Gardening is a passion for many. It’s also an education. Living in the suburbs today, I now realize my first summer jobs in tobacco were an education on a grand scale.
But when you are sweating it out along a sandy trail between endless rows of voluptuous green, you don’t recognize the perspective it gives to one’s view of the world from then on.
Let me tell you about growing this insidious, but historic, magnificent plant.
Norfolk County is a sandy-loam, verdant garden on the north shore of Lake Erie. It’s recognizable on any map by the 22-mile spit of sandbar called Long Point that hooks into the center of the lake. Flying from Chicago to Toronto, you can see the milky currents wrapping around it from the air.
Today tobacco is a small fraction of the agriculture in Norfolk, but from the 1920’s up to the ’70s, tobacco farms neatly patched the landscape, rich in wealth and long in work.
A 100 acre tobacco farm could furnish a family nicely, provide for a new car every few years, fund college, build barns and also buy a trip off to Florida for a well earned vacation in the winter. It would take a 1,000 acre wheat farm to deliver the same income.
But making that all come together required interminably long work, accented by brilliant sun on hot sandy fields.
In late March the growers steam the greenhouses, getting them warm and moist to germinate microscopic tobacco seeds which are sprinkled across rich, black dirt like poppy seeds. These grow to 12-inch shoots by May, ready to be pulled and planted.
The shoots are planted from behind a tractor. Two workers, usually women, sit on a frame and feed plants into a steel wheel that parts the sandy soil into a furrow, drops the tobacco plant, and then closes the furrow behind.
You can plant more than 10,000 shoots in one acre.
Early June and school’s out, and summer jobs begin to blossom, just as the adolescent tobacco plants are spreading their first leaves, called “sand leaves”. All manner of weeds try to overtake the tobacco. Our first serious job is to scrape a hoe between each plant, spaced roughly 18 inches apart.
It’s 7 in the morning, and we are at the edge of the field. Mourning doves are cooing, off in the bordering woods, and the air is fresh with the scent of dew evaporating on the tobacco.
Hoeing is a walking activity. Wearing a hat, shirtless, and in shorts, I shuffle along a row carefully carving out weeds between the tobacco. There’s a million plants, shared by five workers: me and 4 women.
It’s painstaking work. If careless, the hoe will cut the tobacco plant, which will cost the grower money, and that can be painful.
Most memorable along these interminable rows was the unceasing chatter among the workers, sharing stories from family fortune to family scandal. As the youngest in the group, and as the only male, my role was to listen, and take the jibes from the women.
Then there’s replanting for dead and missing plants. Toting a six-quart basket with new plants and a water tank strapped to my shoulder, a replanter punches a hole in the furrow, drops a plant down the chute, pulls a lever on the chute and a cup of water is dispensed.
Replanting is my punishment for hoeing a plant under, a week ago.
My recollection of this job is twofold: the rows are unending, and the cold water from the farm’s well, pumped by a windmill, is heavily laced with sulphur. After 10 in the morning, the sun is high. The body dries up pretty quickly, and water breaks were serious and necessary. Gulping down a pint of icy sulphur water is a challenge.
By 3 in the afternoon, staring along the next row, the heat waves make the woodlot at the other end a shimmering green plasma. No matter; we work until 4:30 or so. After a few days of hoeing, the frigid sulphur water tastes sweet.
Next, we cultivate. The tractor pulls a wheeled, steel frame manned with two guys, heads down, hands controlling little rakes, zigging and zagging between each plant, digging out a second round of weeds. Great for building your pecs and ceps.
I drive the tractor. This is hot work, roasting slowly over a 6-cylinder diesel Massey Ferguson. So hot and monotonous that I fall asleep behind the wheel. I have driven across three rows before I wake to the scowls and groans of the boss’s sons who are zig zagging behind me.
The upside of walking or driving down countless rows is finding a handful of ancient arrow heads and prehistoric farm tools along the way, remnants from the Tuscarora that long since have moved on.
Every day the tobacco continues to sprout new leaves as it shoots skyward.
When the plants have mushroomed to shoulder high, we take a brisk walk down the rows topping off the flowers to encourage a fuller plant.
August brings heat and showers, and cooler nights. The tobacco plant has about twenty broad leaves, stands a good 5-6 feet high, 3 feet across, and is rich green and aromatic. The leaves are as large as tennis rackets, and along the stems, they sweat beads of juice which turns to black tar on the hands after a while.
The harvest begins. On my first tobacco summer, 1965, we had 5 “primers”…pickers from South Carolina. They walked the rows, hunched over, pulling leaves, starting with the sand leaves. They earned this name as their bottom sides are coated with sand. It’s seven-days-a-week work, because the crop is an unstoppable force, growing as fast as it can.
