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The following is excerpted from _A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky_
(Lexington:  University of Kentucky, 1951), pp. 4, 24-30, 132-40, 196. 

James F. Hopkins

... Without hemp, slavery might not have flourished in Kentucky, since other
agricultural products of the state were not conducive to the extensive use
of bondsmen.  On the hemp farm and in the hemp factories the need for
laborers was filled to a large extent by the use of Negro slaves, and it is
a significant fact that the heaviest concentration of slavery was in the
hemp producing area.  Perhaps the nearest approach in Kentucky to the
plantation on the southern scale was the large Bluegrass farm upon which
hemp was one of the major crops and where virtually all manual labor was
performed by slaves.  On the other hand, since hemp does not require as much
attention as must be given to cotton, the number of Negroes on a Kentucky
farm was usually far less than the number necessary on a cotton plantation
of comparable size.  Consequently, owing to their high birth rate, the
slaves increased faster than they were needed.  Sale of surplus blacks to
the lower South brought welcome revenue to Kentucky and led to the unwelcome
charge that peopled in the state were engaged in the breeding of Negroes for

Kentuckians sometimes referred to hemp as a "nigger crop," owing to a belief
that no one understood its eccentricities as well or was as expert in
handling it as the Negro.  A Lexingtonian stated in 1836 that it was almost
impossible to hire workmen to break a crop of hemp because the work was
"very dirty, and so laborious that scarcely any white man will work at it,"
and he continued by saying that the task was done entirely by slave labor.
Among the slaves, the men held a monopoly on all the tasks connected with
the production of fiber because, in the words of this observer, "Negro women
cannot labor at hemp at all, and are scarcely worth anything."  Another
commentator a few years later concluded that "none but our strong able negro
men can handle it to advantage."  To a considerable extent that belief was
based on fact, for the tasks connected with hemp culture were for the most
part laborious and sometimes unpleasant, and such work was given to the
slave or, after the Civil War, to the Negro tenant or "hired hand."  As long
as hemp was produced in the state, at least certain types of work, such as
breaking the stalks, were largely reserved for the Negro.  After years of
repetition of these tasks, he did become expert at their performance, though
the complaint was sometimes made that he was undependable.  Among the slaves
most in demand in Kentucky were those who were able to work in manufacturing
establishments where hemp was turned into bale rope and bagging, but the
agricultural skill which most contributed to the value of the Negro was the
ability to hackle hemp fiber in preparing it for market.

On many farms, of course, neither slaves nor, later, freedmen were available
or desired, and in such cases the men of the family performed all tasks for
themselves.  If a landowner was not willing to do this work and would not
depend on slaves, he could follow the example of Nathaniel Hart of Woodford
County, who explained his decision as follows:  For several years I turned
my attention to the raising slaves were slight from 1830 to 1860. . . . 


In the 1830's new machinery was introduced in the manufacturing of bale rope
and bagging in Kentucky, though for years afterward many establishments
continued using more primitive methods, depending on hand labor to do most
of the work.  Rope-making, before the industry was mechanized, was performed
in a long, narrow building called a "ropewalk," whose dimensions varied from
one establishment to another.  A description written in 1873, possibly
referring primarily to the walks found in New England, stated that they were
"twelve or thirteen hundred feet in length."  John B. McIlvaine's cordage
factory in Carlisle, Kentucky, extended across "the whole square on Water
street, from Main Cross to Second Cross," and Charles W. Turston's walk in
Louisville was about 26 feet wide and 570 feet long in 1837 and seems to
have been extended to 770 feet by 1849.

The method of manufacturing has been described as follows:

  The first part of the process of rope making by hand, is
  that of spinning the yarns or threads, which is done in a 
  manner analogous to that of ordinary spinning.  The spinner
  carries a bundle of dressed hemp round his waist; the two ends
  of the bundle being assembled in front.  Having drawn out a 
  proper number of fibers with his hand, he twists them with
  his fingers, and fixing this twisted part to the hook of the 
  whirl, which is driven by a wheel put in motion by an assistant,
  he walks backwards down the rope walk, the twisted part always
  serving to draw out more fibers from the bundle around his 
  waist. . . .  The spinner takes care that these fibers are 
  equably supplied, and that they always enter the twisted parts
  by their ends, and never by their middle.  As soon as he has
  reached the termination of the walk, a second spinner takes the
  yarn off the whirl, and gives it to another person to put upon
  a reel, while he himself attaches his own hemp to the whirl
  hook, and proceeds down the walk.  When a person at the reel
  begins to turn, the first spinner, who had completed his yarn,
  holds it firmly at the end, and advances slowly up the walk,
  while the reel is turning, keeping it equally tight all the 
  way, till he reaches the reel, where he waits till the second
  spinner takes his yarn off the whirl hook, and joins it to the
  end of that of the first spinner, in order that it may follow it
  on the reel.

