Tobacco Farming, Circa 1975

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This picture is part of a tobacco history display at our local agriculture center. That boy isn’t me, but it sure could’ve been, circa 1974-75. I even had that same hat (Cale Yarborough’s Holly Farms Chevrolet for any vintage NASCAR fans).

This boy is harvesting tobacco. We call it “pulling tobacco.” He’s pulling the coveted right-hand slide row, which was my preferred row. The “slide row” is the the area wide enough for a tractor (or horse/mule) to pull a “slide” through, usually with 6-8 rows of tobacco on either side of it. The slide is the sled that the tobacco leaves were put in, to be pulled back to the barn for stringing.

Notice how the boy is wearing long sleeves, a hat and long pants. Tobacco has a tar-like film (we called it “tobacco gum”) that sticks to the hair on your arms, legs and head and is almost impossible to remove. When pulling tobacco it was therefore necessary to be fully covered, to keep off the tobacco gum, regardless of how hot it was. One difference I notice is that, while I can’t tell with certainty, it appears that this boy is wearing shoes. We always pulled in bare feet.

Notice the boy driving the tractor (which is pulling a slide). He’s standing in order to see over the steering wheel and because he can’t reach the pedals if seated. That was me too at that age.

Meanwhile back at the barn.

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This photo is from the same farm. The women are unloading the slide. That was the first job I had, when I was 7 years old. I was paid 35 cents an hour. Once I was big enough to work in the field, when I was 9, my pay jumped to $1/hour.

Once the tobacco was strung (the leaves were tied or sewed together so they’d hang over a tobacco stick), the sticks of tobacco would be hung in the barn to cure. Notice the man at the end of the stringer. His job was probably to stack the sticks of strung tobacco. He’s using a walker.

This is a picture of an entire family at work. No one was too young or too old.

That’s how we rolled back then.

It was hard work, but I cherish those memories.

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34 comments on “Tobacco Farming, Circa 1975

  1. shoreacres says:

    One of my favorite Thomas Hart Benton paintings is “The Tobacco Sorters.” I don’t know a thing about growing tobacco, so it’s really nice to have this context for the painting, as well as a glimpse into your youthful employment. In Iowa, it was corn de-tasseling, which had the great advantage of a short season for kids out of school who wanted to play, too. And, the pay was decent.

    Liked by 2 people

    • avwalters says:

      We had de-tassling, too. The season was short, but they staggered plantings to extend it as far as they could.

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks for sharing that. I’ve never seen that painting and I haven’t heard of “sorters.” But the vocabulary varies among areas, even when they’re close by, as Bob’s comment shows. The man is holding a cured leaf. Cured tobacco has a very pleasant aroma, not at all like cigarette smoke. You’ve mentioned de-tasseling before, but I’m unfamiliar with it. Had to Google it. I’ve planted, hoed, picked and shucked corn. But never de-tasseled it.

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      • nebraskadave says:

        De tasseling corn is a practice that hybrid corn growers cross pollinate corn. Two different types of corn are planted in strips across the field. The tassels are pulled off one strip so that the other strip will pollinate it. Unfortunately, the seed is patented and farmer can’t replant it the next year. It probably wouldn’t be true to the hybrid anyway. The nightmare of GMO corn is every so much worse. If GMO corn is planted next to a field normal corn and it cross pollinates. The normal corn become the property of Monsanto. How do you know if it’s been cross pollinated? I you test a few stalks by spraying round up on them and they don’t die, it belongs to Monsanto. It happened in Canada with an organic Canola grower that got contaminated. After a big court case, the organic grower had to pile up all the contaminated plants and burn them. That’s totally not right in my opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. gatheringplaceseasonfour says:

    Summer after ninth grade I went to NC forestry camp. There I learned that in the western part, families “swill” their hogs while we “slopped” the hogs (using a “slop bucket”). Similarly, ours was a tobacco “sled” and the women (and children) “tied” tobacco. This was summer 1954 and I was nine years old (enough the “hand” a set of three or four leaves at a time to the adult female who “tied” onto the tobacco stick. To help wash up, “we” used Lava (brand) soap which was gray and contained pumice. “Everybody” in this case included me and my uncle who was age eleven (that June) but not my aunt (age seven) and brother (age six). They babysat themselves, most likely. The tobacco sled was pulled by a horse named Blackie (you guess the color). The tail was swishing around and annoying Uncle Albert at the sled (or “sledge”) so Albert took out his pocket knife and cut off the tail! Short-lived anger.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      It’s interesting how different area such different words. Here we pull tobacco, but south of us (in NC) they prime it. We heist it, they house it. I’m sure there are other differences in vocabulary too.
      I learned to hand leaves that way too when I was very young. I’ve done it often. But we went to the stringer in the late 60s and only hand-tied leaves as part of clean up.
      Amen on Lava soap. That’s what we used too. It was the only thing that had a chance against the tobacco gum.
      As in your case, here the entire family worked together. That was the point I most wanted to emphasize in this post.
      Before we switched to tractors, the slides were pulled by Champ (a Clydesdale) and Mag (a grey mare). Champ was amazing. When the slide was full we could just make a clicking noise and he’d pull it back to the barn without needing a guide or rider. Mag had to be guided. A child would stand on the thing that harnessed her to the slide (I can’t remember now what it was called) holding guide ropes connected to her bridle. Amazing, in hindsight.
      Good memories.