The primers pull off the leaves, usually about three per plant, and tuck them under their arm until they have a bundle of 30-40 bunched up like stacks of green newspaper. Standing up, they bring the leaves over to a horse-drawn tobacco “boat” that follows in the row.
The boat was on wooden runners, and pulled by a tired horse who probably wondered daily how he ended up here sweating in the field. The primers were sympathetic, but not kind, and pretty course with their language for the old gentleman who didn’t need the work.
The priming crew will go through the hundreds of rows of tobacco 3 or 4 times to pick all the leaves as they mature.
When the boat is full, at the end of a row, it’s winched onto a trailer and tractored back to the tobacco kiln. In Norfolk, we called them “kills”.
A typical tobacco kiln stands about 20 feet high, and 25 feet square. Usually covered in green tar paper with red doors, these cube-like structures dot the landscape. Every farm has at least 7 kilns, one for every day of curing required.
But before the tobacco is placed in the kiln, the leaves are sewn onto sticks, each about 4 feet long.
It used to be that tobacco was hand-tied onto the stick. About three tobacco leaves were half-hitched at a time by their stems, by a lady using a continuous string. A good tier could tie about 10 pounds of leaves onto a stick in about a minute.
Sometime in the 60s, someone invented the more contemporary tying machine. This is a conveyor belt with an industrial stitcher.
Three ladies run the machine. The first pulls a bed of 20 leaves, by their stems, onto the belt, and as the belt moves along, she grabs another set of leaves for the next bundle. Lady #2 would lay down some more leaves, plus a tobacco stick, and pulls some more leaves on to cover the stick. Lady #3 continues laying on leaves as the stick goes by, under a roller, and under the stitcher. It delivers 10 pounds of leaves straddling the stick. All to the rise and fall of a conversation that flows with the chatter of the stitching machine.
The ladies turn out 2-3 sticks a minute.
These leafy sandwiches are sent up a second conveyor into the kiln. The kiln hanger, who is me, waits at the other end, standing on a shaky row of 2 x 10 boards, loosely resting between two beams, 15 feet above the dirt floor. I grab the stick by its middle, and suspend it in notches between two beams over my head.
There’s enough time to walk on the boards to the notches, place the stick, and get back for the next stick.
Occasionally I miss a notch, or a stick breaks, and it plummets to the ground, crashing on the beams below and landing in a pile of leaves like a great wounded bird, with green feathers everywhere.
When a row is finished, I move the 2 by 10s to another position, either below or above me, and climb into position. The conveyor is moved, raised or lowered. The conveyor jumps into motion. One wrong step and I join the bird.
At the end of the day, all of the doors of the kiln have been closed snugly over the bulging sticks of tobacco. 1200 sticks, 6 tons of tobacco, wet.
Harvest takes about 5 weeks, finishing after Labor Day, unless we get frost early.
Standing in the doorway of the kiln and looking up, I see a mouse’s eye-view of a beautifully trimmed forest of leaves, in hundreds of orderly rows, hung like romaine lettuce, ready for baking. Early in the harvest, those leaves drop millions of grains of sand, so an upward look usually ends up with watery eyes.
In the early days of tobacco curing, hot open flame oil burners were lit below the leaves. This is flue-curing. A harvest never went by without a dozen kilns going up in smoke and flames, a spectacular, punishing and frightening sight, all at the same time.
During the 60s someone got the idea to have forced air blown through an external furnace, and into the kiln, removing the threat of fire. A local entrepreneur made a fortune manufacturing the blowers for all the kilns in Norfolk.
The tobacco is flue-cured in the kiln for about 7 days. Warm, dry air is circulated bottom to top among the leaves. By day seven, it is golden and smells sweet and peppery. Each leaf has given up a cup of water, and has shrunk to the dimension of a tired dish towel.
Late after supper on the 7th day, or early in the cool dark morning of the 8th day, a crew brings a wagon up to the kiln, and gingerly unloads the kiln. They gently lay the sticks of tobacco down on the wagon bed, being careful not to damage the leaves. The kiln is ready for a new batch.
I have personally touched, hung, or cultivated every one of the leaves in this kiln. By summer’s end, I have loaded 40 kilns.
The harvest is pulled to the tobacco barn where it will remain until stripping, sometime in November. The sticks and tobacco string are stripped from the leaves which are then bound into bales the size of a kitchen microwave.
