The Herald-Leader recently reported that Laura Freeman, founder of Laura’s Lean Beef, now sells an array of hemp-infused products, including chocolate. It is fitting that Freeman bases her business at her Winchester farm, because Clark County was once a major national hemp producer.
Hemp cultivation began in Kentucky as early as 1775. The plant thrived in Bluegrass soil and the resilient fibers were spun into twine, carpets, rope and bags for the Southern cotton market.
By 1902, one government botanist noted that “the production of hemp is almost confined to Kentucky. Three-fourths of the American hemp fiber is produced in the counties of Fayette, Woodford, Jessamine, Garrard, Clark, Bourbon, Boyle, Scott, and Shelby.”
Hemp production in Clark County was exceptionally strong. A Kentucky Historical Society marker there notes that the growth of hemp in Winchester “increased from 155 tons in 1869 to over 1,000 tons in 1889.”
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In 1916, Clark County was poised to produce half of the hemp in Kentucky. This prompted newspapers to call Winchester “the largest domestic hemp market in the United States.”
Clark County hemp also had a prominent War of 1812 connection. The ropes on Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s ship at the Battle of Lake Erie, the Niagara, were reputedly made from Winchester hemp.
For decades, Clark County included several hemp-related businesses, including salesmen, seed dealers and hemp brake manufacturers. David S. Gay was a leading hemp merchant there, and, from the 1880s through the early 1900s, he purchased tons of the plant from Winchester farmers. By 1916, the Danville Messenger called Gay “one of the largest hemp dealers in the nation.”
In one instance, Gay’s firm bought 298,000 pounds of hemp from seven farmers in Clark County. In September 1889, he procured 100,000 pounds from Winchester grower B.G. Goodwin. He also paid top dollar. In 1915, Gay paid “the highest price ever known for hemp in this state” when he purchased 50,000 pounds of the plant in Jessamine County.
The dealer also had his eye on international trade. In November 1898, Gay sent 30,000 pounds of the plant to Amsterdam. This was “notable as being the first hemp ever shipped to that city or to that country from this section,” the Lexington Herald wrote.
The Winchester merchant was also wily when it came to domestic sales. In 1900, Gay procured a contract worth about $30,000 to provide 125 tons of hemp for the Boston Navy Yard. The next year, a group of Lexington farmers tried to wrestle the contract away, but the dealer prevailed. The Winchester Democrat reported that Gay’s work was “a tribute to Winchester and to the pluck and energy of Mr. Gay.”
However, the hemp business was not without danger. In 1891, Gay’s main warehouse burned, turning $50,000 worth of hemp into cinders. Nine years later, his “hemp hackling works” burned when “sparks from a passing train” ignited the building. In 1903 and 1910, his warehouses burned again.
As hemp production grew, local farmers became innovators in the field. In 1906, William H. Klauk and J. P. Lowery secured a patent for a new hemp brake. Ten years later, Warren Elkin of Winchester “invented a power hemp breaking machine” which, every 10 hours, could crush 4,000 pounds of the plant into fiber.
Although the hemp market went through boom-and-bust cycles, the plant saw a revival during both world wars. During World War II, a rope manufacturing plant was constructed in Winchester to help the war effort.
Although it ultimately became illegal to grow hemp, the plant was once an important part of Clark County’s agricultural economy. With this rich history, and as pilot programs for reintroducing hemp take root, it is no surprise that entrepreneurs there are taking advantage of the resurgence of the plant.
Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s history advocate.
Related: Herald-Leader article, “She grew a multimillion dollar beef brand. Can she do it for Kentucky hemp?”