The weaving of hempen fibers into cordage and baggage in Kentucky was done largely with primitive equipment and an abundance of hand labor. In the descriptive and statistical tables relating to many Kentucky towns during the first half of the nineteenth century there appeared mention of a phenomenal number of rope walks. Strangely there seem to exist no drawings, photographs, or precise descriptions of a rope walk. There did appear in 1841 two illustrations in the Western Farmer and Gardener of a somewhat sophisticated breaking machine and of a modified rope fabricating device.

The weaving of hempen fibers into cordage and baggage in USA

A rope walk was a highly simplified type of fabricating mechanical device and operation. It consisted of a sturdy upright stanchion on which was attached a hand turned twisting hook or loop. Attaching a strand of hempen fiber to the winding device, laborers then walked backward in relays, each one attaching a hand of hemp to the end of the previous one. This primitive operation was literally what the name implied, a long footpath of unspecified rope length. Some walks were inside structures, others were left in the open. The same winding loop that was used to twist individual strands was also used to twist multistrand ropes.

No doubt the freight manifests of flatboats drifting southward before 1835 carried entries of rope, bagging, and other hempen materials. The ever increasing number of river boats themselves created a ready market for a considerable volume of cordage. The big market, however, was the United States Navy, which required tons of rope in the riggings of its sailing vessels. The naval authorities were arbitrary in their inspection rules and the location of their places of inspection, a fact which virtually shut down Kentucky growers. This was true despite the fact that Kentucky farmers had strong allies in the Congress. They were never able to secure the potentially profitable contracts for the Navy, a subject of which Hopkins made an analysis of considerable depth.

The naval use of Kentucky cordage proved only a chimera of hope despite the fact that Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft undertook to favor the Kentuckians. In the 1840s he sought to establish an inspection station nearer the growers than the naval station in Charleston, South Carolina, which would free farmers of the ruinous cost of transportation.

By the mid-nineteenth century the growing of hemp in Kentucky had reached its zenith, although the crop was always threatened by the uncertainties pertaining to slavery, shifting uses of bagging and binding materials by cotton farmers, failure to procure naval contracts, and rising competition from foreign jute and coir.

Outbreak of the Civil War was a decisive factor in the reduction of hemp production in Kentucky. This era marked a sharp change in every phase of Kentucky agricultural history, and in the postwar years burley tobacco rapidly became the staple cash crop.

The search for an alternative field crop to cash intensive tobacco has involved the investigation of many crops. It is only natural that farmers and scientists should be searching back in history for such a crop.