Historical Marker #1163 in Fayette County remembers the significance of hemp to the county’s nineteenth century economy.
Early settlers to Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region found that hemp grew well in the area’s nutrient-rich, well-drained soil. In addition to flax, hemp provided pioneers with another fiber plant that could be used for many products needed on the frontier. What at first was viewed as a utilitarian plant soon became a marketable commercial product.
In the Bluegrass Region during the early nineteenth century, Kentucky became more populated and farmers found that hemp could be grown profitably with the help of slave labor. Much like tobacco and cotton, hemp was a labor intensive crop when grown on a large scale. And although hemp did not require the year-round tending of cotton and tobacco, the process of seed to product called for significant labor.
Seeds were available to farmers by harvesting them from past crops and also by purchasing them from retailers that sold agricultural seeds. The ground for the crop was prepared by plowing and harrowing in the spring and the seeds were then broadcast and allowed to sprout. The plant had a quick growth rate. Hemp stalks grew as tall as ten and twelve feet before harvesting.
In the fall the plants were cut, and the leaves and stems removed. The stalks were then either spread on the ground to rot off the stalks in the dew, or placed in streams, ponds or vats to rot. Then, in the early winter, the plants were gathered up in shocked bundles to dry in the field.
Next the hemp had to be "broken" with the use of a hemp break to remove the woody outer stalks from the usable fibers. Hemp breaking was hard work. The heavy break operated like a hinged jaw. It was usually operated by one man who had to continually lift and drop the upper part of the break to crack open the stalk to gain the fibers.
One of the final stages in process was to run the fiber trough hackles, or sometimes called heckles. These upward pointing spikes combed the hemp. Hackling was usually done in the winter and in a dry confined place, like a barn. Hackling was dusty and dirty work. Many slave owners reported that their slaves developed respiratory ailments from hackling hemp.
Hemp fibers were manufactured into a number of products, the most popular of which was rope and cotton bale bagging and cordage. Kentucky developed commercial markets in the Deep South as the cotton industry boomed into the mid nineteenth century. Lexington quickly became the center of the hemp industry in Kentucky both for growers and manufactures.