Danville-Boyle County Hemp History
The first hemp crop in Kentucky was grown on Clark’s Run Creek near Danville in 1775. Boyle County later became one of the top ten hemp producing counties in the state. Click on the links below to learn more about Boyle County hemp history.
The history of hemp in Kentucky is older than the Commonwealth itself, but it begins in what is now considered Boyle County. As noted by Historical Marker #1279, the first hemp crop was grown in 1775 by an early settler named Archibald McNeill who brought a small amount of seed with him and planted it near the banks of Clark’s Run Creek in Danville. As small settlements sprang up in nearby areas, pioneers planted hemp crops wherever the could clear enough of the rich Bluegrass land (The Advocate-Messenger, 1965).
In 1787, Danville was established by the Virginia legislature as the first capital of Kentucky (until 1792 when it was moved to Lexington), and the hemp was becoming a mainstay of the region. Early pioneers had little access to seed, and most of what could be acquired was grown for fiber to make basic needs like cloth and twine. Subsistence agriculture characterized the economy, with surplus goods scarce and expensive. Toward the end of the century, however, farmers began to cultivate hemp and tobacco for the purpose of exportation and profit (Amos & Bradley, 1997).
James G. Birney settled in the Danville area sometime before 1792 from Ireland, and made a fortune as an early hemp planter and processor of hemp rope and cotton bagging. In order to become so enriched so quickly, slaves became the heart of his agricultural enterprise. At the time, slavery was thought to be an an economic necessity and accepted practice in Kentucky, and Birney was more interested in his financial gain rather than his conscious. Record books show that in 1824, there were about forty slaves working on James Birney’s hemp plantation, surrounding his mansion called “Woodlawn” (Laurence, 2011).
The gradual improvement of roads and river transportation opened the region for a manufacturing boom. In 1810, the the Kentucky Manufacturing Association had turned to the interest of hemp, and at the end of the War of 1812 a large hemp factory was built near Danville by Phineas G. and Gabriel Rice, while Col. Thomas Barbee began the manufacture of rope in the building of the Kentucky Manufacturing Company. In Boyle County, farmers began to send hemp and tobacco down the Chaplin, Salt and Dicks Rivers to the Kentucky River on route to New Orleans markets.
By 1839, Kentucky was the largest producer of the plant in the United States and Boyle County had become one of the top ten producing counties in the state. In 1842, 1,859 acres of hemp were grown in the county, producing 567 tons of hemp. There were two bagging and rope manufactories that processed 200 tons of hemp, making annually 136,000 yards of bagging and 180,000 pounds of bale-rope, employing 52 hands on 10 looms. There was also one rope and twine manufactory which consumed approximately 20 tons of hemp, and employed three hands (The Dollar Farmer, 1843). In 1843, the price for hemp was said to be in good demand and quoted at $3-$3.25 according to quality per ton (The Kentucky Tribune, 1843).
Up until the Civil War, hemp was making the highest revenues of any crop being grown. The Southern cotton market had created a strong demand for Kentucky hemp, as the plant’s fibers were being used for twine, rope, and bagging to ship raw materials and finished cotton goods (Sanders, 2016). By 1840, Kentucky was the largest producer of hemp in the United States, hitting peak production in 1850. During this time, the crop was important to practically every farmer in Central Kentucky (The Advocate-Messenger, 1965).
Over the next two decades, the Kentucky hemp industry fluctuated drastically and production began to decline. By the outbreak of the Civil War, many farmers had abandoned the crop. Foreign competition and the collapse of the Southern cotton market negatively impacted the price of hemp, and other crops like tobacco and wheat had become more profitable.
Boyle County hemp production experienced a brief rebound in the 1880s. In August 1885, the Stanford Semi-Weekly interior Journal reported that “The hemp crop in Boyle County this year is very fine.” Workers were in demand, and they could earn about $1.50 a day cutting the plant. Although prices are on the rise in the 1880s, drought, floods, and pest could shook the hemp market. In May 1888, “cut worms” wreaked “havoc with the hemp crop.” One newspaper called this a “disaster” and noted “whole fields being entirely devastated by these pest.”
