp brought $100 to $100 per ton during most of the year in 1844, dropping gradually by as much as $20 per ton as the year ended. The price rose again to about $100 per ton early in the next year and did not change radically until late in 1848, when it rose about $200.
By the later date dew rotten hemp had risen to more than $100, the mark at which the production of that commodity was generally considered to be profitable. Perhaps largely for that reason, the production of water rotted hemp seems to have attracted less attention, at least in the press, during the following decade.
After 1850, prices for that kind of fiber were rarely quoted, while surveys of the market continued to mention dew rotted hemp. At no time was a relatively large amount of the Kentucky hemp prepared by water rotted hemp. The census returns for 1860 are inaccurate, but apparently the proportion of water rotted hemp in that year was approximately the same as it had been ten years earlier.
Hopkins, J. (1951). A history of the hemp industry in Kentucky. University of Kentucky Press.