First Hemp Crop

Historical Marker #1279 in Danville notes the first recorded hemp crop in Kentucky, which was grown on Clark's Run Creek in 1775.

Hemp has a long history in Kentucky. From its first recorded planting near Danville to its reemergence during World War Two, hemp has figured prominently in the economic, social, and political life of the commonwealth. Early settlers brought hemp into Kentucky in order to have a resource for textile production. For these pioneers, hemp--along with flax and wool--was one of the best options for fabric in regions where cotton did not grow well.

The particular climate and soil of central and northern Kentucky was ideal for growing hemp. The counties that produced the most hemp were located in the "bluegrass region" and were either near or along the Kentucky River. Fayette, Woodford, Shelby, Clark, Scott, Bourbon, Jessamine, Mason, Franklin, Boyle and Lincoln proved to be the largest hemp-producing counties during the nineteenth century.

It is not a coincidence that these counties also held the state's largest slave populations. Hemp, like tobacco and cotton, was a labor-intensive crop. Although hemp did not require the year-round attention that cotton and tobacco demanded, the planting, harvesting, and processing of the crop demanded significant amounts of manual labor, especially in "breaking" the stalks and "hackling" the fibers. Historian James Hopkins writes, "Without hemp, slavery might have not flourished in Kentucky, since other agricultural products of the state were not conducive to the extensive use of bondsmen. On the hemp farm and in the hemp factories the need for laborers was filled to a large extent by the use of Negro slaves"

Kentuckians also manufactured hemp into marketable products. The largest use of hemp was in making rope and the woven bagging that bundled cotton bales. Ropewalks turned out thousands of yards of hemp cordage, and factory looms in Lexington, Danville, and Frankfort wove the bagging. Another significant consumer of Kentucky hemp was the United States Navy, which used the rope for ships' rigging.

Hemp production declined during the Civil War. Although some hemp was still grown in Kentucky at that time, the cotton market in the deep South, and, therefore, the market for cordage and bagging, was cut off. Farmers instead looked to other crops that were more marketable. After the war, the hemp market fluctuated with the cotton market. With slavery abolished, finding labor proved difficult.

Hemp made a strong comeback during the Spanish-American War and again during World War One and World War Two. Although the production of hemp became illegal during the latter part of the twentieth century, recent years have seen an increased interest in producing industrial hemp in Kentucky.

Images

"The Hemp Brake"

"The Hemp Brake"

This 1850 drawing depicts slaves processing a hemp crop. The artwork is attributed to S.I.M. Major (1830-1886), who was editor of the "Frankfort Yeoman" and Mayor of Frankfort (1868-1870, 1879-1880). Courtesy the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

A hemp field

A hemp field

The first recorded Kentucky hemp crop was grown near Danville in 1775. Image courtesy the Boyle County Public Library. View File Details Page

Hemp, shocked and stacked

Hemp, shocked and stacked

Cut hemp shocked and stacked. Image courtesy the Boyle County Public Library. View File Details Page

A hemp brake

A hemp brake

A hemp brake from the Kentucky Historical Society's collection. Hemp brakes were used to extract usable plant fibers from the woody stalks. Courtesy the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Hemp cutting, 1905

Hemp cutting, 1905

This 1905 photograph depicts a worker cutting hemp stalks. Cut stalks are seen spread out in preparation to be shocked into bundles. Courtesy the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Bundled hemp

Bundled hemp

Once the hemp plants were cut, they were shocked or bundled. Courtesy the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Hemp, dew retting

Hemp, dew retting

This 1905 photograph shows workers spreading hemp stalks on the ground for the dew retting process. This process separates the fiber from the stalks. The stalks are later "broken" by a hemp brake to pull the woody stalk from the fiber. Courtesy the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Hemp Hackling in Versailles, 1905

Hemp Hackling in Versailles, 1905

This photograph shows workers in Versailles (Woodford County) hackling hemp to separate the fibers. Courtesy the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Talbott, “First Hemp Crop,” ExploreKYHistory, accessed June 22, 2017, http://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/108.

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