Neither my family nor the country knew better then. Raising tobacco was a long-standing practice on farms similar to ours, and it was an important part of our income.
Our tobacco harvests of the 1950s are the ones I remember most vividly, before my older brother Nolen Robert married and left home and before I was old enough to drive our pickup truck legally. I’ll define harvest here to include the months-long process of cutting, curing, and stripping tobacco. Specifically, we started cutting tobacco in the warm and sunny days of September and finished stripping it in the dog days of winter in February when it seemed the month lasted a hundred days.
Nolen Robert and I were still smoking on the sly in the early 1950s, as I’ve reported previously. We had a different appreciation for the tobacco crop than most of our peers. We raised both Burley and dark-fired tobacco, cutting the Burley first and then the dark-fired.
We cut the often six-foot long stalks of Burley with tobacco knives and spiked them over five-foot-long sticks for hanging the plants in the barn to air cure. The dark-fired plants were about four feet long, but the leaves were larger than Burley leaves. We split the stalks with the tobacco knives, then cut them off near the ground, and slid the slit stalk over the tobacco sticks. We usually put about five plants on each stick, giving them air space after they wilted. When we hung them on the tier poles in the barns, we spaced the stalks so they wouldn’t be too close together.
Our Burley tobacco air-cured in a well-ventilated barn that protected the drying plants from the weather. Our dark-fired tobacco cured with smoke from sawdust that we carefully placed in rows on the floor. We never lost a crop of dark-fired to a barn fire, but every year we heard about farmers in the vicinity whose barns burned to the ground. Barn burning happened most often when a split stalk broke apart and the dried leaves fell into the smoldering sawdust and ignited the other plants.
Curing both types of tobacco took between three and four months. Each plant had to dehydrate so that all parts of the leaves and stalks had turned from green to brown. We checked the curing process often during this time with a conscientiousness that was similar to the way we monitored growth in the spring and summer.
Around mid-January each year we started stripping the dried tobacco leaves off the stalks. Depending on leaf size, we bunched up maybe 8-10 leaves by the stems and tied them up with a dried leaf. We folded the tie leaf from the tip and wrapped it tightly to form a head on each “hand,” finishing the tie by tucking the stem end of the leaf through one side of the hand and pulling about five inches of it out the other side.
Daddy, Mother, Nolen Robert, and I stripped the tobacco in a vacated brooder house for baby chickens behind our house. A wood stove in the center of the brooder house kept us warm as we worked, but often our fingers got so cold in the winter air that it was hard to tie a hand. After a few seconds of holding our outstretched hands toward the stove, we’d resume. We did this work whenever we could find time around our other chores, often after supper and on weekends.
We talked a lot while stripping tobacco together. We told stories, laughed, sang country and gospel songs, and Nolen Robert and I picked on each other to keep our parents alert. Some of our best family time was while we stripped tobacco, which usually took 4-6 weeks. Watching our newly acquired first TV, reading The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, or doing schoolwork were not options as we tied up those hands of tobacco leaves.
By the way, the “Leaf” part of the newspaper’s name was a carryover from when the Tobacco Leaf and the Clarksville Chronicle papers merged in 1890. Now named The Leaf Chronicle and serving a large region surrounding Clarksville, it is Tennessee’s oldest newspaper, having begun in 1808. So tobacco leaves have a long and important history where I come from.
As soon as we finished stripping tobacco, it was time to haul it to Clarksville to sell it at the tobacco warehouses. That process was interesting to watch as workers put our tobacco on low baskets that were about five feet in diameter. They knelt on the baskets and put bunches of tobacco hands under their knees and packed them down in a circular fashion.
Within days of selling our tobacco, it was time to ready that brooder house for a new shipment of baby chicks. It was also time to sow tobacco seeds in plant beds we covered with a shady canvass material to start our new plants for late spring planting. So a tobacco crop was a year-round endeavor.
Things have changed. Now we “know better” about the dangers and deadliness of tobacco than when I was a kid. Now the country and the world know better. The World Health Organization reports that tobacco remains the leading preventable cause of death worldwide, killing up to half its users, or nearly six million people annually. Smoking remains a sad type of population control if you’re looking for the silver lining to this story.
Knowing better is a start. Doing better is more of a challenge.