I never saw the stripping process, but reportedly, it occurs in a hot, humid room which forces the strippers to shuck off their clothes after a while. The event is aptly named, and there are tales of racy, raunchy humor surrounding it.
Sometime in January, the growers take their bales to auction, and there they are sold to cigarette manufacturers like Imperial Tobacco, Rothman’s and MacDonald Stewart, whose Canadian customers prefer the Ontario flue-cured leaf, much different than the tobacco that comes from the southern states. Today, that market has been dwarfed by the far east, where smoking is more popular, and less regulated.
The “dutch auction” is an unusual process. A ceiling price is first established, and then the single hand of a clock spins slowly through descending prices. The first buyer to hit their buy button wins the grower’s lot.
From the auction house the grower’s tobacco is trucked to the factory. In my hometown of Delhi, the Imperial plant was on the south side.
By early February and March the plant was processing tobacco, and when a warm south wind blew across town, there was a pervasive, mildly exciting, sweet earthy fragrance that tickled the nose. Unforgettable, 50 years later.
As I said at the outset, tobacco is a magnificent plant, and troubling too. I have no use for it, and can’t recommend it. Still, a good crop is a work of discipline, and there isn’t a day that those priceless memories of demanding, careful labor, delivering a harvest–a real summer job–don’t come to visit.
And I like to garden, too.
Thanks for reading! This was as long as some of those rows. It’s been years since my days in Norfolk. I can’t forget the smell and feel of the countryside. It’s sweet and distant, and I always like to go back to visit. Who says you can’t go home again?
5 thoughts on “Tobacco, Gardening and Growing Up”
Pingback: Tobacco, Gardening and Growing Up | Phil Brown | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS
Hi Phil, Reading your article “Tobacco, Gardening and Growing Up” evoked memories for me too. I was born on the Main Street of a town in Hampshire, UK. In 1959 I sailed to Canada to visit my Sister who had met and married a Canadian soldier during the second WW. They lived in Tillsonburg , Southern Ontario. I arrived as the Tobacco Harvest was just about to start, so I decided I would get a job as a Leaf Handler. I was 21 and had trained as a Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineer and had never visited a Farm or even put my foot into a field before and I didn’t own a single pair of trousers. I was horrified when my Sister said I couldn’t work in the harvest wearing a skirt. It’s hard to imagine but trousers weren’t considered fashionable in England in those days. So I was forced to purchase a couple of pairs of Jeans, by the end of the Harvest I was happily wearing shorts. One of my Brother-in-law’s best friends assured me that an English girl working in the Tobacco Harvest the hard work would kill me and he was nearly right. Every evening during the Harvest he phoned to ask if I was ready to quit and laying on the living room floor in agony I would assure him I was fine and enjoying the challenge of a farm worker. I worked with a mixture of Polish, Dutch, Mexican and 2 Portuguese primers who couldn’ understand anything I said, but we had a lot of fun and laughs. One day the poor horse pulled a loads of leafs to the end of a row and dropped dead, which meant we all had to much in and try and get the leaves picked and the Kiln filled, it was dark before we managed that and everyone was extremely tired. At the end of the summer I returned to the UK and a job as an Engineerp. By 1969 my Sister and her Husband were living on a Farm growing Tobacco, so I returned to Canada, worked on their Farm during Harvest, Stripping, Grading, Packaging and going to the Auctions when the Tobacco was sold. During Harvest I also helped my sister prepare and cook 3 hot meals a day for all the Help who lived in a Barn on the Farm and ate in the Basment of the House. I then came home to the UK to sell my House intending to return to live permanently in Canada. I realised I needed to make some money while waiting for the house sale to be completed and I got a short term contract working for IBM. Then Fate took a Hand, I met my future Husband, was offered a permanent job with the Company and I never returned to live in Canada although I always managed a trip every year to see my Canadian Family and many Friends. Working for an American Company meant I was very lucky and could sometime travel via Canada to various locations the USA. One year I was in Tillsonburg 3 Times. My Husband and I still consider Tillsonburg our second home, but we realise we could not in old age take the extreme cold Winters. In a London Taxi one day the driver said he was from Macedonia where his Family Grew Tabbaco. He was then amazed that an Englishwoman would know anything about growing Tabacco and we chatted back and forth about the different practies in both countries. When we arrived at our destination he told my Husband he had driven a Taxi in London for 19 years and had never ever enjoyed talking to an English person about Tobacco, especially a woman. I took it as a great compliment.
