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Hopewell Museum

Bourbon County Hemp/Alexander House

Historical Marker #2575 describes the importance of hemp to Bourbon County and the Alexander House, whose owner William Alexander operated a hemp factory in Bourbon County. Located at 902 Main Street, Paris, Kentucky.

Bourbon County was one of Kentucky’s chief hemp producing counties and led production in 1810, accounting for 796 of the 5,755 tons grown in state. Two hemp mills produced on average 50,000 yards of fiber per year. Production slowed during the Civil War, but local farms produced a crop of 569 tons in 1870. By 1900, production declined with a brief revival during the World Wars.
In 1812, hemp factories in Bourbon and Fayette counties accounted for over 94 percent of bagging produced along the Maysville Road, and 73 percent of the state’s total production. Merchant-manufacturers of Lexington and Paris found great profit in hemp and cotton productions, tapping into the cash crop that flourished in southern Kentucky (Friend, 2005). As the hemp industry began to show profits, the local manufacturing industry continued to develop around what is now known as the Maysville & Lexington pike. Local manufacturers in Paris like Samuel Williams, William Alexander, and Samuel Pike all made bagging, rope, and twine made of hemp fiber and made fortunes from the expanding industry.
The Alexander House 
Alexander House, Paris Kentucky
The Alexander House was built for William W. Alexander, a Kentucky State Representative from 1848-1852. His father, William Alexander, owned a hemp factory until 1856 that was operated by over 100 enslaved people. At 600 feet it had one of the world’s longest rope walks. Hugh D. Alexander operated the home as a saloon and restaurant from the 1880s until 1908.
Kentucky led the nation in hemp production in 1840 (Brown, 2002), while Bourbon and Fayette Counties led the state. Hemp production became even more profitable for Bourbon County when the southern terminus of the Maysville- Lexington Railroad was constructed in 1854 and Paris was designated the most important shipping point in Kentucky. (Collins, 1878). However, by 1859, the county had fallen behind Fayette, Woodford, Boyle, Scott, Mason, and Jessamine counties in production (Hopkins, 1951).
After the Civil War, local farmers produced a crop of 569 tons in 1870. By 1900, production declined with a brief revival during the World Wars. Several hemp dealers and manufacturers also managed to find success toward the turn of the century. E.F. Spears and Sons and Charles S. Brent & Brothers dealt in hemp during the late 19th century into the early 20th century and were some of the last known dealers in Bourbon County. One of E. F. Spears’ last hemp contracts was for the renovation of the battleship Constitution around 1920 (Scott & Scott, 2002). While the industry experienced brief influxes during WWI and WWII, hemp production ceased in the area by the late 1940s.
Source: Hopkins, James. F. A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2015.
Source: Scott, Berkeley & Jeanine. Paris and Bourbon County. Arcadia Publishing, 2002.
Black workers inside Spears & Sons hemp factoryBlack and white photograph showing at least 3 Black men working inside a building. Sunlight streams in through a window at the left. They stand over a a crop that is likely hemp.
The planting, growing, harvesting, and processing of hemp was difficult and dangerous labor. As Kentucky was the leading producer of hemp prior to 1850, historian James F. Hopkins asserts that hemp is the reason slavery was allowed to flourish here. Even after the Civil War many formerly enslaved people were still doing this work with the transition to sharecropping, continuing the exploitation of black labor.
Black workers breaking hempBlack and white photograph of 5 African American men working outside breaking hemp. There is a white barn structure in the background. 1 man holds a large bundle on his back.
Breaking hemp was hard work as one man had to continually lift and drop the upper part of the break in order to crack open the stalks and reach the fiber. It was a much more labor intensive process than that of picking and cleaning cotton.
Hemp Hackle
A hemp hackle was used to comb out the hemp fibers similarly to how flax was combed. Hackling was usually done in the winter and in a dry confined place, like a barn. Hackling was dusty and dirty work and many of the enslaved men developed respiratory issues due to the process.