The lasting influence of the hemp industry, slight though it may have been in some cases, is evident in other connections. Because the farmer in Central Kentucky produced large numbers of livestock, learned early to plant cover crops in winter, and seeded large fields in hemp which contributed little to soil exhaustion and actually helped prevent erosion, that area retained a high degree of fertility long after less protected lands in other regions had become unproductive and had been abandoned.

The lasting influence of the USA hemp industry

Again, during the first part of the nineteenth century and until the Civil War many factories both in towns and rural areas processed large quantities of hemp fiber, giving to rural Kentucky an industrial aspect and yielding to their owners returns which in some cases established sound economic foundations for families whose descendants are still prominent. On the other hand, ill-advised speculation in any phase of the hemp industry could, and sometimes did, lead to losses which were never recovered. Even long after the Civil War the hemp industry continued to absorb part of the energies of many Kentuckians and influenced, for good or bad, the development of the state even into the present century.

Though it was long closely identified with Kentucky, hemp (cannabis sativa), which is probably of Asiatic origin, is not native to the state or to any part of the Americas. When the early explorers in this hemisphere spoke of the wild flax and hemp which they had seen, they referred to certain fibrous plants from which the Indians made baskets and textiles and which the whites also sometimes used for lack of anything better. Some of the American fibers were thought to offer promise for extensive use and possibly for the development of industries based upon their cultivation and manufacture.

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At one time the settlers in Virginia envisioned large profits to be made from the “silk grass” growing in their new homeland, and early explorers in the Mississippi Valley described in somewhat glowing terms the fiber-bearing plants, including “enequen,” which they found in that region. None of these plants could compare favorably with the flax and hemp of Europe, however, and none of them contributed appreciably to the economic life of the colonies.

The English introduced hemp in their portion of America at the beginning of the colonial period because of its usefulness in making products needed in the home, because the soil and climate were thought to be well suited to the production of the crop, and to a very great extent because the fiber was indispensable to the mother country. From ancient times until steam engines replaced wind and sails in propelling vessels, the seafaring peoples of the world found hemp a necessity. No other fiber, except perhaps flax whose strands are much shorter, could be transformed into strong, flexible sails, ropes, and hawsers which would be as long lasting when subjected to frequent contact with salt water. Even the waste fiber from the manufacturing processes became oakum, used in calking the seams of wooden ships.

Hemp became essential to the English at the beginning of the expansion of their navy late in the sixteenth century. They were able to produce in the British Isles some of the fiber, as well as flax, but by far the greater part of their supply came from the Baltic countries. Unfortunately for the English, access to this supply was not always easy, especially when the Dutch or any other enemy could threaten to bar the way to the Baltic region. Consequently, a source of the fiber under English control was highly desirable, and it seemed logical that the new colonies in America should contribute to the welfare of the mother country by producing hemp.

The possibility of growing the crop in America was considered as early as Raleigh’s unsuccessful venture in colonization in 1585.2 Later, upon the establishment of Jamestown, hemp was listed among the commodities recommended for production in Virginia, and in 1611 the colonists as something of an experiment were instructed to make a special effort to grow flax and hemp. Apparently the results were not encouraging, although John Rolfe reported that the Virginia hemp and flax could compare favorably with that produced in Europe.