Thank You Phil I enjoyed reading your article it remembered me of all the happy times I have spent in Canada. Kind Regards, Jeannie Keen, Southampton, UK
Hi Jeannie! Your tale gave me a tingle! We have a lot in common, coincidentally. My father was from Hythe, Kent and met my mom in New York in 1943. He was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and a dentist on the HMS Glasgow. They married, and returned to Cornwall, England for the remainder of the war before choosing to emigrate to Canada. His very first job here was working at the Experimental Farm which tested out new strains of Virginia tobacco. Once he established his practice, and built a house, it was all Delhi, all the time.
I too have moved from my hometown, and now live north of Chicago in a Village called Libertyville. Here’s a story about it: http://wp.me/p41ooi-Po . My serious summer jobs were working in tobacco and also building tobacco barns and kilns. We lived in the country during my young years, and enjoyed the rural life immensely. My education was immersed in the mixed culture of Hungarians, Belgians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Czechs, Polish, German and English families. All good, all richly alive in their immigrant status.
The weather here is probably cooler than Southampton, but it’s not extreme. Just the politics! Thanks for writing, and I am glad you enjoyed my post.
Hi Phil, Sending More “Tingles” Your Way…. it’s a small world !!!
When we moved to our current home over 30 years ago our neighbour Dick who lives two doors away arranged a drinks party and invited all our other neighbours so we could get to know them. Dick told us his Sister lived in Vancouver and I said my Family lived in Southern Ontario to which Dick replied He was once sent to work in Courtland, Ontario for a while. I was amazed because in those days apart from my Niece and her Husband living there it was nothing much more than a Cross Roads, with a Motel, a very good Austrian Resturant (long since gone unfortunately) and the excellent Courtland Bakery, which attracted customers from far and wide who purchase their amazing range of home made breads and delicious Pastries, which happily is still thriving.
It turned out Dick was a Research Scientist who worked for The British American Tobacco Company who had a large factory in Southampton. Dick had been sent to work at The Tobacco Research Laboratory just south of Courtland we should have guessed as my Sister and Brother in Law had a Cottage on Long Point, so we knew the area well.
Second “Tingle” In the 1970’s I worked in the UK for an American Company who won the Contract to supplied the Centrifuges for all the DLG 42 fleet of Destroyers that we’re being built in different Shipyards in the UK. I was responsible for overseeing the manufacture and installation of 9 large Centrifuges which were used to refine the Lub Oil in the engine rooms on every vessel. if my memory serves me right (I have cheated and looked on Wikipedia) the ships were the Sheffield, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow, Cardiff, Exeter. Southampton, Liverpool and The Nottingham. The HMS GLASGOW was ordered in November 1971 and launched in April 1976. So your Father might have served on a previous HMS GLASGOW as the Navy do reuse ships names.
Third “Tingle”, Tony and I married in Langdon Hall in Cambridge and invited just our Canadian Family. My sister was horrified and asked what about all our many Friends in the area and reminded me that her late Husband had always said if we would get married in Canada he would pay for the Wedding. So 3 days later my Sister and Niece arrange a second reception at The Hungarian Hall in Delhi and invited 90 guests. We have many happy memories of celebrations at the Hungarian Hall, the Polish Hall and The Belgium Hall in Delhi.
I never cease to be amazed at how many coincidences happen to me, my best friends Husband always says it because I have already met half the population of the world, which of course isn’t true.
Kind Regards, Jeannie and Tony
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Hah! The tingle meter is now banging itself to smithereens on the wall here. I was just looking at an archival document of the experimental farm. I will retrieve the URL for you. Dick will remember Leigh Vickery who was a good family friend of ours.
It also turns out I was looking at a Google Earth map of Courtland over the weekend. Courtland was the only community that had a swimming pool in the 50s, so our Church would have a Sunday school outing there every summer. The pool site has not moved, but it probably has a new pool, judging by the racing lines.
Glad you put in the centrifuges on the later HMS Glasgow. We took Dad aboard it when it visited Toronto Harbour in the 80s.
Langdon Hall in Cambridge is named for the Langdon family, whose son Steven was a school mate with me at Trinity College, U of T. He later went on to lead the New Democratic Party (Labour) in Ontario. Being a conservative person, I didn’t vote for Steven, but still, there you go!
The Hungarian Hall was where my older brother had to take ballroom dancing instruction. Fortunately, I was able to escape that ordeal.
So: the final tingle in this serendipitous discussion is that there is a possibility of some cosmic alignment in space-time that places us in similar geographies. No doubt, Stephen Hawking could have explained it, had he not passed away while we were discussing it!
Thanks for writing Jeannie!
PS, I will look for the experimental farm URL
Here it is! http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2016/aac-aafc/agrhist/A54-2-17-1983-eng.pdf