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After Work: Growing The Dirty Weed

…My father was a strong believer is what he called “character building experiences.” My character was the one he was fixated on. Therefore, he would teach me to farm. It’s not that he thought I’d become a farmer or a farmer’s wife; it’s that he saw a propensity in me to lie in a darkened room, fanning myself and summoning someone to fetch me a cool drink…

Dona Gibbs tells of her small role in the tobacco business. For more of Dona’s must-read columns please click on After Work in the menu on this page.

I’ve never liked the heat, especially one hot day after another. If I lived in the tropics year-round I’d take to my bed, close the shutters, slip water languidly and sigh loudly all the while fanning my pale, moist brow.

It might come as a surprise to you that I was born and brought up in the South, the rural South, in North Carolina.

We grew tobacco, not much of it, since the quota system reigned but enough of, it to make summer vacations anything but. Oh, we also raised cattle and the corn and hay to feed them, but tobacco was the most labor intensive of our small-time farming efforts.

Hot days remind me of tobacco.

My father was a strong believer in what he called “character building experiences.” My character was the one he was fixated on. Therefore, he would teach me to farm. It’s not that he thought I’d become a farmer or a farmer’s wife; it’s that he saw a propensity in me to lie in a darkened room, fanning myself and summoning someone to fetch me a cool drink.

My mother and father were both of the opinion that anything you wanted to know, why you could read up on it, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be happy to send you all manner of booklets.

Then there were always those friendly farm agents, interested neighbors full of “whut-y’all-odder-dos” and even a Primitive Baptist preacher who had studied to be an agronomist. My mother told him that agronomy would save more souls than preaching, a view that he didn’t share. He stalked off in a huff, not even thanking her for the glass of sweet tea he’d gulped down, leaning against the porch railing.

Anyway, our new farm had a tobacco allotment, so we’d raise tobacco. Immediately, my father lusted after a tobacco planter. Back in the 50s, they were primitive devices that were pulled behind a tractor and usually ridden on by mid-sized kids who fed the little tobacco plants into a slot so they were deposited into the soil.

Since we only had an acre and a quarter to plant, my mother convinced him to rent, or better yet, borrow this miraculous piece of machinery.

I took my turn on the planter. My seatmates jeered me off. My father was chagrined and the little vein did its little herky-jerky dance in his jaw.

The rains came. And more rain came, flooding the dips and hollows of what looked to have been a flat field.

The tender little plants turned up their toes in wide swathes of mud.

The crop wasn’t exactly ruined but it had been wiped out by about a third.

My father looked out.

If was a setback but he wasn’t defeated. Not yet.

“Dona, you and your mother can have the crop if you replant the washed-out areas.”

Then, as now, cash motivated me.

We replanted by hand, digging the soil with wooden pegs, fitting each plant neatly into a hole, mounding up soil and hoping. No, not praying, my mother wouldn’t have such a thing.

The tobacco grew and grew. It was North Carolina’s cash crop. Tobacco employed thousands from growing to the processing. It put my hometown of Durham on the map.

LSMTF was a phrase I learned before I could read. It meant, “Lucky Strike means fine Tobacco.”

That was the brand my father smoked. Lucky Strike came in bold graphically designed packages, which he bought by the carton and loaded, into a cigarette box holder hung on our paneled kitchen wall.

“Tobacco is a dirty weed. I like it. It satisfies no normal need. I like it, “ went the poem printed on it.

They called cigarettes “coffin nails.” Even in Durham.

Ten miles out in the county when the wind was right, I could smell the tobacco from the processing plant. To me, it smelled like money.

My dad’s reliance on booklets broke down when it came time to harvest and cure the prized Bright Leaf.

He brought in a long-time tobacco farmer, a tall laconic man with nicotine in his blood. He with the help of his family would bring in the crop for a portion of the sale.

I thought I was off the hook for putting in farming time.

Mr. Swanson, his sons, his wife, his daughter, two mules and couple of wooden sleds showed up. The mules and the sleds had to be driven over three miles from Mr. Swanson’s farm. Dear Reader, allow me to remind you, this was in the 1950s, not the 1850s.

Trestle tables blackened by ooze of nicotine were set up in the shade of the barn. The ripe tobacco was be harvested, “cropped” by hand, placed neatly in a sled, unloaded onto a tables.

Then a rough sort assembly line was set up. There were handers who assembled the leaves into neat bundles and loopers put them onto sticks. The laden sticks were carefully placed to be taken to the curing barns.

I was a hander. A neophyte. My small effort was judged. Harrumphed over.

I was always looking up to the next position. I wanted to be a looper, one of those women who in one fluid motion could take a bundle from a ten-year-old’s hand and secure to a stick with a continuous over and under weave of string. The sticks of tobacco were hung on racks in the barns. You can still find these unpainted weathered barns throughout North Carolina and Tennessee.

Late in the day, I became nauseated and dizzy. The sap was black on my hands. I was clucked over and told it was the heat.

Later I’ve come to know that I had something quite common: green tobacco sickness. It’s caused by the adsorption of nicotine through the skin.

Through many crops to come, I never advanced from hander.

I never got to take any part in the curing process. That was men’s work. All night long they’d tend the fires for North Carolina’s famous flue-cured tobacco. I suspect they also tended to jugs of corn-liquor. I never heard anyone complaining about staying up all night. There were tobacco barns that burned, sending orange sparks into the night sky. Barn fires scared me; they seemed to threaten my very existence. It was the loss of crop worth hundred, maybe thousand of dollars. A tragedy in a farming community.

After curing came the grading. Mr. Swanson, his peers said, was a pro. He smoothed out the leaves, putting the tobacco in appropriate grades: wrappers for fine cigars and fillers for others.

Then to market. Hot, dusty warehouses stood row after row. Cured tobacco was arranged in large flat-bottomed baskets, according to grade.

Again, I was given a job.

I was to sit on a basket at the beginning our farm’s offerings. The advancing group of buyers led by an auctioneer who did indeed chant, “Hey fiddy-four, fiddy four, fiddy-five..Sold to ….” I was to say winsomely,” Gentlemen, this tobacco is going to put me through college.”

I read this is a way of life that’s almost gone. Tobacco is indeed a dirty weed. There are no more tobacco quotas and price supports. There are farm labor unions that have stepped in to assist migrant laborers who harvest the crops since quotas are gone and since large farms requiring many laborers now dominate tobacco. The U.S. tobacco industry now depends on the world’s addiction to nicotine to survive.

What do I feel about my small role in the tobacco business? A little bit of pride. There is now at least one tobacco farm museum. And I have guilt, sharing in profits of someone’s addiction.

I was happy then for the cash, delighted to deposit it towards a college education.

But I never smoked.


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