“Puttin’ in Tobacco”…

I’m feeling nostalgic today, so bear with me as I take another trip down memory lane.  Today I’d like to talk a bit about something called, “Puttin’ in tobacco.”  If you are from the country, you may already know a little about this, but if you are from the city, you just might learn something new!

Since we both grew up in a farming community, my husband, Ed, and I have spent lots of time in and around fields during our lifetime.  As youngsters, we both worked in tobacco, which used to be a “big money” crop around here.  Of course, this was way back in the dark ages, before scientists figured out that using tobacco can and will kill you!

Ed’s daddy was a farmer, and he grew tobacco early in his farming days.  There was once a tobacco barn here on the family farm, but it burned to the ground a long, long time ago.  This seemed to be the common fate of a lot of tobacco barns, back in the day.  Faulty burners, I suppose.

These days, our oldest son’s home is located near the former sight of the old tobacco barn.  Unless someone told you, you’d never know a barn ever existed there.

 (The photo below is not the old family barn, but I wanted to show how tobacco barns used to look.)

Ed has helped in all aspects of working with tobacco, while I, on the other hand, have only watched the process of picking and stringing tobacco because I was too young to do otherwise, at the time.  I used to tag along and watch my grandfather’s field helpers at work–wishing I was old enough to help.

I watched in awe as the workers walked through the field snapping off those leaves from the bottom of the tall tobacco plants.  (the bottom leaves were always harvested first, and they were referred to as “sand lugs”)  The tobacco was then placed into a sled which was being pulled by a tractor (see top photo).  Once the sled was full, it was taken to the barn where workers would take the tobacco leaves, and wrap them with string, onto long skinny tobacco sticks (see photo below).    The entire operation was done by hand.

Once the tobacco was strung, someone would carefully climb high into the barn to hang up those sticks filled with tobacco!  The sticks of tobacco were hung on tiers, beginning up in the top of the barn, then coming downward.  This whole process, from picking in the field,  to hanging the tobacco in the barn, was referred to as “Puttin’ in tobacco”.

Once the barn was filled to capacity, the barn door was shut and the burners were turned on. Thus began the “curing process”.  After many days, the tobacco would be “cured” and ready for removal from the barn.  The leaves were green when they went into the barn, but were a beautiful golden color when they came out.

I was old enough to take the cured tobacco off the stick (about age 10), and I was pretty darn good at it because my arms were very long!   Taking off tobacco was a fairly simple process consisting of putting the end of the stick (filled with strung tobacco) into a home-made “holder”, then removing the dried tobacco from the stick.

I would begin the process by breaking the string on the end of the stick, then “unlacing” the dried tobacco from each side of the stick–left, right, left, right…  The longer your arms were, the less often you had to stop to break the string!  When I stopped to break the string, I’d have to lay my hands full of tobacco down on a tobacco sheet,  which had been spread out for this purpose.  The tobacco was always laid on the sheet in the form of a circle.  It was stacked up higher and higher until the sheet was so full it wouldn’t hold any more.  Then the sheet was tied up around the tobacco, into a neat bundle.  These bundles would later be loaded on trucks, and taken to the tobacco market and sold.

Working in tobacco is not for the “faint hearted”, because it’s hot, smelly, and dirty work.  The smell of cured tobacco tends to burn your nose while you are working with it!   Tobacco leaves are also sandy(especially those bottom leaves known as sand lugs), and I always wondered why anyone would want to put something that dirty in their mouths!

I got paid a penny for every stick of tobacco I took off.  I’d happily count my empty tobacco sticks at the end of the day to total up my earnings.  If we didn’t finish taking off all of the tobacco in one day, we’d keep a tally of our sticks and add the following day’s total to it.  It took a long time to earn a dollar, but I was very proud of each one I earned!  Oh those were the days…

It’s been nearly 50 years since I worked in tobacco.  There are very few fields of tobacco around here anymore, and of course, nobody does anything by hand!  I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to experience harvesting tobacco in my lifetime–but thank the Lord, I’ve never had any desire to smoke any!

Have a great day!

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Published in: on February 21, 2012 at 12:34 am  Comments (10)  
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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for the trip back in time. It was interesting to learn about the tobacco growing and harvesting process. I live in South Carolina and occasionally see some of the old tobacco barns still up, in the middle of fields. It used to be a huge “industry” in this state. As was rice, and indigo. I still drive by a bunch of cotton fields – and I love to see the white cotton on the ground right after harvesting. The “leftovers” blanket the field like snow.

  2. We were once friends with a couple who grew up on tobacco farms in eastern Kentucky. 20 years ago, we spent a weekend visiting the area where he grew up … there were still some tobacco farms then. I’m guessing there probably aren’t as many now.

  3. Never knew this as I grew up in the city in the North East. Nice History lesson.

  4. That’s really cool … my family (some of them) were mint farmers – out West. Very Intersting! Stopping in from the hop today … would love a follow via Google+ and GFC … BTW … I could really use some answers to my post today – if you have the time please stop by and comment  thanks! http://www.shaunanosler.blogspot.com

  5. That was very interesting. And, I’m like you, I wonder why anyone would want to smoke something so harsh and stinky. I’m proud to say that I’ve never smoked and never will. 😦

    You can still see the occasional run-down tobacco barn around here. It always reminds me of my Grandaddy Todd, who also had a tobacco farm. Whenever I pass by one of the old barns, I have to smile. It’s a sweet reminder of a sweet man. 🙂

    I know what you mean as far as being old enough to join in with what the adults were doing. When I was a little girl, no matter what my daddy was doing, I always wanted to be a part of it. I was definitely a Daddy’s Girl. 🙂

    Thanks again for the story. Hope you’re having a great week. 😀

  6. I love to hear stories such as these…I love to look at old photographs (even if they are not of anyone I knew personally) and when I do, I always wish there was a narrative to go with them :o) …I love to look at old photos whenever we go to antique stores too…

    Thank you for sharing this story… we would pass old tobacco barns when we lived in Kentucky and still do whenever we would drive up to see our kids in Kentucky, now that we live in Georgia.

    Blessings & Aloha!
    Can’t keep up or recall if I already stopped by to say thank you for your lovely visit! If not, thank you for your greetings for our 30th anniversary.

  7. What a great post! I love the photos you chose. I wish I never started to smoke, I am so glad I was able to quit 2 years ago.
    Stop by I tagged you:)

  8. That was so interesting. Thank you for sharing your story.

  9. We “barned tobacco” instead of “putting in” but I worked right along with my mama in the green and cured tobacco and like you I took off the tobacco for one penny per stick! My mama and grandma sorted and tied the tobacco for market. Yes, the tobacco was sticky and cold and wet some mornings and the dry tobacco, especially “sand lugs” made me sneeze like crazy but it was work. We always bought our school clothes with money made in tobacco as well. It taught you good work ethics. I did try smoking with some of my friends but it made me sick and I threw up☺ Was very thankful for that in the long run! After I married, I also worked in my father-in-law’s tobacco on a harvester, a sewing machine and at the bulk barns. The suckering was about the worse to me. We also had to go row by row to “set up” the tobacco stalks after a storm if we were using a harvester. Was so thankful for any job away from the tobacco fields!

  10. The Photo above is actually of my Mother and my Uncle while working in tobacco as children. The barn is in Vance County, NC.


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