USA hemp industry has been discussed by most of the historians of the state and by other writers who deal with the Bluegrass scene, but the treatment which they have given it has usually been brief and seldom more than cursory. Two exceptions stand out. James Lane Allen in his novel, The Reign of Law, a Tale of the Kentucky Hemp Fields, gives a poetic description of hemp culture and an imaginative, inaccurate sketch of the history of hemp in Kentucky.

USA hemp industry has been discussed by most of the historians

In 1905, Brent Moore followed with a more serious work entitled A Study of the Past, the Present and the Possibilities of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky, a doctoral dissertation in political science at Columbia University. Moore devoted less than half of his 115-page book to the history of hemp; the remainder of the volume contains a discussion of the industry as it existed at the time he wrote and an examination of its possibilities for the future. His brief history is to a large extent based on a newspaper file and some other source materials, but he makes little effort to weigh and interpret the data which he obtained.

The book was privately printed and is now something of a rarity.

The objective of the present work is in general to tell as completely as possible the story of the hemp industry in the state where, from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the first World War, the major portion of American hemp grew and was manufactured. Other states participated in the industry to a lesser extent, and in the late 1850’s Missouri challenged briefly the leadership of Kentucky in hemp production. In the following pages, attention is centered upon the industry in Kentucky, but an effort is made to relate that industry to the production and manufacture of hemp in other states of the Union. In no other area, however, was the hemp industry as important in the lives of the people over as long a period of time as it was in Kentucky.

A considerable amount of space is devoted to a study of the production and preparation of hemp for marine use, a subject which has not been generally understood. In that connection as elsewhere many of the conclusions reached in this volume do not agree with those of other writers, but an effort has been made to avoid expressing differences of opinion merely for the sake of being different.

The writer wishes to express his thanks for the assistance given him by the staffs of the National Archives, the Lexington Public Library, the Louisville Free Public Library, and the libraries of Duke University, the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky State Historical Society, and the Filson Club. He is indebted to Professor J. Merton England of the University of Kentucky for his indispensable editorial assistance, and to Professor Charles S. Sydnor for the patient advice and constructive criticisms which helped bring this study into existence in its original form asa doctoral dissertation at Duke University.

Yet Kentucky is not and never has been completely southern. Even during the time in which the laws of the commonwealth countenanced slavery, James G. Birney, Cassius M. Clay, and others acted as spokesmen for thousands of their fellow Kentuckians who disapproved of human bondage and who worked toward the goal of emancipation for the Negroes.

In further contrast to the lower South, comparatively little cotton has been produced within the bounds of the state, Kentucky has never followed a one-crop economy of any kind, and she has on more than one occasion gone on record as advocating the principle of the protective tariff. Moreover, Negroes make up only a small proportion of her total population, and in no section of the state is there such a concentration of them as can be found in many parts of the cotton belt.

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.

An additional commodity, hemp, has virtually no role in the present economy of Kentucky, but its production and manufacture were of considerable consequence for more than a century and had an appreciable influence on the history of the state. Hemp, grown by some of the earliest white settlers in the area, became one of the few commodities which might be depended upon for a cash income. Hemp was important to the farmer who produced the fiber, to the manufacturer who transformed it into cordage and coarse cloth, to the commission merchant who sold the finished product locally or in other areas, and to the politician who had always to bear in mind the interests and desires of his constituents.

Since hempen goods were for the most part marketed in the lower South, the interests of the cotton country were of concern to the Kentuckian. Since those same hempen goods met competition from similar goods imported from abroad, the Kentuckian found himself joining the seaboard manufacturer in advocating a tariff high enough to protect the products of American farms and factories.