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1852 | New hemp varieties come to Kentucky

Updated: Jan 18, 2019

Most of the hemp seed grown in Kentucky before the mid-1800s was that of European descent which was brought to the state during early settlement. If any other seed was imported from abroad, little or no publicity was given to the fact during the first four decades of the nineteenth century.

In 1843 "Bologna hemp," which was most likely from Italian descent, was being cultivated to some extent in Kentucky, where it won praise for being of a whiter color, finer, stronger, and more easily broken than "common hemp."

In the summer of 1851, L. Maltby of Mason County, learned that So-na (chinese hemp) had been introduced in France with very satisfactory results. Its yield of fiber was much greater than that of Russian hemp, but the French growing season was not long enough for the seed to mature perfectly. Consequently, the seed was raised in Algiers and imported into France to be sown for the production of the fiber crop. Maltby, envisioning the possible production of seed in the lower South and its planting in Kentucky for lint, brought some So-na hemp seed to America. In 1852, both he and C.A. Marshall planted it and some matured about three weeks later than the hemp seed being commonly grown in Kentucky.

An extended drought in 1854 resulted in only a small quantity of hemp seed produced in Kentucky, much less than the amount required for planting the fiber crop for the next year. One company, forseeing the shortage, sent an agent to Europe to pruchase 30,000 bushels of hemp seed, but was only able to secure 4,300 bushels of Russian hemp seed (hardly enough to plant a crop).

An essay titled "Some of the Crops of Kentucky" wrote the crops grown from the Russian hemp were inferior, maturing very early and being hardly worth harvesting. However, not everyone agreed. A few years later another writer described the Russian hemp as being "about equal to the common hemp, perhaps a little less, say in a good season from 600 to 800 pounds." He declared that the fiber produced by these plants was much finer than that of other varieties, comparing it to flax in its "fine, soft and flossy texture," and stated that it was suitable for making delicate fabrics as well as coarser goods."

The mostly widely accepted new variety of hemp in Central Kentucky was a type of Chinese hemp, similar to Maltby's So-na, but imported separately at a later date and produced from the so-called "Vance seed." This variety appeared in Kentucky after the visit of a Frenchman to the home of William L. Vance of Woodford County in 1853 or 1854. The visitor spoke of the remarkably productive Chinese hemp whose seed had lately been introduced in France, and upon his return to his native land he procured a spoonful of the seed at the Jardin des Plantes and sent them to his friend in Kentucky.

This hemp proved to be more productive than any which had been grown in that area, and its fame and its culture spread rapidly within a short time. "C.B.C." of Woodford County wrote to the editor of a farm paper in 1857 that "The hemp crop, as you know, is the special one in this country, and the Vance Seed is all the rage with farmers here."

He attributed its popularity to its ability to grow on second-rate land, and to its yield, which was due in part to its long growing season. Others agreed, and extravagant claims were made in regard to its productivity of fiber. The lint was long and coarse, but very strong, which made it desirable for manufacturing bale rope and bagging.

A postcard from the early 20th century, "cutting hemp in old Kentucky."
A postcard from the early 20th century, "cutting hemp in old Kentucky."



Hopkins, J. (1951). A history of the hemp industry in Kentucky. University of Kentucky Press.

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