Why the Hemp Highway of Kentucky

Why the Hemp Highway of Kentucky

February 10, 2017

By Dan Isenstein.

One day while searching for answers ahead of the question I asked myself, “How do you make history fun?” One way is by finding a topic inherently prone to the comedy of miscommunication.  Case in point, hemp.  Hemp, the nerdy member of the cannabis family who is always hard at work and too busy to play.  Most people are more familiar with Hemp’s troubled cousin, Marihuana.   Mari can be a party girl, and until recently she had a very bad and well known reputation.  This family relationship can set the comedic stage for a botanical ”Parent Trap” or “Patty Duke Show”.  (Zach and Cody for younger folks) Obvious puns are just one of the things that makes hemp fun.

Because hemp is fun it has ability to get people’s attention. And because it gets people’s attention hemp can serve as an entry point into many interesting topics throughout the history and development of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  The hemp was introduced into agricultural production, in 1775, and quickly became an important commodity crop for Kentucky farmers and industrialists.  From a historic perspective hemp entwines several historic names and narratives.  Senator Henry Clay, perhaps Kentucky’s best known political figure raised hemp on his estate, was part owner of a hemp spinning mill and crafted foreign policy, parts of his “American System”, to help protect and promote the domestic hemp industry.  General John Hunt Morgan, of Morgan’s Raiders, Kentucky’s best known Civil War figure was a successful hemp industrialist prior to the war.

Names like Clay and Morgan are obvious, most everyone identifies them with Kentucky.  But how about Clay contemporary John Wesley Hunt, John Hunt Morgan’s grandfather? John Wesley Hunt was a major figure in the development of early Lexington. By the early 1800’s he was well on his way to amassing the first fortune west of the Allegheny Mountains.  His empire was built in part on processing Kentucky hemp into bagging and twine used for baling cotton in the deep South.  The cotton industry in the Deep South was exploding after the invention of the cotton gin.  Hunt was one of the first to recognize this opportunity seize upon it.  Hunt had the vision to see the potential of developing new markets down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  This allowed him to side step the natural barrier presented by the Appalachian Mountains for shipping hemp and other products to established markets back East.

While Hunt currently has no personal roadside marker (why?), two markers in downtown Lexington, Kentucky mention his name.  The first marker # 2316 “Christ Church Cathedral” mentions that he was one of the important parishioners in the early years of the church.  The second, Marker 2365 is located at 253 Market St, in front of the Federal style home Hunt built, Hopemont. Today it is known as the “Hunt Morgan House”.  Hopemont is one of Lexington’s first of what I like to call, a “home that hemp built”.  These “homes that hemp built” are scattered across the Hemp Highway of Kentucky.  You will find them in every county.   The James Weir House, (now called the Carrick House a catering and events facility) is even more impressive than Hunt’s.  The Weir house, 312 N. Limestone is just a few blocks walk from Hunt’s home.

You can find the story of John Wesley Hunt’s “hempire” when you hit the Hemp Highway of Kentucky.  Marker 1163 “Fayette County Hemp” is located by the Civil War Hemp Warehouse at the cross roads of Newtown Pike and Ironworks Pike. (marker currently missing) The marker tells the story of the “Hunt and Brand Co.” Hunt’s hemp factory in Lexington.  In 1803 Hunt & Brand manufactured the first hemp bagging in the United States.  John Wesley Hunt’s is just one of the “hempstories” told by historical markers along the Hemp Highway of Kentucky. 

Another colorful figure to emerge during Bluegrass region’s transition from frontier wilderness into a thriving center of agriculture, commerce and education, was the Reverend Elijah Craig.  Rev. Craig basically created what is now Georgetown, Kentucky.   Craig, a Baptist minister from Virginia was once imprisoned on charges of preaching without the proper license from the Church of England. 

Craig became involved in politics during the American Revolution working to secure religious freedoms.  He served mostly minor but vital roles in several post revolution conventions both in Virginia and nationally, including the General Convention where he worked with revolutionary luminaries such as Patrick Henry and James Madison.

After the Constitutional Convention Craig, his family and a small party of congregants journeyed to Kentucky.  Rev. Craig had secured 1000 acres around a source of water known as Big Spring, the largest spring in Kentucky.  Around this Spring Craig laid out his vision for a town.  Originally named “Lebanon” but later changed to “Georgetown” in honor of General Washington, Craig’s community sits relatively undisturbed by the sands of time.

Follow the story down to the “cross roads” of the Hemp Highway and the Bourbon Trail where Rev, Craig amassed his fortune tapping multiple streams of income.  His ropewalks supplied cordage to the river traffic, he operated a fulling mill for textiles and he opened the first papermill West of the mountains.  Rev. Craig also started a school and he is cited as one of the first distillers of Bourbon whiskey.   Today there is even a premium Bourbon marketed under the brand Elijah Craig. 

To begin the Craig narrative, roll up the Hemp Highway of Kentucky along US 25 to the Cardome Center just north of Georgetown where marker # 1166 “Hemp in Scotty County” starts the tale. (veer to the right as you ascend the driveway, the marker is between main building and US 25.)  Then roll back down to the Georgetown Scott County Museum, on Main Street, to learn the rest of the story.  On your trip back into town you will drive past Elijah Craig’s home, 353 N. Broadway. Now a private residence, it is a hulking grey house on the right side of the road.

While at the Museum, pick up a copy of the downtown walking tour brochure and see some more “homes that hemp built.”  Roll up the Hemp Highway of Kentucky or check out our website www.kentuckyhemphighway.com to find out more about Rev. Elijah Craig and hemp in Scott county.

To find out more of the hemp story in Kentucky grab a map or check out our website to find out where the Hemp Highway of Kentucky twists through your area and then hit it.

Warning! Hemp story is only part of the reward for traveling the Hemp Highway of Kentucky.  Some of the most peaceful, scenic vistas in the Commonwealth await when you get off the interstate and roll up the Hemp Highway of Kentucky.  The beauty is unmatched.   Imagine the early morning mist settling into valleys of gently rolling hills framed by wooden fences, where horses frolic and the ghosts of long forgotten mansions and farmhouses keep silent watch?  Morning drives on the Hemp Highway of Kentucky are truly magical.

But Stop!  Wait just one second.  You just got a 2 minute history lesson.  It’s like that Mary Poppins song, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”  In this case the history lesson was a hemp edible.  You tuned in to hear about hemp and we told you about two industrialists who helped transform the frontier into economically diverse thriving communities.  And that’s the power of the hitting the Hemp Highway of Kentucky.   You start out to learn a little bit about hemp and a couple hours later the history lesson hits you.  Oh, and did I mention that you will encounter countryside considered some of the most scenic in all Kentucky?

And that takes us back to the title of the essay “Why the Hemp Highway of Kentucky?”.  I was the nerdy kid in high school.  The guy who loved the way the conflicts of history echo through generations, and how a great teacher could make historical events come alive by helping you understand the way those events shape the world today.  I could not wait for history class to start and I wish there were more history courses offered.

But, try starting a conversation about history on a date, at an office party or at a work event.  Even better, mention going to a history museum as a fun way to spend the afternoon to a teenager and watch their eyes glass over and the drool start to run down the corner of their mouth…can the snores be too far behind.  So. how do you break down that tunnel vision on “now” which seems to be an inherent barrier to learning about the past?

Try hitting the Hemp Highway of Kentucky and remember, always pass on the left.

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