Henderson County, Kentucky


The local tobacco industry had been drying up for decades when it finally caught fire and went up in smoke in the mid-1950s.

But for a period of about 100 years, tobacco was king in Henderson County. Back in the 1800s, huge tobacco warehouses and stemmeries lined the Henderson riverfront. When the weed was ready for market, tarp-covered wagons loaded with tobacco clogged Henderson's streets. Tobacco funneled an enormous amount of wealth into the community.

Tobacco was grown in this area by the Indians before white settlers even got here. In 1801, however, the state legislature named Henderson as one of the state's tobacco inspection ports. That meant that tobacco from a large surrounding area passed through Henderson on its way down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

In those days, all tobacco bound for export had to be OK'd by state inspectors, who had authority to burn any tobacco not considered up to snuff.

In 1825, the legislature repealed mandatory inspection, and that's what started the boom. While the inspection warehouses continued to do business for another decade, new methods soon achieved prominence in the marketplace.

Up until then, planters had stripped their own product and packed it into hogsheads. With the repeal of inspection, however, they began delivering wagonloads of loose tobacco to the stemmeries that soon sprang up.

The first local stemmery, where tobacco was stripped from its stem and made ready for use, was built in 1818. But after repeal of mandatory inspection, a number of other firms built stemmeries - and most of their founders became rich.

A century ago, about 12 million pounds of tobacco were passing annually through Henderson. The peak of production, however, didn't come until the early 1920s, when 40 million pounds were shipped annually.

But by that time the beginning of the end had already started. During World War I, Great Britain levied a high tariff on foreign-grown tobacco, in an effort to encourage its colonies to begin raising it.

The loss of its major market, coupled with the advent of the Depression, had a dramatic impact on the Henderson tobacco industry. By the end of the 1930s, annual production had dipped to 8 million pounds, and only six tobacco establishments remained.

By the mid-1950s, only four warehouses remained, and three of those were gutted by fire within two months in 1956.

The first fire, in September, involved the two buildings of the Argue tobacco warehouse at the southeast corner of First and Water streets, as well as the Soaper warehouse across Water Street. Together they were called "probably the worst fire in the city's history," by the fire chief, whom estimated damages of $250,000.

"Thousands of people filtered to the scene of the fire, drawn by the billowing smoke and bright orange glow which lighted the entire riverside sky of the city," the Gleaner and Journal reported.

"Earlier, sparks and pieces of burning wood were drawn hundreds of feet into the night air, and swirled northward along the riverfront and slightly toward the downtown business district.

"The fire burned with a terrific heat, spewing greenish-blue spurts through the heavy gauge metal siding on the Soaper warehouse."

Evansville sent its fire chief, 20 men and three trucks to help with the blaze, and Owensboro also sent a contingent, but it was turned back as unneeded before it reached the fire.

At its height, there were about 50 firefighters and at least that many volunteers battling the conflagration. The professionals concentrated on the main fire, while the volunteers stamped out the many other blazes the main fire started.

"It was a brilliant display of teamwork that confined the disastrous blaze to a comparatively small area in spit of the wind," the Gleaner and Journal reported. "The crowd was large but well-controlled. Evansville police joined the Evansville firemen and helped local officers direct the traffic that soon clogged the business area."

At first the wind blew from the south, carrying sparks as far as Atkinson Park and igniting grass fires there. But it then shifted to the west and ignited the Soaper Building, located where the police station and tennis courts now stand. If the wind had shifted to the east, firefighters said, a large section of the downtown area probably would have been lost.

In November, another fire destroyed the FARMERS Tobacco Company warehouse on Vine Street between Adams and Alves Streets, with losses estimated at $165,000. The building had been being used by Period Inc. to store about $90,000 worth of furniture at the time of the fire. However, the SOAPER family had planned to begin using it again to make up for their riverfront warehouse lost two months earlier.

The fire left only the old FARMERS warehouse at Fourth and Green Streets. Eventually, however, the SOAPERS opened another warehouse on Pennell Street. It had the distinction of being Henderson's last tobacco warehouse, closing its doors in early 1984.

Reprinted with permission.
Progress Edition, The Gleaner, Henderson, KY, Saturday, March 30, 1996
Written by Frank Boyett

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS