This article is written from my memories as a child and teenager. I wish I could take a trip back to experience it all over again just for a day. Before too long, no one will remember the way of life I will describe because those of us who lived it will be gone. Rural farms are disappearing just as King Tobacco has disappeared. Now, instead of growing tobacco, the land sets forlorn or is growing houses, condos, apartments, or mobile homes.
Life on a tobacco farm was hard back-breaking work.
I grew up in the South during a time when tobacco was King. Everyone we knew grew, harvested, and cured tobacco in eastern rural North Carolina.
It was our cash crop and the only way of making a living for our families. This was before we knew how harmful tobacco products were to our health.
We rose early on the farm when tobacco season was in full swing. My father would rise around 4 in the morning and get ready for the day of picking up the workers, cropping, looping, hanging the sticks of tobacco in the barn and then finally firing up the burners to cure the barn of tobacco. My Mom produced three full meals a day whether she was in the field or not which included home-made biscuits or cornbread at every meal.
My mother, bless her heart, was a workhorse. She picked vegetables from her large garden which was maintained by her and us children, prepared a noon meal for all of us, then came to the barn to loop (the process of tying the tobacco onto four-sided tobacco sticks); returned to the house to serve lunch and clean up. She did all that while still managing to be at the barn when the first sled of the afternoon came in.
After lunch, she, all the children, and the hired hands would return to the fields and barn to continue processing the tobacco. This process of gardening, sewing seeds, pulling plants, looping tobacco, and caring for her family was done many times during the season as the tobacco was cropped progressively from the bottom on the first day, to the top on the last days of the season as each layer ripened. I had seen my parents covered in mud from head to foot from working in the tobacco field before the crop was ready for harvest. But that is another article in its self. Tobacco farming was grueling nonstop work from preparing the tobacco plant beds, to the end of the curing season, and the last tobacco sale of the year.
After she labored all day, Mom still had the supper meal to prepare for our family, as well as, clothes to wash, children’s baths to prepare, and all the household chores; there were no maids or housekeepers in a poor farmer’s house. The girl/girls in the families were expected to do any chore needed to live life and keep the family going. I didn’t know enough about town life to be envious; all I knew was the farm. Town trips were few and far between. We usually had no money to spend.
In my day, a thousand years ago, girls were not allowed in the field to crop tobacco (meaning to remove the ripe leaves from the very tall plants) some farmers call this pulling or priming. This was a man/boys job and was done many times during the season starting with the bottom leaves known as sand lugs. This name came from the fact that the bottom leaves were very dirty and sandy. They were also large and heavy. Tobacco was much larger in my day. Genetics have reduced the size of the grown plant, and it produces just as well as the large stalk we grew.
The very top leaves were the best quality and called tips. They brought the most money at the Tobacco Warehouse.
The photo on the right side shows tobacco that has been cropped several times.
When Dad set up the field for planting, he always had 4 to 6 tobacco rows and then a large sled row between each set of 4 to 6 tobacco plant rows. Cropping was very dirty, weary, hard work. Snakes, bugs, sweat, and a lot of hard walking.
The tobacco barn and our jobs.
Women and children waited for the first sled of tobacco to come out of the field. Usually, we had 3 to 4 people on each side of the sled along with a looper for each side.
I wish I could have found a photo of a looping horse. The four-sided tobacco stick sat on this with the looper to the side of the horse securing the tobacco to the stick. Dad handmade these horses each year or repaired the ones he could for further use. These horses now sell at auctions for use as quilt racks.
Dad used tractors and tobacco sleds to transport the tobacco from the field. Sleds were a large deep, flat-bottomed wagon on skids with toe sack sides which dropped down. Later Dad graduated to a sled on wheels. These he would pull behind the tractor or truck on the public road from one field to another.
We lowered the sides, gathered 3-4 tobacco leaves with one hand, gathering more with the other hand while passing to the looper the first bundle to tie on the four-sided tobacco stick with tobacco twine. We had to be fast, hold the bundle securely, and pass it the looper. It had a rhythm of its own.
It took skill to keep up with the handers and loop the tobacco correctly. It could not crawl or slip down the stick when passed up the tier poles at the end of the day. Dad would not teach me to loop as he said he didn’t have time and he needed handers not more loopers.
Mom was my Dad’s “A Number One” looper. She was fast, and her sticks were always secure. She was a gold star looper. If they gave awards for tobacco looping, my Mom would have received first prize.
There were two methods of securing the tobacco to the four-sided sticks: tying and looping. Tying involved placing twine around the bundle of tobacco once, looping twice. Dad preferred his tobacco looped. The handers had to have the sled empty by the time another sled pulled in; there was no time for chatting or having fun.
The sticks were removed from the looping horse and hung in long rows under the barn shelter, waiting for dad to come to the barn at the end of the day. This process went on all day. We were allowed a snack break of a nab or moon-pie and a Pepsi. Nothing ever tasted as good as those snacks and a chance to sit down for a moment.
As A Side Note:
There is nothing quite like the juice of the tobacco leaves. It is gummy, sticky, and stains your hands dark; then dirt sticks to all that yuck. Our hands were sore, cracked and at times bleeding, but the work had to go on.
Also, on the leaves were huge green worms (I think my Dad called them Horn Worms) which fed on the leaves in the field. Ugly suckers! The younger boys would chase us with them. Of course, some of the older ones also would give chase at times. Also at times, we found a harmless snake among the leaves; placed in the sled by one of the field hands. All heck broke loose then! I am sure they had a good laugh in the field at all the screaming and yelling.
End of the day
At the end of the day, Dad would climb to the top of the barn on the tier poles. The field hands were spaced on the poles progressively down to the last pole. Then a chain of workers would pass looped tobacco sticks. He would hang stick after stick of green tobacco which was passed to him as he straddled the log pole. On the left is a photo of tier poles and hanging tobacco. I don’t know how they climbed those tier poles after cropping tobacco and walking those long rows all day. Cropping was done on foot. When the cropper had an arm full, he would place it in the sled which followed the field hand 4 to 6 rows over. White and African-American, were all brothers under the skin and worked together on the farm for pennies compared to wages today. We were all the same, working hard to make a living.
After the barn was full, Dad would climb down, weary to the bone, return the crew to their homes, come back to the farm to light up the fuel oil or gas burners, get up the next day and start all over again.
In times past, the farm used wood to heat the barn, and my grandma cooked and canned vegetables at the barn during the curing process. Grandma slept at the barn to ensure it did not burn down.
Dad’s job did not stop after firing up the burners; he would rise from bed off and on during the night while curing tobacco to the check the barn, make sure the burners were under control and at the correct temperature to cure the leaves.
The wonderful smell of curing tobacco
Nothing on earth smells as good as a barn of tobacco curing on a warm summer day. It is a smell I will never forget. I always wanted to climb in the barn and roll around in the smell.
It was a tedious wearying job that had to be done correctly, or he would lose his barn, his tobacco and produce an inferior product. The tobacco cured under heat for days, and he got up each night to check the barns. Periodically he would climb up to the top-tier pole and inspect the progress of the curing. When cured, the green tobacco was a beautiful golden color you see pictured above and smelled yummy.
Then came the process of removing all the cured tobacco from the barn. Back up the tier poles everyone went and passed the sticks down, packing them in the bed of the truck or a trailer for transport to the pack-house. The photo on the left is similar to a pack-house.
That’s another entire article on what happens after it came out of the curing barn ready to be packed down for tying into beautiful bundles of tobacco for the warehouse sale. Tying cured and graded tobacco is a lost art. My grandma could tie the most beautiful bundles. Beauty was part of the sale at the warehouse, and she took pride in tying a pretty bundle. Finally, after tying all the cured tobacco from several barns and placing it back on smooth grading sticks, Dad loaded the sticks of beautifully tied tobacco on a trailer and in the bed of the truck. This occurred over and over; the barning, curing, and tying during the tobacco season. Periodically during the season, he would garner his reward for all his hard work. For one beautiful load of tobacco was headed to the tobacco warehouse to be sold.
