Roots: Hemp History
Hemp has been an important crop throughout the history of the U.S., and to a certain extent in Tennessee. By the mid-1600s, hemp had become an important part of the Colonial economy and was used to produce cordage, cloth, canvas, sacks and paper. In fact, the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were penned on hemp paper. Hemp was widely grown in Revolutionary War times, as it was strategically important for maritime use for lines, rigging, sail canvas and caulking on ships. George Washington encouraged hemp production and Thomas Jefferson bred improved varieties and invented a special brake for crushing the plant’s stems during fiber processing. The history of hemp production Tennessee dates to the early 19th century with the arrival of pioneer families. Donald Winters, in his Tennessee Farming, quotes an East Tennessee report from the 1840s: “Hemp grows luxuriantly upon our River Bottom Lands, but has hitherto been neglected; although it is believed to be more profitable than any other crop that can be raised.” Winters writes that during the War with Mexico, the state legislature petitioned the U.S. government to help promote hemp production in Tennessee. In 1852 the Navy built a rope factory in Memphis with the intention of purchasing hemp from Tennessee and Kentucky growers, but the project was eventually abandoned. According to the 1850 U.S. Census, Tennessee produced 454 tons of dew-rotted hemp and 141 tons of water-rotted hemp. The different methods refer to the way in which the components of the stalk were broken down and prepared for processing.
Tennessee’s first commissioner of agriculture, Joseph Killebrew, in his exhaustive Resources of Tennessee published in 1874, reported that hemp was widely grown throughout Middle Tennessee. Bedford, Coffee, Jackson, Marshall, Maury, Sumner and Williamson counties were particularly noted for having suitable soils for hemp production. In Maury County, hemp was used for ropes and bagging for cotton. “In response to this demand, hemp came to be one of the staple crops in Maury County, and rope walks and hemp factories were quite as common in the county as cotton gins are now,” according to the report. In the 1870 census, Sumner County (including present day Trousdale County) reported producing 150 tons of hemp. “In time, however, Missouri, Kentucky and other states entered the hemp field, and the competition became too strong,” Killebrew added. Along with Missouri and Illinois, Kentucky farmers produced most American hemp until the late 1800s, when demand for sailcloth and cordage began to wane due to the arrival of steam ships. With the advent of mechanical means of harvesting and processing, Kentucky continued to lead in seed production and Wisconsin in fiber processing before and during World War II, when there was a brief resurgence in demand. Although industrial hemp contains very little of the hallucinogenic properties of marijuana, production and processing declined after World War II with the passage of state and federal laws aimed at regulating the narcotic varieties of Cannabis. Its decline was further accelerated with the development and availability of cheap synthetic fibers. Also, the resurgence of cotton production in the deep South was likely a contributing factor to hemp’s decline.