Updated: Jan 18, 2019
Historical Marker #1164 in Frankfort recognizes "Franklin County Hemp" and the former site of the Kentucky River Mills, the last hemp factory to operate in the state (1878 -1952). The historic marker is located at 950 Wilkinson Boulevard in Frankfort in front of Jim's Seafood Restaurant..
Kentucky River Mills
Formed June 25, 1878, the Kentucky River Mills (KRM) was incorporated under the leadership of George R. McKee, N.J. Sawyier, Russel W. McRery, Duncan R. Campbell, D.D. Spence, George W. Finnell, P. Sawyier, and others. Located on lock #4 of the Kentucky River, the KRM rented the property from the state of Kentucky. Construction began in 1878 and was completed in 1879. The company began by producing hemp yarn for Brussel Carpets, and manufactured hemp rope as a sideline. Due to demand, KRM switched to producing only hemp twine in 1880.
The company suffered a major loss on October 6, 1883, when the KRM building was destroyed by fire. The factory was rebuilt a fully operational by March 1884. The new facility was a single story building built on the old foundation of the 1878 mill. The rebuilt facility was equipped with new and improved machinery from England, which reportedly made more and better quality twine. The main building contained an engine room, softening room, machine shop, and a large room used for carding, roving, and spinning. Adjacent to the main building were two large hemp warehouses.
Over the next two decades the company invested in expanding the KRM facility. The 1907 Stanborn map shows numerous improvements, including a 5,000 gallon water tank and Grinwell automatic sprinkler system. Furthermore, what had perviously been a small wing containing a machine shop on the west side of the building, had been converted into a large polishing room. The spinning room had been reconfigured and a bailing room added. The mill employed 125 workers year round.
By the 20th century, the hemp industry was declining. During World War II, KRM received a contract from the United States Navy to produce marine oakum for $148,500. In spite of the success of the company, demand for hemp rope decreased after the war. The Kentucky River Mills closed in 1952, and was the last hemp factory to operate in the state of Kentucky.
Kentucky artist and painter, Paul Sawyier, briefly worked as a salesman for the KRM factory starting in 1886. His father was president of the factory during this time, and had encouraged Paul to return from Cincinnati to Frankfort to take the job. Sawyier’s brief tenure at the Kentucky River Mills was one of the few times that he earned a living outside of his artwork.
Although his early life and upbringing was somewhat privileged, by the time Paul was an adult his family had suffered a decline in fortunes. Throughout his lifetime he often found himself on the brink of poverty and dependent upon his artwork for survival. Although Sawyier was close to financial disaster on more than one occasion, he did survive by painting.
After his resignation from the Kentucky River Mills in 1886 until his death in 1917, other than taking on the occasional painting student, he never held a job. Today, the Kentucky Historical Society has the world's largest collection of Paul Sawyier paintings, four of which depict Kentucky hemp fields.
You can visit the Kentucky Hemp Exhibit and Museum at Hopemont, the Hunt-Morgan House to view three replications of hemp paintings by Paul Sawyier. Jim's Seafood Restaurant currently stands where the Kentucky River Mills was once located. Remnants of the original KRM foundation still remain near the river lock. Jim's Seafood Restaurant features a wonderful display showing the history of KRM for guests to view. For more about the Kentucky River Mills, visit the heritagehemptrail.com.
Hopkins, J. (1951). A history of the hemp industry in Kentucky. University of Kentucky Press.