By 1892, the crop was on a downward cycle. That year, the number of acres planted in hemp dropped by about half from the previous year. Although fewer acres had been planted, some called for the industry to expand. The Danville Advocate wrote that “Danville should have a big hemp factory, manufacturing all sorts of twine and bagging.”
Despite low prices, some local hemp dealers found success. George Cogar and John C. Davis operated a hemp and grain establishment located near the freight depot in Danville. They hired a force of 35 men and the establishment at that time had the reputation of furnishing the best prepared hemp sent from Kentucky due to their careful hackling before shipping. The establishment handled some two million pounds annually and Brown Y. Cogar was head of the elevator handling grain.
In 1897, Cogar, incorporated his business into the Cogar Hemp Company with $30,000 in capital stock. Cogar was apparently a screwed businessman who worked to corner the local hemp market. In February 1897, he purchased 40,000 pounds of hemp from Benge & Hamilton, dealers based in Lancaster, for $2.85 per 100 pounds. This sale was a loss for Benge & Hamilton, with their “losing about $300 on 40 acres.” As Cogar knew firsthand, the hemp industry was not without risk. In June 1899, one of his employees stepped on a match in his Danville warehouse. Cogar lost 5,000 pounds of hemp in the subsequent fire.
By 1896, local reporters noted that “Experts say that the crop of hemp now being prepared for market is usually fine in quality and that the yield and average in Boyle are both larger than last year.” Although local yields were good, prices continued to drop. Within a year, the industry was in decline. Although Boyle County hemp was viewed as being “a very superior quality,” dealers were only offering $2.50 or $3.50 per 100 pounds. In the 1800s, a typical prices was $6 to $9 per 100 pounds.
As the market fell, farmers held on to their crops in the hope that prices would rebound. The area’s larger hemp dealers took advantage of the lower prices. In December 1898, it was reported that “George Cogar has brought a million and a half pounds of old hemp in Boyle County at 4 cents a pound, it being about all the old hemp left in the state south of the Kentucky river.
Included in the purchase were 450,00 pounds from C. P. Cecil and 300,000 pounds from R. H. Evans, two local hemp growers.
Two months later, Cogar’s firm purchased 75,000 additional pounds of hemp from Maurices Bartlett of Lincoln County for $4.50 per 100 pounds. Cigar’s firm also sold hemp seed, and, by January 1905, the firm, now named Cogar and Davis, was planning on building a “hemp house” in Lincoln County. “This will be a good thing for our hemp raisers,” the Stanford Interior Journal commented, “for besides having a market at home…his firm pays spot cash for every pounds of hemp it buys, and always gives the highest market price” (Sanders, 2016).
While hemp was a major cash crop in Boyle County during this period, the industry continually suffered boom-or-bust cycles. Price fluctuations continued through the early 1900s, yet the area remained one of the top five hemp producing counties in the state into the early 20th century.
At the beginning of the 20th century, hemp was booming in Boyle County. According to a U.S. government botanist, three-fourths of the hemp produced in the nation was grown in the nine counties of the Bluegrass Region, including Boyle County. In the fall of 1901, the outlook was positive for local formers. The county’s crop was expected to be “considerably above the average this year.” Farmers planted twice as many acres as they had the previous year and the yield was reported good.
Boyle County continued as a statewide leader in hemp production. It was a $100,000 local industry, and in March 1902, the county expected to sell 2,000,000 pounds of hemp. This made Boyle the fourth-largest hemp producing county in the state, only behind Fayette County (5,000,000 pounds), Jessamine County (3,000,000 pounds), and Garrard County (2,500,000 pounds.) At the time, R.G. Evans was the largest hemp producer in Boyle County, having raised 450,000 pounds in 1901.