The sale and fruits of our labors
The tobacco warehouse was a show in its self on sale day. I wish everyone could have gone to a warehouse sale at least once. The auctioneer would sing out the prices and other related and unrelated information in a cadence, similar to auctioneer’s seen at estate and cattle sales. It was very musical, loud and confusing. It took some practice to understand what was going on. The photo on the left is a warehouse similar to a tobacco warehouse.
Each farmer had to unload and handle his tobacco until the sale. For me as a child this was fascinating, for dad it was just hard work. I remember going with dad once, and it was an adventure as we had to stay overnight in a rooming house. Wow, that was amazing.
One time Dad placed my daughter on a big pile of low-grade sand lugs and told the buyers this was her pile of tobacco. Oh my, the buyers went crazy and my toddler got a nice check in her name. By the way, the buyers represented all the cigarette companies; also, the federal government brought tobacco under a program instituted to ensure the farmer got something for his crop. Tobacco had to meet a quality standard, and the price was linked to the grade each pile of tobacco received; if the buyers did not want a pile of tobacco, the government brought it. The warehouse, grading of the tobacco by the warehouse, and the sale are an article in themselves. I have only hit the highlights. I wish I could attend an old fashion sale once more.
My dad had a Farmall Tractor, similar to the photo on the right. His father had used mules and horses to bring the sleds to the barn.
Times had changed for the better. Mechanization had relieved some of the burdens. In later years, my Dad converted to a tobacco harvester and finally to bulk barn curing of the leaves. I think he was one of the first in our area to use bulk barns. But that is another story for another time.
I thought of all this today when I saw this photo of a woman overseas handling the green tobacco in a cigar factory. It brought back a lot of memories of hard work, tears, laughter, family, and companionship.
Later, if you are interested, I will go into what we did with the cured tobacco, and perhaps I will tell you how my Mom and Dad planted the seeds in tobacco beds in the early spring. Transplanting them to the field and all the near disasters; my grandmother and the mouse in the tobacco plant bed, the time Dads trailer wheel came off and almost burned it to the ground along with a load of tobacco headed to the warehouse sale, and the tears and laughter that occurred during the process of earning a living on the tobacco farm.
Tobacco farming was a hard life of uncertainty, you were at the mercy of disease, bugs, drought, storms, and tobacco buyers that drove Caddies, wore fancy clothes, and had no concept of what it took to bring the product to the sales warehouse. But it was also a good life, with good friends, and family.
Do I want to go back to those days? No way, I liked the comfortable life of a public job and assured pay. But I sure would like to smell a curing barn of tobacco again and see my Dad up in the top of the barn on those tier poles. He was my hero. He could grab that bottom tier pole and swing himself up and start climbing. Dad is now 90 and those days are long gone, except for the memories, and I can say without hesitation, I have many memories to look back on in my old age.
I hope you have enjoyed a day in my life on the family tobacco farm. If you would like to hear more of the process, let me know, and I will blog sewing the seeds, growing the plants, grading and preparing for sale along with all the many tears and laughter in life on a tobacco farm. I would love to expand and tell you about hog killing day, the sparse Christmas’s we had, Grandma and Grand Dad who raised 9 living children, the time Grandma broke her back, the biggest garden I had ever seen cared for by my Mom and us children, the country store that gave us credit until Dad’s tobacco crop was harvested and sold, the doctors that took no payment until the tobacco was all sold in the fall, and so very much more.
Our heritage is slipping away. Instead of growing crops, we now grow condos and houses in our fields. The younger generation has no idea what their grandparents and greatgrandparents had to do to survive. It was a hard life, but a very good life filled with a love for God and family.
Have a good day and cherish your memories, life passes quickly, and then it is gone. My Dad and Mom don’t have a lot of time left, but they had a good life of hard work, family, love, and laughter.
This is a photo of my Great Grandma Abby Morton and her daughters.
My Dads only sister to survive to be an adult, Aunt Isabell, and her son Harold. She had eight brothers. All of the children except Dad have passed on to Glory. I imagine it was a great union in Heaven.
All photos used in this article were labeled free public domain and were not pirated for use.