Saturday, January 9, 2010

Just finished reading - A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky by James F. Hopkins

A few posts ago I briefly discussed whether Kentucky was/is Southern. I was pleased and surprised to find that the author's introduction to this book discussed the same subject with much of the same observations. But, he claims that Kentucky is a kind of limbo state. He writes, "Neither typically southern, nor northern, nor midwestern, Kentucky fails to fit the pattern which distinguishes any particular region. She is, rather, a border state with certain characteristics common to each of the great sectional divisions but with differences which establish her individuality. In addition to such basic factors as geography, climate, and the nature of her terrain, her position as a border state has been determined by the economic interests of her people, by agriculture, manufacturing, and the search for markets for her products. Tobacco, livestock, coal, and whisky have long been important to the welfare of the state and to the lives of its people." Few people realize though that a crop that today is not legally grown had a huge impact on the state as well.

For almost the whole nineteenth-century hemp was grown in Kentucky and significantly influenced that state's economy and politics during that era. Hemp has a long history in Kentucky. It had been brought to Kentucky by the earliest settlers who came from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina in order to have a ready potential source for textile production. Along with flax and wool, hemp was probably one of the best textile options for settling a region where cotton did not grow well.

The climate and soil of central and northern Kentucky's counties proved to be ideal for growing and producing hemp. The counties that produced the most hemp were located in the "bluegrass region" and especially near and along the Kentucky River. Fayette, Woodford, Shelby, Clark, Scott, Bourbon, Jessamine were the main hemp growing counties in the nineteenth-century, but others such as Mason, Jefferson, Harrison, Franklin, Montgomery, Anderson, Mercer, Boyle, Garrard, Lincoln, and Madison were also significant producers.

It is not coincidence that these hemp growing counties also held the largest slave populations. Hemp, like tobacco and cotton, is a labor intensive crop. And, although hemp did not require the year-round attention that cotton and tobacco demanded, its planting, harvesting, and processing needed significant amounts of manual labor, especially in this era as mechanized agriculture implements were only emerging. Hopkins writes, "Without hemp, slavery might have not flourished in Kentucky, since other agricultural products of the state were not conducive to the extensive use of bondsmen. On the hemp farm and in the hemp factories the need for laborers was filled to a large extent by the use of Negro slaves, and it is a significant fact that the heaviest concentration of slavery was in the hemp producing area."

Hopkins notes that most of the hemp grown in Kentucky was produced on diversified farms, therefore, with its seasonal needs, hemp farms and plantations did not usually have large numbers of slaves. The average number of slaves per owner was much less in Kentucky than in the Deep South states. Crops such as oats, potatoes, wheat, corn, hay along with livestock farming were combined with hemp farming to make a self-sustaining and also marketable farm or plantation operation.

One thing I especially enjoyed from reading this book was getting a better grasp on how the crop was first planted, then harvested, and finally how the fiber was produced. In addition, it was interesting to learn how marketable materials were manufactured from hemp. Seeds were available to farmers by harvesting them from past crops and also by purchasing them from retailers of agricultural seeds. The ground was prepared by plowing and harrowing in the spring and the seeds were then broadcast and allowed to sprout. The plant had a quick growth rate and could produce plants as tall as ten feet. In the fall the plants were cut, and the leaves and stems removed, and then either spread on the ground to rot off the stalks in the dew, or placed in streams, ponds or vats for the same rotting procedure. Then, in the early winter the plants were gathered up in shocked bundles to dry in the field. Finally the hemp had to be "broken" to removed the woody stalks from the usable fibers. (For this operation as well as a look at the "hemp brake" seen the April 14, 2009 post.) Breaking was hard work that was dirty and dusty. Many slave owners reported that their slaves developed respiratory ailments from breaking hemp.

In addition to growing hemp, Kentucky also sought opportunities to make the crop into marketable products. The largest use of hemp was for making rope and the bagging that bundled cotton bales. Ropewalks that turned out thousands of yards or cordage, and looms that wove the bagging were made in Kentucky factories that blossomed in towns such as Lexington, Danville and Frankfort. Another consumer for cordage was the United States Navy. Hopkins treats this topic extensively and explains that the navy preferred water-rotted hemp as it proved more durable and received tar treatments better than dew-rotted hemp. Russian hemp was more expensive due to tariffs placed on hemp, but seemed to be preferred by the navy to Kentucky hemp. Hopkins explains the extents that Kentuckians went to in effort to displace Russian hemp for (excuse the pun) home-grown.

Hemp production fell with the arrival of the Civil War. With the cotton market cut off for those years, some hemp was grown in Kentucky, but farmers started looking to other crops that were more marketable. The hemp market fluctuated right along with the cotton market in the years following the Civil War. It made strong comebacks in the Spanish American War years and again in World War I and World War II, but died of shortly thereafter.

The drug culture that emerged after World War II placed hemp on the road toward extinction. Federal and state laws seeking to reduce the growth of marijuana for recreational use put the clamps on its industrial production. Whereas the buds and leaves were used for its drug effect, the fiber used for industrial products does not have a significant THC level. In addition to the laws curtailing its growth, cheaper products such as jute and other fibers have made hemp production for textile mostly a thing of history.

Who knows that maybe someday in the future we will return to hemp production to make our clothes or possibly paper, and although it has been removed as a significant legal agricultural crop, it is important to know hemp's place in history and how its growth and manufacture influenced the history of Kentucky and America.

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