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Kentucky Hemp Highway Tour

kentucky hemp highway tour

Kentucky Hemp Highway of Kentucky, A Self-Guided Tour

Hemp Highway of Kentucky is a self guided tour of Kentucky’s hemp history. Founded by Dan Isenstein, this tour takes tourists through 12 counties in Kentucky, binding Kentucky’s history with the future. The tour organized and launched by Dan, offers a look into: key events and characters in Kentucky’s rich hemp history, identifies relevant places of interest in each county, Historical attractions like restored mansions originally built with hemp generated wealth, and  features adventures at locations currently engaged in Kentucky’s hemp renaissance.

Hemp Highway of Kentucky also has an online store with merchandise and apparel made from hemp.  I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Isenstein about Hemp Highway of Kentucky, for the hemp industry leaders column. Check out the interview below.

How did you get into the history of hemp- what led you to the plant?

“My relationship with cannabis goes back a few decades. I think it’s important to mention that before entering into a relationship with cannabis I read a lot. Then, once properly “introduced” to the plant, it spoke to me. It said, “Help tell my story.” School was an opportunity to write about cannabis. I was shocked how non-judgmental the teacher was the first time I turned in an essay in high school. The criticism was mostly about grammar and mechanics. This was 1982-83 around when “Just Say ‘No” dropped. So, I kept pushing the envelope. I relished being that student, and was blessed with teachers that didn’t discourage me.

Later, hemp history was a natural extension of my graduate research in Popular Culture. Around 1992 I conducted a field study about cannabis growers for a Folklore class. That’s when I scored my first copy of Jack Herer’s The Emperor Wears No Clothes, and started learning about hemp.  It used to frustrate me that I never completed my thesis about cannabis. However, having just completed my first book Tales from the Hemp Highway of Kentucky, I am sort of glad I didn’t. My thesis was written with the head and heart of a “fan” but I attempted to use an academic voice. My research was suspect because I wasn’t looking at source material with a critical eye. And the writing sounds so immature, like I am in competition with other students, not telling a story.

Two decades later, the 2014 farm bill passed into law, empowering states to create “hemp pilot programs”. I had just left the company where I had worked for 20 years, living a plastic life in the plastics industry. I was looking for a way to get involved with Kentucky’s nascent hemp industry, so I started the Hemp Highway. I found that this scratched several itches, my love of history, writing and cannabis. Once I found my voice it just felt right. And then to have the opportunity to work with other writers who “channel cannabis”, such as yourself, it’s just been a great experience”.

Your tours are based out of KY- what’s the most interesting piece of hemp history you discovered there? 

I believe the most important piece of Kentucky hemp history is the codependent relationship between hemp and slavery. This story extends beyond the antebellum hemp industry’s dependence on the labor of enslaved people. John Wesley Hunt, who in 1803 built the nation’s first hemp bagging factory in Lexington, Kentucky, was also a “pioneer” in the interstate slave trade. And, his first ventures into selling enslaved people “down the river” preceded his success as a hemp industrialist. The nature of the hemp industry and Kentucky agriculture contributed to our role as a slave exporting state. It’s a gut wrenching narrative that really made me look twice at how the community in which I live developed economically.

Do you look into hemp history in other states/countries, if so, where/what? 

Absolutely, hempen threads weave the narratives that bind history together. For example, I started researching the Kentucky-Illinois Hemp Company believing it to be a precursor to “Hemp for Victory”.  

What I found transported me to 1930’s Illinois and a well-financed “Billion Dollar Crop” era venture that failed. Likewise, while researching Lexington native Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, I traced threads back to Spain and John Bruce. Bruce was a master craftsman who supplied hempen sails and rigging for Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fleet prior to his victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar. Bruce eventually immigrated to the US settling in Lexington where he opened a huge hemp factory. His daughter Rebecca was Morgan’s first wife.

And, I definitely have plans to research and write about topics outside of Kentucky or that are more national in scope.

Who are some recognizable names in history that generated wealth through hemp? 

One of the more interesting people I discovered in my research was Dennis Doram Jr. Born and raised in Danville, KY., Dennis was a successful farmer and businessman who owned as many as 3 ropewalks. Dennis was also a formerly enslaved person. His mother Lydia was the daughter of General Thomas Barbee, who moved to Kentucky following the Revolutionary War.

Before the war, when he was a teenager, Thomas impregnated one of the enslaved girls on his father’s farm. Fearful of the repercussions he ran away from home. After the war, when he settled in Kentucky, he brought his daughter, Lydia with him. While Barbee was twice married, he never fathered children with either wife.

On his deathbed, Barbee set conditions by which his progeny were educated and freed. Dennis Jr., Thomas Barbee’s grandson became one of the most successful freed men in Kentucky. It is very rare that black people had their portraits painted during the antebellum period. The portraits of Dennis and his wife Diadamia hanging in the Kentucky Museum in Frankfort are testimony to his success and status in the community.

 To learn more about Hemp Highway of Kentucky,  check out the website.

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