Long before its association with clothing, chocolates, or the civil disobedience of actor Woody Harrelson, hemp (without the prefix “industrial”) was a mainstay of Kentucky agriculture. One of my ancestors grew hemp on his Montgomery County farm decades before the Civil War, and in 1869 Kentucky produced 7,777 tons of hemp fiber – over half of the country’s entire output.* But by the turn of the 20th century, hemp was on its way to becoming a minor crop, but not before the “fields of beauty and profit” with their “graceful and fernlike” plants lent its name to a farm – and a house.**
“Passing along the Georgetown Pike one becomes suddenly conscious of a delicious, pungent odor that steals up on the senses with almost intoxicating insistence.”
This opening line to the small section on Hempstead is from the 1904 Country Estates of the Blue Grass, a florid collection of prose and truly magnificent photographs documenting some of Central Kentucky’s vaunted farms of the day. The book, reissued in 1973, is a peek into a certain class of rural life in Kentucky, farms with names that now adorn subdivisions and housing developments, the rich soil long since extinguished under pavement.
In 1902, William F. Galbreath sold 217 acres on the east side of the Georgetown Pike to George Nathaniel Petitt for $23,000. Galbreath, a bachelor, nonetheless had a large household consisting of two of his sisters, their children, and three servants. He had purchased the land only 10 years earlier from the Clark family.
“Nat” Pettit, born in 1872, had married Miriam Lisle in 1896, and the couple lived with her family at Lisleland on the Leestown Pike.
Miriam’s father was a sucessful businessman, one of the founders of the Fayette National Bank, and farmer, with a rice plantation in Louisiana and multiple farms in the Bluegrass. As was noted in his biography in Collin’s History of Kentucky, “the practical operations of his Kentucky farm largely evolved upon tenants.” It appears that his son-in-law followed in his footsteps.
Shortly after purchasing the farm from Galbreath, Nat Pettit set upon improving the land with outbuildings and a “pretty house.”** The brick, 1.5 story dwelling stood on a slight rise above Georgetown Road, with a circular driveway, graceful groupings of mature trees set around it, and clumps of daffodils and hyacinths meandering through the lawn. Bucking modern trends of balloon framing and veneer, Pettit had a solid masonry house constructed, with the facade and side elevations laid in Flemish bond.
Two large windows flanked the central entry door, and a large wrap-around porch spanned the facade and the slightly recessed wings on either side of the house. The footprint sprawled, an impression further enforced by the hipped roof and porch with its Tuscan columns set on brick piers. The most distinctive feature of the house was likely the central pediment with colonettes on the porch, and above it, an elaborate and decorative parapetted dormer.
The house was completed by 1904, when the “country estate of Mr. G. Nat Pettit” was featured in Country Estates of the Bluegrass, and the dwelling described as “picturesque and comfortable.” It is doubtful that Nat and Miriam ever resided in the house, but perhaps they did for a short time before the farm was sold in 1909, with the stipulation that the dwelling house be insured by a “good and responsible company” for a sum not less than $3,500.”
This sale began the journey of a farm though many, many hands. It remained in Winslow’s hands for less than two years, perhaps due to the fact that in 1909, hemp production had dropped to a new low.*
The farm underwent a transformation. The hemp fields, once its “principal feature,” became hog lots, and a 1918 deed transfer states quite clearly that “none of the hog paraphernalia conveys.” Although the Great Depression was a few years away, American farming was deep into an economic crisis. Falling prices after the expansion of World War I and expensive machinery forced many farmers to cut back – and farm auctions soared.
And so, Hempstead was auctioned off, with its “elegant nine room brick cottage,” and numerous outbuildings outlined in the above advertisement. Afterwards, the farm traded hands around every ten years, until it was finally absorbed into the enormous Coldstream Farm, which would eventually be purchased by the University of Kentucky in the mid-20th century.
The University, at that time, still needed houses on the land it owned, to house tenants or employees, who worked on the farms that taught students and developed new methods to aid Kentucky farmers. But even then, when my own father was studying in the College of Agriculture, a philosophy shift was taking root at the land-grant institution.
By the end of the 20th century, it was clear that tobacco was on its way out, and the business of agriculture, always hungry for a new cash crop or improved technology, was rapidly changing. And UK remained interested in land – not necessarily for farming purposes – but not in buildings on that land.
So Hempstead, serene on its small knoll despite the tightening grasp of development along Georgetown Road (US 25) and the I-64/I-75 corridor at its backdoor, remained an odd little oasis. I passed by it often, and in the spring of 2015, drawn by a sense of disquiet about the quiet looking house (and also by the cheery faces of the daffodils), I stopped to investigate. The house had been empty for some time, but it wasn’t in bad shape (I’ve seen far worse).
My unease was justified. UK’s march to the sea on the neighborhoods along South Limestone was only the latest in the spread of the University’s campus – why should its rural properties be treated any differently? Coldstream Farm ceased being a farm long, long ago, and while I am a huge fan of the Cooperative Extension Service, and the College of Agriculture, the drivers at the helm do not display any sentiment for historic resources.
Hempstead, with its rambling porch, and large, well-proportioned rooms with plenty of light streaming through large windows, expired in March 2016, joining the ranks of other “country estates” that live on only in photographs and archival records.
*A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky, James F. Hopkins. (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1951), 197.
**Country Estates of the Bluegrass, Thomas A. Knight and Nancy Lewis Greene. (Lexington: Henry Clay Press, 1973 edition), 72.