Early settlers introduced hemp into Kentucky in 1775. Hemp flourished in the Bluegrass region.
Prior to mechanized farm equipment, harvesting hemp required workers to cut the stalks, tie them into bundles, and stack them into shocks. In late autumn, workers would unbundle the shocks and spread the stalks across the field. This exposed the fiber to early winter rain.
This process, known as dew retting, allows a natural process that breaks down the resins that bind the outer bast fiber from the inner core fiber (commonly referred to as “hurds”). Stalks were then re-bundled into shocks to dry, then broken by workers using a wooden hand brake. Hurds were left in the field to replenish the soil. The dry fiber was then stored in a covered building.
The Golden Age for hemp in Kentucky was the first half of the 1800’s. During this period, hemp was the state’s leading cash crop. In 1849, Kentucky had 159 hemp factories — 1/3 of the nations total! These factories produced bale rope, cordage, duck canvas, bagging, and sail cloth. By 1802, 250,000 pounds of hemp fiber were used each year by the cotton industry.
Cordage was a necessity of early America. Rope Walks produced hemp twine and rope which was used by shipping and industry. Hemp bagging and cordage was found to be a durable material to bundle cotton for safe shipping to textile mills in New England and Britain. For each 300-pound bale of cotton, 15 pounds of hemp bagging and cordage were used. Production peaked in 1859 on the eve of the Civil War with a crop of 40,000 tons of fiber.