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  3. Here in the West the childhood jobs were picking berries, as soon as school was out and continuing through summer until school took up again. It was piecework though, by the pound, so if you were lazy you didn’t make any money. I was glad to graduate to driving tractor all summer in the hay fields, That paid $2.50 per hour which was much better than .25 per pound for berries.

    Fascinating about the culture of tobacco, it is not a crop here.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Chris says:

    Cool post, Bill!

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks Chris. It’s hard for me to express how much that top photo affects me. The first time I saw it I was taken aback. I felt like I was looking at a picture of myself. Definitely brings back memories.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating – tobacco has never been grown in this area, so I know nothing about it’s harvest. They grow it back east, and I believe some of the harvesting is more automated now. Probably a mixed blessing to those who have memories like yours.

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    • Bill says:

      It’s more automated it some ways (primarily curing), but the harvesting is all still done by hand. It’s a very labor intensive crop. Nowadays the labor is done almost entirely by seasonal laborers from Mexico. I haven’t seen a family working in the field together since the early 1980’s. The kind of life shown in these pictures is completely a thing of the past now.

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  6. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, no tobacco here in Nebraska. There was a lot of hemp (marijuana) grown during World War II to make ropes. As a result we have what we call ditch weed that is a pure nuisance and during my youth years before weed spray was used, one of my jobs was to walk the corn and bean rows with a corn knife (machete) and chop down the weeds, one being hemp. It didn’t pay much but I did get room and board from my Aunt and Uncle and a life time of good memories. The wild hemp weed is not any good for recreational use and is just a real pain in the …. neck. All farmers today spray it with weed spray to keep it under control but it still seems to survive to rise again the next year. If left on it’s own, it will grow taller than head high with a stump the size of a man’s wrist. It really is an obnoxious weed. Thankfully, I don’t have any in my gardens.

    I too can remember driving the tractor while my uncle worked the pedals. The hand clutch on the John Deere tractor made it a bit easier to drive for a young lad of 10 or 11. By 12 I was doing all the tractor tasks of farming. My Dad even let me farm his homestead of 80 acres. Plowed, disked, harrowed, and cultivated the corn. My uncle planted and harvested the corn as Dad didn’t have the equipment to do that. It was a great time of life.

    Have a great tobacco farming history day.

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    • Bill says:

      One of the greatest inventions of our time is power steering on tractors. When we moved back to the farm I bought a 38 hp Kubota. I was blown away at how easy it was to steer, after all those years of fighting tractor steering wheels.

      Us young’uns (I don’t think I ever heard a child called a “kid” until I left home for college) would compete to see who got to drive the tractor to the field. We’d be waiting at the end of the row for the sky to brighten enough for us to see well enough to start pulling. By then we’d already milked the cows, hitched everything up and had breakfast. Those were good days.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. avwalters says:

    My first impression was “Children!” Then I remembered back — as kids we picked berries, a full season of them, starting with strawberries, then blueberries, raspberries and thimbleberries, and back to raspberries again. (Then apples!) So I don’t know that things were much different. By the time you were twelve or thirteen, you could de-tassle corn for the hybrid operations–which I did, because the pay was good. A babysitter could make 50 cents and hour–de-tassling was $1.85. Thanks for the memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      It’s just what you did. I don’t ever recall feeling that our childhood was different or abnormal. I do recall once when a city-dwelling cousin visited in the summer and finding it strange that he wore shoes. We took ours off when school ended and only put them back on for church until it was time to go back to school.

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      • avwalters says:

        I had barefoot summers, too. Not all my friends did, but I thought that they were odd. I remember walking down the center of the road, on the white lines, because it was cooler on my feet. There wasn’t any traffic, anyway….

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  8. That tobacco work looks hard! I really love the color in those pictures – reminds me of the cookbooks I read in the 70’s.
    From age 10 I babysat, mowed lawns, cleaned houses and by age 13 I was catering my mom’s friends dinner parties. I loved making money and buying stuff for my “hope chest” but not in the traditional sense of hoping to be married someday. I bought pots, pans, a Cuisinart, etc… for mine. I couldn’t wait to be grown up with my own apartment, throwing my own dinner parties and attending college.

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    • Bill says:

      I regret the glare in the first picture. If I’d notice that when I took it I would taken another one.

