Updated: Jan 18, 2019
Kentucky was the nation's leading hemp-producing state throughout the mid-19th century with peak production at 40,000 tons in 1850. In 1811, there were almost 60 ropewalks across Kentucky, and by the late 1850's, more than one-third of the 400 bagging, bale rope and cordage factories in America were in the bluegrass region.
Though no reliable estimates of the extent of hemp production exist for the years between 1810 and 1840, it is evident that the production of the fiber in Kentucky increased as the years passed. In 1833, an advocate for the construction of turnpike roads, seeking to demonstrate the value of such means of communication, stated that “from data I know to be nearly correct” Woodford County produced annually 900 tons of hemp, Fayette twice as much, and other neighboring counties as much together as Woodford. Two years later a contributor to a Lexington paper referred to hemp as “the first article of our traffic, source of our wealth, and the first object of our labor, skill and improvement,” and further declared that:
The article, hemp, has now become the decided staple of Kentucky. It is not necessary to constitute a staple that it should be the most profitable commodity….. but, that it should be the most certain and ready sale - and a cash article. Hemp in that point of view, may be fairly considered a staple; though, it has labored under such disadvantages, that the grower has derived but very inadequate profit from it.”
. . . Referring to the inaccuracy of the census, a Kentucky newspaper claimed that “The truth of the matter is that near about three-fourths of the whole hemp crop of the United States, in 1840, was produced in Kentucky.
The United States in 1849 produced 34,871 tons of hemp and over one-half (17,787 tons) was produced by Kentucky, which led Missouri, its nearest competitor, by almost 2,000 tons. Fayette, Woodford, Mason, Scott, Jassamine, Bourbon, and Shelby counties, in that order, were the outstanding hemp producing localities in the bluegrass state.
Top hemp producing Kentucky counties (J., Hopkins, 1951)
The annual production of hemp in Kentucky during the decade before the outbreak of the Civil War did not again reach the peak which had been reported in 1850. Several poor crop years occurred and in 1856 the market was almost bare of the fiber.
During the next two years production increased, but importations of bagging from India and the expansion of the hemp industry in Missouri caused prices to decline. Thus, the production of hemp seemed less attractive to Kentucky farmers. In 1859, The Kentucky State Agricultural Society in reported that “in the product of hemp in this state, every one will be prepared to find a great reduction.” It continued by stating that wheat had taken the place of hemp in some parts of the state, and in other parts it had been supplanted by potatoes and corn, “better paying crops.”
Hopkins, J. (1951). A history of the hemp industry in Kentucky. University of Kentucky Press.