By Dick Burdette, The Lexington Herald-Leader
Versailles near the east edge of town, along U.S. 60 at Paynes Mill Road, there’s a bronze marker commemorating the important role hemp once played in Kentucky agriculture. It isn’t unique. There are similar signs in Boyle, Fayette, Franklin, Jessamine, Madison, Mason, Scott, Shelby and Clark counties.
But downtown, at 149 Lexington Street, there’s something you won’t find anywhere else in Kentucky or America, for that matter. If the Kentucky Hemp Museum here isn’t one of a kind, director Heather Gifford says she is not aware of it.
Even more unusual perhaps is a silent four-building complex at the end of a straight narrow street, once a railroad track bed, adjacent to Woodford Memorial Hospital.
It’s an old hemp-processing plant, one of the few, if not the only one, that has survived. The buildings are deteriorating now, but not past the point of being resurrected.
On a cold, overcast weekday morning, Margaret McCauley on whose family’s land the buildings stand walked past the little building that once served as a scale house. She talked about the controversial plant that she hopes will make a comeback.
For more than 200 years, her family has farmed here. Three hundred acres. Cattle and tobacco mostly. But these days, because of the uncertain tobacco and cattle markets, it would be helpful, she said, to have another renewable cash crop.
Which is why McCauley is a staunch advocate of doing what her ancestors once did: raising hemp.
At the museum, a non-profit organization that receives a $25,000 grant annually from the Turner Foundation, Gifford says a lot of other Woodford County residents support the idea too.
While civic and school groups and curious individuals frequently visit the museum, “most of the people who come in here are farmers wanting information about growing industrial hemp,” she said. “I’ve had several church groups visit. They have been very interested and supportive. They got the answers they needed.”
Among them: Hemp is not Marijuana.
Displayed prominently among relics from hemp’s past are numerous products that could play a significant role in its future. Clothing, shoes, carpeting, bio-diesel fuel, body-care products, snacks, horse bedding, concrete blocks, paper products, part of a door panel from a Chevrolet Lumina all already are being made from hemp grown in Canada.
Why, of all places, a hemp museum in Woodford County, widely known for its luxurious horse farms, old-money affluence and conservative views? Didn’t that look like an ideal combination to trigger strong status-quo opposition?
“I thought it was the best place for a museum,” Gifford said. Because of its rich soil and mild, ideal climate, “Woodford County was the hemp seedbed of Kentucky,” Gifford said. “Hemp seed from here was shipped all over the country.”
Seeds and rope were Woodford’s biggest hemp products, she said. Some say Woodford County was the nation’s leading hemp producer during World War II.
Widespread support for raising hemp in Woodford County again is not limited to her own thirty-something generation, Margaret McCauley said.
Two prominent women long and deeply involved in issues affecting the county’s future support it too.
One is McCauley’s mother, Mary Ann, whose husband, Graham, owns McCauley Brothers Inc., which manufactures horse feed. “I am all for it,” she said. “I think it would be great to have that (hemp) for a crop and save a few trees along the way.”
Another is Toss Chandler, wife of Woodford Sun publisher Ben Chandler.
“Ben and I are for it,” she said. “Everybody I know in my age group is. I think anyone who’s interested in farming is. It’s a clean and versatile crop. It won’t take the place of tobacco, but it certainly will ease the pain.”
“It’s not going to save every little farm,” Margaret McCauley said. “But it will save some of them.”
The museum is open noon to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. A museum van featuring a portable display visits fairs and festivals throughout the state.
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