Hemp has been branded an outlaw for decades because it looks like its mind-altering botanical cousin, marijuana. But before steamships, free trade, synthetic fibers and reefer madness, this useful plant was Kentucky’s biggest cash crop.
Kentucky grew most of America’s hemp throughout the 1800s, but it was often a tortured relationship.
“Except for the history of tobacco, no other Kentucky field crop has undergone so many frustrating turns of fortune or come under such intense scrutiny,” the late state historian Thomas D. Clark wrote in 1998, describing hemp’s “aura of romance and … cloud of evil.”
Kentucky’s earliest settlers brought hemp seeds over the mountains with them. Archibald McNeill planted the first recorded crop in 1775 near Danville. Farmers soon realized that Central Kentucky’s rich soil and plentiful rainfall made it an ideal place to grow the most widely used fiber for rope, sailcloth and industrial bags.
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Kentucky hemp farmers were never trying to get high — just rich.
John Wesley Hunt, Kentucky’s first millionaire and builder of the Hunt-Morgan house, made his fortune in the hemp industry, as did his next-door neighbors, Thomas Hart and Benjamin Gratz. Hart’s son-in-law, the politician Henry Clay, was a big hemp grower and advocate for the crop in Congress.
Several Bluegrass plantation owners named their mansions Waveland because they were surrounded by fields of lacy-topped hemp waving in the breeze.
Slavery was as important to Kentucky’s hemp industry as rich soil and plentiful water. Harvesting and preparing hemp before modern processing machines was difficult, back-breaking work that few people did by choice.
After growing tall in summer, hemp stalks were cut at first frost, shocked and then spread out on the ground to begin to rot. After this curing, a device called a hemp brake was used to separate fiber from the stalk. The fibers were then twisted into rope or spun into fabric.
During the half-century before the Civil War, hemp was Lexington’s biggest industry. The city had 18 rope and bag factories in 1838 that employed 1,000 workers — an impressive number for a city of 6,800 people.
Long sheds or open-air “ropewalks” were built around town for hemp fibers to be twisted into rope. An 1855 Lexington map shows several ropewalks and bag factories in the blocks north of Short Street.
Future Confederate general John Hunt Morgan and his wife’s brother, Sanders Bruce, who would become a Union colonel, had one of the city’s largest hemp factories on East Third Street behind the mansion now called Carrick House.
One of Lexington’s last remnants of the antebellum hemp industry is a small brick cottage on East Third Street, across from the log cabin on Transylvania University’s campus. It was the office of Thomas January’s ropewalk, which spread out behind it.
The biggest markets for hemp were sailcloth and rigging for ships and the growing Southern cotton trade, which used hemp rope and bags to package cotton bales. The Navy was a large but fickle client, despite the political clout Kentuckians wielded in Washington.
The peak years of hemp production, in the 1850s, saw Kentucky produce 40,000 of the 71,500 tons of hemp fiber grown in America. The Civil War began a great unraveling of Kentucky’s hemp industry and its biggest client, the Southern cotton industry, both of which depended on slave labor. Then things got worse.
Sailing ships were soon replaced by steamships, causing the sailcloth market to plummet. But the biggest blow was free trade agreements that removed tariffs on Asian jute, which was much cheaper to grow and process than hemp.
The hemp industry shrunk considerably, but Kentucky still dominated it. Ten Central Kentucky counties produced 90 percent of America’s hemp in 1889. Hemp remained the state’s biggest cash crop until 1915, when tobacco became king.
But more trouble was ahead. After Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, reformers focused on outlawing narcotics. Hysteria surrounding this first war on drugs included the famous 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film, Reefer Madness. Hemp was swept up in a 1937 marijuana law, although it got a reprieve in the early 1940s when Kentucky farmers were encouraged to grow hemp because World War II prevented the import of Asian jute.
Hemp contains little of the psychoactive chemical THC found in marijuana. Still, soon after World War II, the FBI asked the University of Kentucky’s History Department for evidence that slaves and field hands had tried to get high by smoking hemp leaves and blooms, wrote Clark, a history professor at the time.
“A case of a slave smoking hemp in the neighborhood of Owensboro could be documented,” he wrote, “but there was a vagueness about other instances.”