Three Women Remember Tobacco Farming

Three things you need to know on Tobacco Road:  “Cheerwine is not an alcoholic beverage.  You don’t eat ribs with a knife and fork.   And you don’t order risotto at Cracker Barrel.”

Dagen McDowell  Fox Business News  (Paraphrased)

Tobacco as We Knew It –  Gaye Hoots

My introduction to tobacco was in my early childhood. Both my grandmothers dipped snuff and one of my grandfathers chewed tobacco. As a small child, I had wanted to taste the tobacco, so my grandmother took one of her empty Tube Rose Snuff cans and filled it with a mixture of instant chocolate and sugar. She gave me a small stick from a sweetgum tree with the end chewed into a brush exactly like hers.

We grew tobacco for most of the years I lived at home. The work was backbreaking at times.   After my snuff incident, the next time I saw tobacco, I was in elementary school. It was a small green plant we had started to raise on the farm. It was planted in a small garden bed and grew to several inches in height.

My sister and I were taught to pull these plants from the bed.  My father prepared the soil for planting.  We then transplanted the young plants.

These were the first steps in a very long summer of work when we replanted, suckered, dusted for worms, picked, tied it to dry, cured, sorted, and wrapped it for the market.

A large family of mostly boys helped us. Having other kids our age helped to make the work less of a drudge. Another nearby family had two girls close to my age, and boys close to my brother’s age. Other families also helped from time to time, hired by the day. Everyone did the same work.  The women and kids did most of the daily work.

The young plants grew until the leaves were about the size of my hand. At the base of each leaf, a tiny sucker sprouted.  We had to remove these by hand.

At this stage the plants were covered with a sticky, black gum that would cover our hands and arms. It was very hard to remove.    One evening when we arrived home from suckering the tobacco, an unknown car sat in our driveway. I had tobacco gum from my fingertips to my elbows as I greeted a boy from school. He was not from a farm family, and we looked worse than “The Beverly Hillbillies” covered in the black tobacco gum. It didn’t keep him from asking me to go with him to a dance. My mom was embarrassed and told me she would have run straight into the house to hide if she were me.

The plants were often covered with tobacco worms which we removed by hand as we dusted each plant with insecticide to keep other worms off.  These worms are hard to spot as they are the same shade of green as the young plants. We picked them off the plant and killed them. The dust was only effective in deterring them until the next rain, then they were back in business.

Most farms had a few acres of tobacco. The plants grew until their leaves slightly overlapped with the adjoining plant. The rows were spaced so an adult could navigate between them by turning sideways. Sometimes the plants were taller than we were, and the heat was stifling as we removed worms or picked the bottom leaves to cure.

When the plants ripened to a gold color we picked the leaves off.

My dad usually bought sandwiches and drinks for lunch. He fed everyone who helped and usually brought a watermelon or snacks by in the afternoon. As we worked we kept up a light banter with the other workers. During the tobacco season, we became an extended family.

The leaves were handed up three or four at a time to an adult who wrapped each hand securely to a tobacco stick. The men took the sticks into a tobacco barn and hung on them poles.

An adult would build a fire in a fireplace attached to the barn. The fire had to be maintained day and night until the tobacco was dry or cured.

The men did most of the hanging of the tobacco into the barn. I did assist with this a few times. The men stayed with the tobacco overnight at the tobacco barns to keep the fires going. I remember staying with my grandfather a time or two before I was old enough to be of any help. He roasted corn and potatoes in the fire. I thought this was great fun.

The tobacco was then taken from the barn and wrapped. Several leaves were wrapped together and fastened with a leaf around the top. We often spent the day working in the tobacco field, and part of the night in the packhouse sorting and wrapping the tobacco.

The finished packs of tobacco were taken to a warehouse where the buyers bid on them.

Wintertime gave us relief from the grueling work. One chore I had in addition to other farm chores was milking. I did this twice a day, every day all year long.

By the time I graduated from high school, Reynolds Tobacco Company employed several of my relatives and many in the Advance community. I had friends who started working at Reynolds out of high school and retired from there. Reynolds paid better than other jobs did, so this was the most desirable job available without a college education. Reynolds also employed many with college educations in management including a few of my relatives.

Tobacco – A Family Enterprise Nancy Heafner

North Carolinians have many stories about how growing up on a tobacco farm influenced their life. Nearly always, they recall hard work but also a challenge that helped them later on, personally and professionally.

