Bourbon County Hemp/Alexander House

Historical marker #2575 in Paris notes the role and importance of hemp production to Bourbon County’s economy.

For 50 years, Bourbon County was one of the top producers of hemp in the nation. A labor-intensive crop, hemp was the basis for a number of local fortunes. Bourbon County’s successful hemp production was only possible because of the large number of enslaved men and women who worked in hemp fields, on ropewalks and in hemp processing factories. One Kentuckian, William C. Bullitt of Jefferson County, believed that slavery was necessary for the production of hemp because process of planting, harvesting and processing of the crop demanded significant amounts of manual labor. Hemp production for the fabrication of ropes and sailcloth was one of Bourbon County’s most profitable agricultural undertakings during the late 18th century. The soil’s richness in Bourbon County resulted in fibers that easily separated from the woody refuse which encapsulated the hemp. Hemp plants were cut by hand and cured on the ground before being stacked in stocks to dry out. Once dry, the hemp was dew rotted and the stalks were broken in a hemp brake. A hemp brake helped the woody outer shell of the hemp to fall away and leave long strands of fiber. In the 1830s, W.L. Larrimore patented “Larrimore’s Hemp cradle,” a new tool to cut twice as much hemp as an old hook, which gained widespread usage in central Kentucky.

In the late 18th century, hemp was used to weave clothing for personal use. However, beginning in 1787, hemp was sold at large rates and by the 1790s, Bourbonites were shipping their hemp downstream for sale in New Orleans. Paris became a central hub for hemp cultivation and manufacturing because of its location on the main trade route of the Ohio River. The prospering hemp trade resulted in Paris and Maysville becoming hemp inspection stations in 1795.

Bourbon County led state-wide hemp production in 1810, accounting for 796 tons of the 5,755 tons grown in Kentucky that year. According to the 1810 Census, this tonnage was priced at over $95,000. The success of hemp in this area also resulted in Bourbon County supplying hemp to the United States Navy in 1813-1814, during the War of 1812. Hemp was crucial for the Navy to be able to equip their vessels with the appropriate rope and sailcloth for military missions.

The Bourbon County Agricultural Society was one of the most important organizations in the community. Created in 1821, it disseminated agricultural ideas and techniques, which aided in agricultural productivity and surplus and allowed Bourbon County to prosper greatly. Bourbon County hemp production experienced a slump during the Civil War, but rebounded after. Local farmers produced 569 tons of hemp in 1870. By 1900, production of hemp declined, but experienced a brief revival during the World Wars. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively banned the production and sale of hemp. Though farmers were able to produce hemp for the war effort, hemp was a banned agricultural product until December 2018.

The Alexander House was built for William W. Alexander, the son of an early Bourbon County hemp manufacturer William Alexander Sr. and a state representative from 1848-1852. William Alexander, Sr. owned a hemp factory until 1856, which was operated by 100 enslaved people. He also built a ropewalk, which was said to be one of the world’s longest at 600 feet. The purpose of the ropewalk was to simplify large sized rope fabrication. As described by James Hopkins, “It consisted of a sturdy upright stanchion on which was attached a hand turned twisting hook or loop. Attaching a strand of hempen fiber to the winding device, laborers then walked backward in relays, each one attaching a hand of hemp to the end of the previous one.”

Bourbon County Hemp

One of the main hemp producing
counties. Led production in 1810,
accounting for 796 of the 5,755
tons grown in state. Two hemp
mills processed 50,000 yards
of fiber per year. After a slump
during the Civil War, local
farmers produced a crop of 569
tons in 1870. By 1900, production
declined with a brief revival
during the World Wars.

Alexander House

The federal style house was
built for William W. Alexander,
a state representative 1848-52.
His father, William Alexander,
owned a hemp factory until 1856,
which was operated by 100 enslaved
people. At 600 feet, it had one
of the world’s longest ropewalks.
Hugh D. Alexander operated the
house as a restaurant and saloon
from the 1880s to 1908.

This marker was dedicated on March 9, 2019.