Ironclad Industry

From farms to factories to downtown boutiques, Henderson is open for business

Henderson’s economic roots are definitely in the dirt – as in, agriculture. But while farming remains important in Henderson County, its heavy industrial base is crucial to a diversified economy that ranges from medical services to Main Street shops.

Henderson found its footing and initial wealth during the 19th century by raising and processing tobacco.

Scott Farms by Laura Mathis

Tobacco – especially dark air-cured tobacco used in snuff, chewing, cigar, and pipe blends – was raised on thousands of acres of land in Henderson County. For decades, tarp-covered farm wagons piled high with cured tobacco bound for auction warehouses jammed downtown streets in the late autumn.

By 1899, Henderson County farmers had produced a staggering 15.4 million pounds of tobacco from 18,410 acres – the greatest amounts on record.

Fortunes were made here, especially among men who owned the warehouses where “leaf ” was auctioned or at the factories called stemmeries where tobacco was processed and prepared for shipment aboard steamboats.

Local lore declared Henderson second only to Heidelberg, Germany, as the wealthiest per capita in the world – or, in a slight variation, as home to the world’s second-greatest concentration of millionaires per capita. It was an impossible claim to prove, but it was plausible enough to be claimed today.

The dark-tobacco market relied heavily on exports, and trade disputes and tariffs took a heavy toll in the early 20th century. By 1909, tobacco production in Henderson County had fallen by nearly one-third from a decade earlier. It plunged by more than half again by 1934. Today, the tradition of raising tobacco has essentially vanished.

Century Aluminum photo provided

But agriculture remains vital. Henderson County ranked first in Kentucky in soybean production in 2022 and second in corn output.

After holding tight to agriculture for generations, Henderson County began industrializing. That accelerated in the early 1970s with the recruitment of an aluminum smelter (today operated by Century Aluminum), a commercial truck wheel plant (today’s Accuride Corp.), and a commercial truck axle factory (now operated by Dana Corp.). Other major manufacturers include Audubon Metals, Hercules Manufacturing Co., and Gibbs Die Casting.

A chicken processing plant now operated by Tyson Foods and a Columbia Sportswear distribution center were prominent additions in later years, and locally owned Pittsburg Tank & Tower Group engineers, fabricates, builds, and maintains water storage tanks and communication towers across the country and overseas.

In 2021, Gov. Andy Beshear came to Henderson to make what he called the biggest economic development announcement in Western Kentucky in a quarter-century: the recruitment of Australia-based Pratt Paper, which has opened a 280-employee, $500 million, 1.15 million-square-foot complex that recycles used corrugated boxes into new boxes.

In all, more than one in four jobs in Henderson County today is in manufacturing, accounting for fully one-third of all wages paid in the county.

Photo by Audra Straw

Meanwhile, Main Street is alive and well in Henderson, bursting with both legacy and new stores. Downtown offers boutique shopping at stores such as Beachbum Farms, J’Petals, Olive + Mae, Radiant Sun, Falcon Creek, Victoria’s, LandyLane, The Olive Leaf, and Elite Henderson, along with longtime retailers such as Alles Brothers Furniture, Simon’s Shoes, Wilkerson’s Shoes, and Campbell Jewelers.

Deaconess Henderson Hospital remains a leading employer in Henderson, supplemented by numerous Deaconess-affiliated medical providers as well as Owensboro Health Henderson Healthplex. Owensboro-based RiverValley Behavioral Health also has a significant presence in Henderson County, offering the community services related to addiction, mental health, development, physical health, and more.

Did You Know?

>> Total wages paid in Henderson County exceeded $1 billion in 2023 for the first time ever.

>> Simon’s Shoes became regionally famed for stocking a wider variety of sizes than most shoe stores.

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Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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