In 1903, external factors hindered production. That January, freezing temperatures struck and producers had difficulty finding workers to break the plants in order to process the fibers. Local farmer W. F. DeLong build “blazing fires” by the hemp and soon had “seventy hands employed.” Other farmers followed suit, built fires in their fields, and production resumed despite the bitter cold.
Six years later, local agriculture, including hemp, was thriving. In the early 1909, the American Hemp Company, based out of Lexington, purchased 500,000 pounds of hemp in Danville, paying up to $6.00 per 100 pounds. That April, it was reported that “Record breaking crops of tobacco and hemp will be cultivated in Boyle county this year.” Among the farmers investing in hemp was M. J. Harris, who planted 100 acres.
Despite the boom of 1909, production dropped the next year. Spears and Son, a dealer based in Paris, purchased 500 acres of hemp in Boyle County, which included most of the plant grown in the county that season. For Boyle County, this amount to a two-thirds decline from the previous year. Higher tobacco prices were the culprit. According to the Stanford Interior Journal, “The invasion of tobacco has swept away the interest in hemp."
Low production continued into 1911, when dealers again purchased 500 acres from Boyle County farmers. There had also been a drought that year, so a lower yield was expected. Tobacco continued to squeeze our hemp production, and, by 1914, it was recognized that hemp had been supplanted as the state’s preeminent cash crop. The Adair County News reported that “The hemp crop in Central Kentucky has almost become a thing of the past, tobacco having become the predominating crop on land which was formerly used for hemp culture. Boyle county formerly had a hemp acreage five times as great as it is this year. These are not more than 300 acres of hemp in the county, while there are 1,200 acres of tobacco."
Despite a decline in production, World War I temporarily revived the interest in bluegrass hemp. This did not last, however, and a lower supply ultimately brought higher prices. In early 1917, hemp was selling for $8.50 to $13.50 per 100 pounds. Tobacco, however, had officially become king. That year the average prices of tobacco was $22.50 per 100 pounds. Because farmers were making more money growing tobacco, Wisconsin soon surpassed Kentucky as the leader in national hemp production.
By 1919, competition from inexpensive foreign hemp and rising tobacco prices had pushed hemp out. The Danville Advocate reported that little hemp was grown that spring. “There seems to be but little market for the fibre,” the paper contended, “while there is a great demand for tobacco and any land that will grow hemp will also grow tobacco. The farmers, will, therefore, turn their attention to tobacco.” Although hemp production was nearly nonexistent, in March 1919, the “biggest crop of hemp in Kentucky” was planted in Boyle County by Banks Hudson and James House. Totaling 415,000 pounds and grown on 400 acres on Blue Grass Pike, it was called an “immense crop” that was handled “with pronounced success” (Sanders, 2016).
Banks Hudson began working for George Cogar sometime during the late 1800s. He is quoted in the Kentucky Advocate as being with the Cogar Hemp Company for “some time” in 1898. According to the trade changes listed in the American Hay, Flour and Feed Journal, Hudson purchased the Cogar warehouses for a sum of $25,000 and began operations for “Hudson, Davis and Cogar” dealers in hemp and grain in August of 1911 (Gregory, 1910). Hudson also operated a hemp hackling factory, a process of cleaning, resembling the carding of wool. He became one of the largest hemp growers in the state, and by 1915 he was known as the “hemp man of Danville” and grew hemp longer than anyone else in the county (Advocate-Messenger, 1993).
In 1921, about 3,000 acres of hemp were grown across the country. Hudson again boasted the largest hemp seed crop ever planted in 1929, but by 1940, he was raising the only hemp crop of Central Kentucky. He noted that “this will be probably the las’ hemp crop to be raised anywhere in Kentucky. He said further, "if anyone has friends who have never seen a hemp crop while in its growth, it would pay them to see his present one, as it will be his last, the principal reason being that the head of the firm who has been buying his hemp for many years has recently died, and the factory will be closed, so far as Kentucky hemp is concerned."
It wasn’t until Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 when its importance was again felt after the Japanese attack in the Far East meant a temporary halt to shipping of Manila rope. Hudson was awarded a $12,600 Navy Department contract for hemp which was used, once again, for caulking ships and making rope (The Advocate-Messenger, 1993). The war, once again, created a demand for hemp fiber and (as always) Kentucky farmers turned attention to hemp production.
During World War II, the government encouraged Kentucky farmers to produce hemp seed and fiber when foreign sources were cut off. Hemp fiber was needed to make rope and oakum for naval ships, and was also used in place of jute to make burlap. According to an article published in the Advocate-Messenger on January 28, 1942 any person, whether farmer or seed dealer” who has two or more bushels of hemp seed on hand by February 1 was required to make a written report to of his holdings to the Agriculture Defense Relations Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (The Advocate-Messenger, 1942).
In March, a follow-up article described the increase in hemp production in Kentucky and Boyle County in response to the war efforts. The state was asked to produce 33,000 acres, for which $8 a bushel would be paid, and farmers in Boyle County were expected to grow approximately 1,000 of those acres (Brown, 1942). However, the following February a meeting took place with the hemp growers of Boyle, Garrard, Lincoln, and Washington counties in Boyle County to discuss the dissatisfaction regarding the hemp contract prices and the certainty of future labor shortages. Farmers also preferred “breaking” the hemp on-farm verses delivering to a mill. These issues were to be resolved before committing to another year of production (The Advocate-Messenger, 1943).
The Cook family of Boyle county contracted with the federal hemp program in 1943 to produce 25 portable hemp-breaking machines, ten of which were to be built by Valentine “Val” Cook and leased to members of the Kentucky Hemp Fiber Growers’ Association to break the 1942 crop. The new hemp-breaking machines were to perform the work of many men, thus relieving the farm shortage. Despite the uncertainties from production during the previous year, Boyle County farmers grew more than 800 acres of hemp for seed in 1843 verses the 760 grown in 1842. The Cook family portable hemp-breaking machinery showed promise, and farmers felt confident in its performance. The local 4-H Club even participated in the hemp program, dedicating several acres to production (The Advocate-Messenger, 1943).
Unfortunately the federal hemp program was discontinued in 1944 after an increase in foreign hemp imports. This discontinued the support prices for hemp, and farmers were urged to plant food crops instead. With the end of the hemp program, the industry vanished across the state and county (The Advocate-Messenger, 1944).
Birney, James G.
Cogar, George - George Cogar, a native of Woodford County, moved to Danville in 1887. By 1893, he had established himself as “the large wheat and hemp dealer of Danville,” and had incorporated his business into the Cogar Hemp Company with $30,000 in capital stock. He operated his business with partner John C. Davis, with a force of 35 men, who had a reputation known for furnishing the best prepared hemp sent from Kentucky due to their careful hackling before shipping (The Advocate-Messenger, 1968). The establishment handled some two million pounds annually. Cogar was responsible for the buying and selling of the hemp fiber, who was considered an expert in the dealing by 1899 (The Advocate-Messenger, 1965).
In 1902, Cogar and Davis began the foundation for a granary and hemp house on Walnut Street. The three-story, 40 X 100 foot warehouse was built with brick and at the time, the company had 1 million pounds of hemp on hand (The Advocate-Messenger, 2002).
Cook, Valentine “Val”
Davis, John D. - John D. Davis was the junior member of the member of the firm, and was responsible for the immediate supervision of the hackling department. He was said to have been naturally fitted for this position as he paid particular attention to details, and “gives to the affairs of the firm the most careful and conscientious attention and nothing is permitted to leave the premises unless it is up to every requirement, both in quality, and finish. His care is preparation, and Mr. Cogar’s skill as a judge in buying, combined to give their project the first place in the market (The Advocate-Messenger, 1968).