The next step in ropemaking was to "warp" the yarns or to stretch all of
them to the same length and at the same time to put a "slight turn or twist"
in them.  If the cordage was intended for marine use, it was wound from one
reel to another, meanwhile passing through a vessel containing boiling tar.
If "white work" was desired, the tar was omitted.  Finally, the last step,
called "laying the cordage," was carried out:  

  For this purpose two or more yarns are attached at one end
  to a hook.  The hook is then turned the contrary way from the
  twist of the individual yarn, and thus forms what is called a 
  strand.  Three strands, sometimes four, besides a central one, 
  are then stretched at length, and attached at one end to three 
  contiguous but separate hooks, but at the other end to a single
  hook; and the process of combining them together, which is 
  effected by turning the single hook in a direction contrary to 
  that of the other three, consists in so regulating the progress
  of the twists of the strands round their common axis, that the 
  three strands receive separately as their opposite ends just as
  much twist as is taken out of them by their twisting the contrary
  way, in the process of combination.

During the first third of the nineteenth century most of the rope made in
Kentucky was spun and twisted by hand and by the use of horse power at one
end of the walk.  In 1838 David Myerle, formerly of the firm of tiers and
Myerle, Philadelphia, established upon a new principle a large steam-driven
factory at Louisville.  The method of manufacture had been invented earlier
by Robert Graves of Boston, from whom Myerle had bought the patent right,
and it:  

  consisted, in part, in winding the threads upon revolving
  spools, from which they were conducted through a cast-iron
  tube of a diameter suitable for the size of rope required.
  In the opinion of officers of the United States navy and 
  others the cordage made by the Graves machinery was stronger
  than that made by the old method.

Myerle's establishment, called the Washington Steam Patent Cordage Factory,"
included several buildings and was valued by him at $28,650.  The ropewalk,
housed in a frame building one story high, was 1,100 feet long and 25 feet
wide.  Down the length of the walk ran tracks on which the patented
machinery operated as it spun the yearns and twisted them into rope.  Three
tons of cordage per day, or at least 600 tons annually, could be
manufactured by this machinery. 

A factory for making bagging by machinery was established in Newport in
1832.  Prior to that time most of the bagging had been made upon the old
hand looms, but the new machines turned out a product that was claimed to be
superior to that woven by manual labor.  The cloth was strong, compact,
uniform in texture, and consistently weighed twenty-six ounces to the yard.
As first set up, the manufactory could process 450 tons of hemp annually,
and the owners stated their intention shortly to add other machinery for
making Kentucky jeans.  The writer who described this plant said that "no
doubt is entertained now of the practical success of this mode of
manufacturing bagging of hemp, though heretofore it has been considered as a
visionary speculation."  In 1835 this enterprise employed two hundred
workmen and was manufacturing wool and cotton in addition to hemp.  Its
total annual output was valued at over a quarter of a million dollars. At
the same time a factory located at Covington was producing $25,000 worth of
finished hempen goods each year.

Andrew Caldwell of Lexington invented, and in 1841 began the operation of,
machinery which received raw fiber, hackled it, spun it into thread, and
then wove it into bagging.  He claimed that its output was thirty yards per
hour, which was far more than any other loom of the time could produce.
Caldwell also professed to be able to manufacture bagging for three cents a
yard, or at a saving of five or six cents over the cost of other methods of
manufacturing.  Most of the innovations in the manufacturing of hemp were
adopted slowly by those engaged in the industry, probably because most of
the changes did not yield the results claimed for them. Even in 1860 only a
few factories were run by steam, most of them relied on horse power, and a
few were still operated by hand.

Only a comparatively few manufacturers specialized in either bale rope or
bagging, and the majority of them produced both in their factories.  One of
the larger establishments, operated by Gratz and Bruce in Lexington,
included for the manufacture of bagging a "Calender and Hemp House, capable
of storing 60 tons of Hemp;" a hackling house 18 feet wide and 30 feet long;
a "Factory" 195 feet long, 50 feet wide, and two stories high, "calculated
for 12 spinners each story;" and, attached to the factory, a weaving house
which contained spindles and looms.  For making rope the company had a brick
hemp house 40 feet long, 50 feet wide, and two stories high, capable of
storing 200 tons of hemp, a brick spinning house 180 feet long and 32 feet
wide, and a ropewalk "extending 100 fathom," or 600 feet. 

