Advocates of industrial hemp point to Kentucky’s past as top producer

By Beverly Fortune —

Men worked in a hemp processing plant in Versailles circa 1920. Advocates say growing hemp again could help the state’s economy.
For advocates of reviving industrial hemp production in Kentucky, the state’s past as a leading hemp producer shows the crop’s potential.
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul are among those pushing to revive industrial hemp in the state.
It’s ironic, Comer said in a recent interview, that until the Civil War, Kentucky led the nation in industrial hemp production.
The earliest settlers westward brought hemp seed in their baggage, James F. Hopkins points out in A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky. During the early 1800s, Kentucky hemp fibers were in demand for rope, sailcloth and rough fabrics used to wrap bales of cotton and make pants that were called Kentucky jeans.
Lexington was at the center of that production.
In 1838, there were 18 rope and bagging factories in Lexington that employed 1,000 workers, according to research by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter.
Lexington’s John Wesley Hunt, the first millionaire west of the Alleghenies, made his fortune growing hemp and manufacturing the fibers into rope, said Jamie Millard, former president of the Lexington History Museum.
One of Hunt’s factories was in downtown Lexington near North Broadway and West Third Street, Millard said.
“Hemp was the main cash crop of the state up until the Civil War, much more than tobacco was,” said Klotter, state historian and a professor of history at Georgetown College.
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