Hudson, Banks - Banks Hudson began working for George Cogar sometime in the late 1800s. In 1898, he is quoted in the Kentucky Advocate as being with the Cogar Hemp Company for “some time.” According to the trade changes listed in the American Hay, Flour and Feed Journal, Hudson purchased the Cogar warehouses for a sum of $25,000 and began operating “Hudson, Davis and Cogar” dealers in hemp and grain in August of 1911 (Gregory, 1910). Apparently, the name “Hudson and Davis” is still visible on the side of the building. Banks Hudson became one of the largest hemp growers in the state, and by 1915 he was known as the “hemp man of Danville” (The Advocate-Messenger, 1993).
In 1929, Hudson boasted the largest hemp seed crop ever planted. By 1931, he was raising the only hemp crop of Central Kentucky. He noted that “this will be probably the las’ hemp crop to be raised anywhere in Kentucky. He said further, if anyone has friends who have never seen a hemp crop while in its growth, it would pay them to see his present one, as it will be his last, the principal reason being that the head of the firm who has been buying his hemp for many years has recently died, and the factory will be closed, so far as Kentucky hemp is concerned.
Amos, C., & Bradley, A. (1997). Historic and Architectural Resources of Boyle County, KY (U.S., Department of the Interior, Kentucky Heritage Council/State Historic Preservation Office). National Parks Service.
Brown, John C. (1942, March 22). Farmers Asked For Big Hemp Acreage. The Advocate-Messenger. Sec. 6.
Gregory, Wm. R. (1910). Trade Changes. American Hay, Flour, and Feed Journal, 18-19, 61.
Sanders, S. (2016, August 29). Boyle County hemp in the late 19th Century. The Advocate Messenger, pp. 24.
Sanders, S. (2016, September 4). Boyle County hemp in the early 20th Century. The Advocate Messenger, pp. 24.
The Advocate-Messenger (1917, November 27). Of Interest to Farmers. p. 2.
The Advocate-Messenger (1942, January 28). Hemp Seed To Be In The Forefront of National Defense. p. 4.
The Advocate-Messenger (1942, February 22). County Agents News. p. 6.
The Advocate-Messenger (1942, March 03). 33,000 Acres Of Hemp Seed Will Be Produced In Kentucky During 1942. p. 1 & 6.
The Advocate-Messenger (1943, January 20). 4-H Club Drive Begins In County. Vol. LXXVII., No. 152. p. 1.
The Advocate-Messenger (1943, January 26). Cook Family Integrally Bound Up With Federal Hemp Program. Vol. LXXVII., No. 156. p. 1.
The Advocate-Messenger (1943, February 10). Growers Discuss Hemp Problems. Vol. LXXVII., Number 167. 1.
The Advocate-Messenger (1943, December 9). 1944 Hemp Program Is Discontinued In State—Robinson. Vol. LXXVIII., No. 122. p. 1.
The Advocate-Messenger (1943, May 10). Hemp Meeting Thursday At McConnell Farm. Vol. LXXVII., No. 230. p. 1.
The Advocate-Messenger (1965, June 27). Hemp Was Once A Major Crop In This Part Of State. p. 11, Section 5.
The Advocate-Messenger (1965, June 27). Local Manufacturing Activities Started As Early As 1879. p. 2, Section 7.
The Advocate-Messenger (1968, May 12). Kentucky Advocate “Scrapbook”. p. 10.
The Advocate-Messenger (1993, May 09). Building housed bustling hemp cleaning operation. LOOKING BACK. p. C2.
The Advocate-Messenger (2002, April 28). From 100 years ago - 1902. p. D2
The Dollar Farmer (1843). Hemp in Boyle County, Kentucky. No. 1. p. 125.
The Kentucky Tribune (1843, November 10). Review of the Market.
Rogers, D. Laurence (2011). Apostles of Equality: The Birneys, the Republicans, and the Civil War. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.
U.S., Bureau of Agriculture, Labor, and Statistics, Kentucky Department of Agriculture. (1912). Biennial Report 1910-1911 (Vol. 19). Frankfort, KY: The Kentucky State Journal Publishing