The modern U.S. import market for hemp products reached nearly $500 million in 2012, and while this seems impressive, we have to take into account that all of that hemp was grown somewhere else and imported, taking money out of our economy, jobs from our farmers, and all because hemp looks like marijuana. This wasn’t always the case. Not so long ago, hemp was king.
The Glory Days
Before engines powered boats, before petroleum based synthetic fibers, before “Reefer Madness“, hemp was one of the founding crops of America. Used for sailcloth and clothing, parchment and bags, it was produced on a scale so massive that hemp farming was featured on our currency as part of our cultural heritage.
Kentucky grew most of America’s hemp during the 1800’s, but the industry had its fluxes. The Navy was a major consumer of hemp, used for sails and rigging, but sales varied heavily, depending on military activity. The largest market was the Southern cotton industry, which used baling twine and bags made of hemp to package cotton. In its peak, during the 1850’s, Kentucky produced 40,000 of the 71,500 tons of hemp fiber grown in America. Before the Civil War, hemp was Lexington’s biggest industry, employing 1,000 of its 6,800 population.
The hemp industry built the fortunes of many wealthy families, including Kentucky’s first millionaire, John Wesley Hunt. Many plantations in the state had mansions named Waveland, in honor of the waving fields of tall stalks.
Harvesting hemp before the invention of modern day combines and processing equipment was hard labor, and though the rich soils of Kentucky helped, the biggest factor in the success of hemp growing was slave labor. After the Civil War, hemp production saw a vast decline.
Sailing ships were replaced with motorized vessels, and taxes on Asian jute, another textile plant material, were removed. This cheaper-to-produce alternative soon left hemp in the dust. Hemp was still Kentucky’s biggest crop until 1915, when tobacco became king.
The Madness Begins
After Prohibition ended in 1933, Harry J. Anslinger was a man appointed to the head of a government department that had no mission, and he was faced with the prospect of losing his job. The hemp plant, one of our nation’s founding crops, along with cannabis, one of its most effective medicines, were lumped together under the guise of “marihuana” and made illegal through a tax stamp scheme, effectively preventing its growth and use. Coinciding this loss of a major crop with the recent Depression, and Kentucky was in a financial hole.
Ghosts Of A Once And Future King
Aside from a brief reprieve during World War II, when farmers were subsidized and encouraged to grow “Hemp For Victory”, the plant has been illegal for decades. The term “smoking rope” came from the mistaken identity perpetuated by the anti-marijuana movement, and hemp was further stigmatized for its support by the anti-war, hippie counter-culture.
Remnants of this great industry can still be seen in Lexington, where a small brick cottage on East Third Street still sits.It was the office for Thomas January’s ropewalk, which was a long stretch of land behind it where massive lengths of the fiber were braided by pulleys and wooden tackle to create miles of hemp rope. The long swaths of land where these ropewalks stood might have had one long building to keep workers out of the elements, but these are all gone. Only a few of the massive turning anchors still sit in the ground.
Do you think a revival of legalized hemp could bring an industrial boom back to regions like Kentucky? Share your thoughts with us on social media or in the comments section below.