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Although primarily an agricultural state during the 19th century, Kentucky was a leading supplier of manufactures to the South before the Civil War. Kentucky ranked 10th among the 50 states for growth in manufacturing between 1992 and 1997 with shipments of manufactured goods valued at $88 billion in 1997. Manufacturing activities are largely concentrated in Louisville and Jefferson County and other cities bordering the Ohio River. Kentucky is the leading producer of American whiskey. It also is the nation's fourth largest producer of trucks in assembly plants at Louisville as well as the nation's 5th-largest producer of automobiles at Bowling Green and Georgetown.

In 1997, Kentucky was the headquarters for several Fortune 500 companies, including: Lexmark International, KFC Corp., Ashland, Humana, Providian, LG&E Energy, and Vencor. Top manufacturers by employment include GE, Ford, Toyota, Lexmark, Johnson Controls, Technotrim, and Trim Masters. In 1998, Kentucky was home to the UPS "Hub 2000" project, which invested nearly one billion dollars in the creation of the largest warehousing/distribution project of the year. The project tied for the largest job creation in the country that year, and came 3rd in capital investment and new space created.

Earnings of persons employed in Kentucky increased from $57.9 billion in 1997 to $61.2 billion in 1998, an increase of 5.6%. The largest industries in 1998 were services, 22.5% of earnings; durable goods manufacturing, 13.4%; and state and local government, 11.5%. Of the industries that accounted for at least 5% of earnings in 1998, the slowest growing from 1997 to 1998 was nondurable goods manufacturing (8.6% of earnings in 1998), which increased 4.3%; the fastest was construction (6.0% of earnings in 1998), which increased 8.7%.