Slave labor was used to a large extent in the manufacture of hemp, the
Negroes being owned by the operator of the business or hired by him for a
period of time.  In either case the task work plan was used to promote
diligence, and the slave who applied himself could earn in the 1850's two or
three dollars per week which he was free to spend as he chose.  The price
paid for the hire of such laborers varied according to the ability of the
slave.  In Louisville in 1834 one Negro, George, was hired for $30 per year,
whereas Henry cost his employer $80 for the same period of time.  Two years
later the extremes were George, at $40, and Sullivan, at $180.  "The
exceedingly low price of twenty-five cents per day," was the figure set in
1836 by the Nicholasville manufacturer who, wishing to retire from business,
offered to sell his factory and hire out his "thirty old hands well skilled
in the manufacture of Hemp."  Wishing to protect insofar as possible the
valuable property he was hiring to another man, the owner of a slave
sometimes required a contract which obligated the employer to treat the
laborer well, clothe and feed him, "pay his taxes & physician Bill Should
the Same be necessary, & return the Boy as usual well clothed at the End of
the time" for which he was hired.  Early in the nineteenth century Thomas
Bodley and Company of Lexington wanted to hire ten Negro boys, from 12 to 15
years of age, and five men, from 17 to 25, "the boys to spin & the men to
weave and heckle in a Coarse Linen Manufactory."  In the same year Tom, a
ropemaker by trade, ran away from his master in Danville, and shortly
afterward Thomas H. Pindell advertised a desire to purchase or hire several
Negro boys, age 14 to 18, to work in a ropewalk.  When John W. Hunt of
Lexington decided to retire from the manufacture of bagging, he advertised
an auction sale of 60 men, boys and women, "all the Negroes employed in said
manufactory."  Before 1861 only a few women were employed in the factories,
where they may have served as cooks and housekeepers for the slaves who were
housed and fed on the premises.

David Myerle, who employed both whites and blacks at his factory near
Louisville, stated that the cost of manufacturing cordage was one-third less
with slave labor.  Others must have been of somewhat the same opinion, since
large numbers of Negroes were used in the factories.  On the other hand
there were certain disadvantages, one of which was the poor quality of
product turned out by slave labor.  Olmsted noted that the work was done
"very crudely," and plantation owners complained frequently of the quality
of Kentucky bailing materials.  Additional troubles which faced the employer
of slave labor in the factories are referred to in the following letter
written by a foreman to his absent employer:  

  I announce to you with pleasure, that we are doing as 
  well I believe as could be expected, we have had manny of the
  boy's sick, and at this time there is three of the weavers off
  sick, we have .... from 2 to 3 of the spinners constantly off
  since you left home there complaints has been much as usual
  Roy has been sick ever since you started and I doubt very
  much wheather he lives much longer or not he is very low with
  an inflammation of the lungs.  The boy's has all behaved well
  excepting Umphry who got offended and started off one evening
  and was caught and brought home the next night.  I am in hopes
  that we shall do as well as if you were with us. . . .  I this
  day finished making Mr. Colemans Eight thousand three hundred
  & eighteen yards of bagging which should of finished last week
  if health had been on our side.

Other manufacturers of hemp also found that their workmen were susceptible
to some kind of ailment of the lungs.  Dr. J.L. Phythian, who served as
physician at the state penitentiary during the Civil War, applied the name
"hemp pneumonia" to what he described as "a very rapid and fatal disease"
which seemed to affect mainly those prisoners employed in hackling the
fiber.  He attributed the trouble to "fine particles of dust settling upon
and irritating the body" and prescribed, with complete success according to
his own report, a thorough bath before bedtime for each person engaged in
that work. 

One Kentucky manufacturer who had no worries regarding the purchase or hire
of laborers was the keeper of the state penitentiary, who in the 1830's
ceased being a salaried officer and became a contractor who guaranteed a
minimum sum to the state in return for the labor of the prisoners. Bagging
and rope became the most important products of the institution, and the
extent to which they were manufactured is indicated by a statement issued in
1844 which showed $14,310.47 in cash received from the sale of these
commodities and $9,000.14 worth of goods still unsold in the hands of
commission merchants.  The keeper maintained that the quality of his bale
rope and bagging was better than that obtainable elsewhere, and that it
"always commanded the highest market price, and met with ready sale." 

