Kentucky was once the heartland of the American hemp industry, as this evocative turn-of-the-century postcard shows. It depicts a man’s world: hemp, horses, beautiful women, tobacco, and bourbon. It draws a nostalgic picture of quiet rural roads, guarded by leafy stands of hemp waving in the warm wind, sitting on the front porch in the rocking chair with a tall glass of iced tea, the coon dogs keeping you company, a Winchester rifle on your lap, and wafting out the window is the sweet aroma of fresh apple pie!
All part of American mythology. What is the history?
Kentucky’s first hemp crop was planted in 1775. The hemp industry rapidly grew where Kentucky became the epicenter through the next century. By 1811, there were almost 60 ropewalks in Kentucky, and by the late 1850’s, more than one-third of the 400 bagging, bale rope and cordage factories in America were located in the state, employing hundreds of people. A major market for hemp fibers was twine for bales used in the cotton industry. After the Civil War, the economics changed and Kentucky’s hemp industry began a steady decline, with brief respites due to wartime. Cheaper imported tropical fibers filled the gap and domestic cultivation shifted west as well. Failures to mechanize harvesting, and the abolition of cheap labor provided by slavery, also damaged hemp’s prospects.
Most of Kentucky’s hemp was grown in the northern “bluegrass” region, named after the blue-flowered poa grass. This land also had a lot of tobacco farmers, and because of the wealth from tobacco and hemp, and fine calcium-rich soil in these pasturelands, horses. Etymologists postulate that the name Kentucky, of native origin, probably means “meadowlands” as it was a rich hunting ground.
Tobacco was rough on the soil, and intensive cultivation spurred by high prices saw many farmlands erode and become lower yielding. Hemp, on the other hand, was a soil stabilizer and its extensive leafy matter helped maintain soil fertility. Given strong markets, farmers it was a favored crop to grow. Hemp’s modern resurgence could see a return of Kentucky’s importance as a hemp center. What’s old will become new.