Tobacco Farmers Remember

A man reflects on how North Carolinians saw tobacco farming in the desperate days of the Great Depression.

“Life wasn’t easy on the tobacco farm where I grew up during the Depression years of the 1930s. But it would have been much harder if we had not had money from tobacco, our only “cash crop” – our only source of dollars was tobacco. Since we depended on the “golden leaf” for virtually every dollar of spending money for family needs, we tried very hard to produce and market a good crop each year. We grew fifteen to twenty acres of tobacco, perhaps more. When the price was low, we increased acreage in a desperate effort to maintain family income. In 1932 we sold much of our crop for a nickel a pound, and our average for the season was eight cents. Yields were low, around 600 pounds to the acre. Even if we made a 12,000-pound crop, our cash receipts for the year seldom reached $1,000.

“We knew we weren’t handling just tobacco – we were handling the source of our entire money income for the whole year.  Only if we had a successful tobacco season could we hope to maintain our meager standard of living.” [1]

 “There was never a time when a tobacco farmer didn’t have something to do.” [2]    

“That there was a time, buddy. Them was good days, but mostly good when you’re looking back.”  [3]

Building Character

 “You walked the rows, snapping suckers off with your fingers. You poured sweat but didn’t dare wipe your eyes as the “baccer gum”  turned your hands sticky and black.  At the end of the day, tobacco gum covered everything. You had to boil your clothes to get them clean.”

“Ease does not build character.  Adversity builds character.”

Robert Kirby, CEO Capital Guardian Trust – 1979

Bob Kirby, the head of a major investment firm, probably never saw a tobacco field.  But if you believe his adage, which I certainly do, then you would expect to see lots of character built in a tobacco field.

Thousands of young people from that time remember the experience as “character building” but something they never wanted to pursue when they grew up. By the time they finished high school and headed for college or a job in the city, their common comment was, “I left when I was eighteen, and I never wanted to set foot in a tobacco field again.”

[1] Billy Yeargin, North Carolina Tobacco: A History. Charleston, SC. History Press, 2008.

[2] T. Edward Nickens. “Memories of Pulling Tobacco. A Labor of Love.” Our State magazine. July 12, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2000.

[3] Ibid.