When its hemp manufactories burned in 1844, the penitentiary suffered a loss
which occurred frequently among other participants in the industry. The dry
fiber was highly inflammable, and after it started burning the fire was
almost inextinguishable.  When the ropewalk owned by Hart and Dodge in
Lexington burned in 1806, the fire started at ten o'clock in the evening.
Flakes of burning fiber, rising in the updraft, covered houses a quarter of
a mile distant, and the people carried water all night in order to protect
their property. At nine o'clock the next morning a breeze sprang up, the
smoldering mass of hemp and ashes again burst into flames, and several
people were injured in fighting the fire.

In 1812 John W. Hunt's factory was burned for the second time, and two Negro
boys, both under fifteen years old, were charged with the serious crime of
arson.  They were tried, sentenced to be hanged, and finally reprieved by
the governor because of their age and "some representations relative to the
testimony" which had been made to him.  At least one newspaper questioned
the wisdom of the pardon, stating that the boys had been found guilty after
a fair trial and that an example should have been made of them.  The paper
pointed out that no less than nine factories had burned within a short time,
inferred that incendiarism had been responsible, and stressed the fact that
no one had been punished.

In a small town a fire which destroyed a hemp factory injured not only the
proprietor but also the whole community, for often it was the only industry
located there.  One disastrous fire consumed the bagging and bale rope
factory of Samuel S. Smith and Company in Carlisle, Nicholas County, in
1832.  According to an eyewitness, who wrote his account years afterward,
the alarm was given at ten o'clock at night, and the town's new fire engine
rushed into action; "but alas! owing to the great headway it had obtained,
and the perishable nature of the buildings and their contents, nothing could
be done to arrest the fire in its stronghold."  The lasting effect of this
disaster was noted by the same writer:  "It has always been the misfortune
of Carlisle that no manufactories of any kind to amount to anything have
ever been established here since the burning of the hemp factory in 1832."

So frequently did fires occur, and so great was the danger, that insurance
rates were higher "on buildings in which are usually deposited considerable
quantities of hemp or flax" than on any other type of structure.  The rates
charged by the Kentucky Mutual Assurance Society in 1814 on buildings used
for the storage of hemp were approximately three times as high as those
levied on less combustible property.  Within the category paying the highest
rates there were also differences.  Three per cent was charged on hemp
houses constructed of brick, slate, or tile, 4 per cent on brick veneer, 5
per cent when the first floor was constructed of brick or stone and the
second of wood, and 6 per cent on wooden buildings. 


In times of stress, such as the period following the War of 1812, the
manufacture of hemp was not a profitable venture, and many people who tried
it were forced to retire from the business.  In normal years, however, after
the adoption of protective duties on hempen goods, the Kentucky manufacturer
derived a healthy profit from his enterprise.  Bale rope and bagging were
the main products, although some manufacturers, including David Myerle in
1838 and the Turston family of Louisville, devoted much of their energies to
turning out cordage for the river and ocean trade, and many produced
miscellaneous items, as plow lines, bed cords, twine and Kentucky jeans, in
addition to baling materials.  

The profits derived from factories operated by hand, by horsepower, and by
steam may be illustrated by a few specific examples.  Thorn and Company of
Boyle County in 1850 operated with hand labor a ropewalk valued at $2,000.
The cost of the 40 tons of hemp which it consumed annually was estimated to
be $3,000, and the wages averaged $56 per month, or $672 for the year.  The
product, 30,000 pounds of rope, was valued at $5,000.  The difference
between the value of the product and the cost of raw material and labor was
$21,328, a profit which, if it was clear, was greater than the capital
invested in the enterprise.  A similar situation existed at the rope factory
of Nicholas Arthur of Mason County, which was operated by horse power and
which was worth $6,000.  Arthur's establishment processed 300 tons of fiber
per year, employed 15 workers whose wages were valued at $3,600 annually,
and turned out 600,000 pounds of rope worth $41,000.  The apparent profit
was therefore $7,400, which again was more than the valuation of the
property.  Chapman Coleman and Company, who operated a steam-driven ropewalk
in Jefferson County, processed 430 tons of hemp which cost $40,000, worked
60 Negroes for an estimated wage of $12,000 for the year, and produced 8,000
coils of rope with a market value of $65,000.  In this case the profit,
$13,000, though large, was much less than the capital invested in the
concern, $30,000. . . .