      We were always expected to earn enough money in the summer to pay for our school clothes, books and lunches (if we wanted to buy them at school). I was always able to do that and have money left over to save for college. It was a good way to learn financial discipline.

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  9. EllaDee says:

    Similar time and setting but in Australia in a banana plantation could have been my husband… and even though banana farming hasn’t suffered for the same reasons of tobacco it’s no longer the commercially viable small farm enterprise it once was in our area… you can see bare evidence on the side of the hills where the patches once were.
    My grandparents had a small dairy and beef farm, and raised a family on it.
    I think we’ve lost a way of life that wasn’t easy but it had merit and bestowed the benefits of work ethic, community and rural lifestyle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Yes, I completely agree. And is there any other example of a family working together like that? On a working family farm (in those days) everyone worked together–from the youngest to the oldest. We have lost that now (even if in exchange for things that have plenty of merit) and that’s unfortunate.

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  10. BeeHappee says:

    Loved this, Bill. Tobacco is so foreign to me, so these pics and memories are really interesting.
    My kids recently had been pretending they are smoking or chewing tobacco, not sure where they got it, but keep playing that game, so we talked a bit about the tobacco plants, the chewers and the spitters, and while we do not get to see that much around Chicago, I worked with plenty of southern gentlemen who used to sit through business meetings with the spit cup. I never knew of the tar-like film while picking tobacco.

    Of kids and jobs, we watched ladies cleaning pig entrails yesterday to prep for sausages, I remembered that it used to be a kids job in the old country. 🙂 Age 5-7 we’d be ’employed’ full force, from harvesting, to cleaning, sorting, animal care, you name it. We had feed beets and the boy image reminds me how we used to pick feed beet leaves for pigs. Pick up a batch just like that, then cut them in a special chopper that you spin and blade cuts them, and then throw them to the pigs.
    We talk of those days as overusing kids and child labor, and ironically at the same time many progressive educators today had pointed out that play AND meaningful work is critical to child development.

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    • Bill says:

      Yes indeed. We had plenty of time to play, while also being a part of meaningful work. It makes me wonder how children spend their summer days now, with no work to do.

      By current standards we started work very young of course. But that was the norm then. My mother became the cook in her family at age 7. And because they were still cooking on a wood stove that meant that she had to cut the wood too. She cooked 3 meals a day for her family her entire childhood. My grandmother helped of course, but in addition to being farmers they were also storekeepers and she had to tend the store. I suppose that it is “progress” that children aren’t expected to contribute to the household work anymore, but I do wonder if we aren’t taking away something that might be important to human development.

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  11. hamertheframer says:

    Back in the day Golden Virginia was always my favourite hand-rolling tobacco, but I never knew it was you who pulled it! I’m not sure if I should thank you!

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    • Bill says:

      I’ve never used tobacco so I can’t vouch for the quality of ours, but I’ve been told by reputable sources that it’s the best. These days tobacco is still being grown here, even though it can be produced far more cheaply in Africa and Brazil. A friend who is closely connected to industrial ag told me that the reason the tobacco companies still want our tobacco is that the quality is the best in the world and there is a demand for it.

      I once handled a case for the Fuente family (of cigar fame). I asked Carlos Fuente (the patriarch) why Cuban tobacco is so prized. He said it was because of the soil. I asked him what kind of soil they had and when he started describing it I said his description reminded me of our soil in Virginia. He (not having know I was Virginian) exclaimed, “Virginia has the best tobacco soil in the world!”.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. smcasson says:

    That pulling looks like the better quality way to do it. They “cut” the stalk at the bottom with machetes here and turn them upside down, standing the stalks against each other in groups of three like drunks, after “topping” the flowers off a few weeks prior. Then the stalk is speared onto a tobacco stick and thrown on the wagon to take to the barn. They hang and dry as a whole plant until they are ready for pulling and pressing to ferment.
    Pulling in the field would keep the biggest, bottom leaves from becoming “sand lugs”.
    I don’t know of any mechanization of the tobacco process, except for greenhouses with mowers for the tobacco plugs (seedlings), tobacco setters to plant the seedlings, and air cylinders to press the leaves into bales at the end of the process. Hard, hot work. Not for me.

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    • Bill says:

      The process you’re describing is for burley tobacco, which is what they grow in Kentucky. Here we grow bright leaf tobacco, which is much more labor intensive. I helped cut burley tobacco once and it’s a lot easier than pulling our way. Bending over while walking down rows pulling tobacco all day long is no fun for the back and knees. 🙂

      As I recall burley is air-dried. That’s a lot less work than fire-curing the way we used to do too.

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      • smcasson says:

        I bow to your greater knowledge… I think burley tobacco sounds familiar for what is grown here. Yes, it’s hung in barns and air dried.

        Like

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