Nancy grew up on a tobacco farm outside the little rural community of Hiddenite, in Alexander County, in western Piedmont. If you met Nancy, you would never guess that she had been a tobacco farmer. Her husband and she are graduates of Wake Forest University where she earned a B.A. degree and he became a noted neurosurgeon. Nancy makes it clear that much of her success stems from the hard work and sacrifices that her family made growing tobacco, and from the cash it brought in.

Nancy and her two sisters worked in the tobacco fields as girls, doing all the jobs that had to be done – suckering, worming, putting in the barn, and grading in the packhouse. She did it all.  Her mother was a practical nurse who worked in the tobacco fields in the morning and a nursing shift from three to eleven in the evening.  Nancy’s father worked in a local furniture factory until he was seventy-five.   But in addition to those full- time regular jobs, they also planted ten to twelve acres of tobacco each year.

That tobacco brought in the cash for the three girls’ education.  The parents never paid the girls for their work, but each year they took a portion of the money they made from their crop and put it in the bank for an education fund.  Nancy was valedictorian of her high school class, attended Appalachian State University for two years, graduated from Wake Forest, and became a teacher.

Like so many other Tar Heels, she remembers the work in the fields and the packhouse and occasionally sleeping out all night at the tobacco barn while the tobacco was being cured.  But she tells a story that probably was repeated many times in the tobacco warehouses. She was not old enough to remember it, but her father often laughed and told about the time he took her to the warehouse sale and set her on a pile of his tobacco. When the auctioneer and buyers approached he told them that they should give him a very good price because this child needed money for college.   Crafty farmers tried ploys like this to make their tobacco bring more. Surely the buyers could have been kindhearted enough to bid a few cents more when they saw a childlike that sitting on top of the tobacco.

A Tobacco Heiress – Deedee Mills

My daughter invited me to Father’s Day brunch. She said she was taking me to the Packhouse – a restaurant with a tobacco theme and I would like it.  It was one of the trendy restaurants that seem to pop up all over Charlotte.

When I walked in, I looked at the Ball canning jars for water on the tables, the tobacco sticks, and the tobacco leaf bar. The owner, Deedee Mills, had brought three truckloads of material from tobacco barns in Martin County where she grew up to capture the spirit of Pride in Tobacco at the Packhouse.

But what really caught my attention were the tobacco baskets on the ceiling. I knew right away this was a special place, at least for me.  My tobacco days go back eighty years and those baskets have a real significance in my life.

When I sat down and read the note that Deedee Mills had written explaining how she came to decorate the Packhouse, I immediately wanted to meet her. So, the next week my daughter and I had brunch with Deedee.  Never having met before, I still knew more about her than she probably realized. And when we talked, she confirmed everything I had guessed about her.

I already knew what Deedee would be like because she and I both grew up on Tobacco Road, although separated by thirty-five years and at different ends of that Road.  She was raised in the sandy, Coastal Plain where expansive fields look like they go on forever.  I was from the red clay Piedmont with small fields among wooded hills. But those differences don’t matter because we all carry our tobacco heritage no matter the time or place we were raised.

Deedee is a tobacco heiress. Now I’m pretty sure she never thought of herself as an heiress of anything related to tobacco.  Her family didn’t own a plantation, a warehouse, or a cigarette company, but she is nevertheless a tobacco heiress.  She, along with several hundred thousand other people in the Tar Heel State, has inherited meaningful life values that grew from a tobacco culture.

Deedee’s grandmother was a single mom with four children to raise. She wasn’t a big landowner with acres of tobacco.  Rather, she hired out by the day working in the fields. Deedee’s dad did the same thing to help his mom when he was growing up. He became the first of their family to go to college, graduated from East Carolina University and became a school principal and coach.  Deedee says he is the hardest working man she has ever known.  By example, he taught her the lessons he learned in the tobacco fields about hard work and diligence.  So, while Deedee worked only one day in the tobacco field herself, it was long enough to get tobacco gum all over her and to appreciate what her father and grandmother went through day after day.

Even though she came to Charlotte and has become a big city girl, the grit and determination from the tobacco fields went a long way toward making her an entrepreneur who would be adventurous enough to start four restaurants and do a lot of other things, like climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

The Old North State has more than its share of Deedees – people who learned the value of hard work and hard times either directly or from family stories. Tar Heels owe more to tobacco and the people who raised it than most of them realize.