The smell of tobacco curing in my neighbor’s barns brings back a lot of good memories from my childhood. I think back on the days when my siblings, my cousins and I spent our summers working on my grandparents’ farm.

My first jobs were at the barn (for which I was paid 35 cents per hour). By the time I was eight years old, I was working in the field. Our pay rose with our skill. I was making $2/hour when I finally was old enough to get a drivers license and the ability to take a fast food job in town. The minimum wage was $3.60/hour then–so along with my city job came a very nice raise. In the summer I worked both jobs. We were expected to pay for our own school books and clothes. That had been true for as long as I can remember.

Pulling tobacco (Steve Walton)

This isn’t me, but it could have been. It’s a friend of mine who lived on the farm next to ours. That’s his brother driving the tractor. Nowadays tractors have safety shutoffs that prevent the tractor from operating if there is no one sitting in the seat. But we couldn’t reach the pedals or see over the steering wheel if we sat down. Those shut offs aren’t designed for the way we worked back then.

A few days ago I posted my nostalgic comment about the curing barn smell on Facebook. I expected my childhood friends to agree with me. I was surprised at the reaction. Several were like this: “When I turned 16 I swore that I’d never work in a tobacco field again. I’ve kept that promise.” My friend in the photo is a high school teacher now. His comment on his photo was something like, “This is the reason I went to college.”

Well, I still look back fondly on those days. We worked hard, but we worked together as family. We learned a work ethic. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything.

If our aging backs could stand it, I wouldn’t mind putting the old crew back together and trying to see if we could still do it.

13 comments on “Pulling

  1. shoreacres says:

    To paraphrase Pascal, the back has its reasons which the brain will never know. The value of that kind of work was far more than the thirty-five cents or two dollars that was earned. You know that, and I know that, and most readers of your blog know that, but our nation seems to be a little fuzzy on the concept.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Yes, exactly. Even my friends who were saying how glad they were not to have to do that kind of work anymore all admitted that they had benefited from that kind of childhood. When I was growing up, the start of school would be delayed if the crops hadn’t been harvested yet. Now they start up in early August and the agricultural seasons are irrelevant.


  2. Scott says:

    You can’t stand and operate a new tractor? I stand on mine all the time; better to see the edges of sinkholes, etc that way. I do not see myself buying anything newer than the last all-mechanical tractors of the 90s. I have a 70s IH 464 gas now. My friend down the road still operates an old Ford like you pictured (can’t tell the difference between the 2N, 9N etc).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well hey, as the old saying goes; It’s not the year, it’s the hours (and the old ones, well “they just don’t make ’em like that any more” was never more true than with farm machinery; )


    • Bill says:

      There are work-arounds. You can disable to detector. Some folks just duct-tape the sensor button down. If I need to stand to see over the front of the tractor, I put one hand on the back of the seat and press it down while standing. A few years ago we had an intern who was a petite young woman. She couldn’t do tractor work because she had to lift off the seat to push in the clutch, shutting the tractor off when she did. I offered to fix it for her (even though I was a little concerned about liability if something happened to her after I’d disconnected a safety feature). She declined and just gave up trying to learn to drive the tractor.

      Lots of old tractors still in service here. I have a Kubota 3830 and it was very helpful in the early years. I wish I had a old Farmall 140 for gardening. Those go for a pretty penny these days.


  3. ‘Baccy-stained fingers an’ all?
    While I never worked tobacco, a lot of my neighbours and school friends did and I still remember their comments about trying to get CLEAN after topping all day… But, having said that, it’s not the what, it’s the WHO which we enjoy while working. (Made the days pass with fun and camaraderie, no matter what the job; )


    • Bill says:

      We had to wear long sleeves and hats to keep the tobacco gum off our hair (like my friend in the picture). It’s impossible to get out of hair. We washed our hands with Comet and Lava soap to try to get the stains off of our hand, but they never came all the way off. That’s just the way it was.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, oh, yeah, the smells of childhood. We didn’t grow tobacco in Nebraska but the hay smells are what I remember and certain weeds that we had to cut out of the corn rows. Back then sprays weren’t used and teens were hired to walk the rows with a corn knife. (Similar to a machete) Cockle-burs, wild sunflowers, and any other weed that didn’t get cultivated out were chopped out. Still today teens are hired to de-tassel corn for the hybrid companies. When I was a teen the rows were walked but now they have tractor mounted booms with seats to sit on as the tassels are cut off. A lot of things have changed from 50 years ago. I really liked the hard work of farming so it’s not any surprise that in retirement I returned to the hard work of raised bed gardening.

    Have a great time remembering the good old days.


    • Bill says:

      AV mentions de-tasseling corn too. I did lots of jobs on the farm when I was a kid, but that one is new to me.

      I used to hate working in the garden. We had to do that in the heat of the afternoon, after spending all morning working in tobacco. Funny how things have changed. Now working in the garden seems like fun to me.


  5. avwalters says:

    We detassled corn for the hybrid companies. It paid $1.80 an hour–well over what I could make babysitting. The hours were long and grueling, but the season was short. Because my mum wouldn’t let me miss school, I never worked the tomatoes, or in the cannery. In the corn fields we wore long sleeves and jeans, even in the heat. The alternative would be a nasty case of corn rash. Every year there’d be a few who’d come in cut-offs and shirtless (or in bikini tops for the girls.) They’d only last a day or two. Either the corn rash got them, or they figured out that in head high corn, they weren’t going to get to work on their tans.


    • Bill says:

      I’m laughing thinking of the kids who expected to get tans. We had to cover ourselves to keep the tobacco gum off. But unlike my friend Steve in the picture, we worked barefoot (feet never touched the tobacco). I remember when one of our city cousins came to work on the farm one summer. We thought it was freaky that he wore shoes in the summer. My feet were so tough then from going barefoot all summer that I could outrun him on a gravel road, me barefoot and him wearing shoes. 🙂


      • avwalters says:

        Barefoot? Not for detailing. But as a younger kid, it was a point of pride to avoid shoes in summer. After the last day of school, we’d vow, “No shoes until after Labour Day.” (Well, maybe occasionally flip flops.) I remember walking down the center of the road, because the paint on the center line was cooler than the asphalt.

        Liked by 1 person

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