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!