Tobacco days: Working on the farm in flue cured tobacco

Published 6:54 pm Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The sun had not ventured out on this hot July day. The breaking of dawn was near, but the sun was slow about showing its face.

Just then, a few streaks of red and yellow filled the Eastern sky on the farm near Climax. There was a sound of the farmer’s steps crunching the young grass as he made footprints in the early morning dew on his way to the barn to care for the animals. With the wonder of God’s creation about to burst forth before him, he whispered to the morning air, “God has given us a fine day for gathering the third crop of tobacco.”

A much needed short rain shower the afternoon before had left a wet field for gathering what was called flue cured tobacco, but he knew this would make it cooler for the young school boys to prime or crop the large leaves. Teenage schoolboys and girls worked on the tobacco farms going all week from one farmer to another making their spending money and money for school supplies and clothes come that fall. Prices were paid according to the age and how well one could handle the jobs from the field boys and then the ladies and young girls at the barn stringing the leaves onto long sticks for hanging in the barn.

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If a girl was lucky enough to be chosen to be a stringer, she made a dollar or two more than those called handers, who handed a group of three or four leaves crunch together at the top stem to the one stringing. Then the boys in the field who were priming or cropping, breaking the leaves off the plant, made more than the barn help as they were also called.

The field crew consisting of all ages of boys was paid according to their age and ability ranging from $3.00 per day to $8.00 for a very fast and efficient primer who was the leader. While at the barn or stringing station the ladies or girls stringing made around $5.00 per day and those handing around $3.00. The lead stringer who was usually a grown lady sometime made $6.00 a day. Now the day’s work meant one worked until the last stick of tobacco was hung in the barn for cooking or curing out no matter how many barns were filled on that day.

It was always explained the reason the boys made more than the barn help was the guys worked in the field in the sun and then when they finished they had to hang the tobacco that had been strung on sticks in the barn for curing. While the ladies and girls worked all day under a shade tree handing and stringing the tobacco. But what I always argued was; the boys got to rest under a shade tree when the wagon carrying the load of tobacco made a slow trip to the barn or tables to be strung.

Now the group of girls and ladies would get almost caught up as they called it, maybe a few piles of tobacco left and there would be the wagon with another load. Sometimes the tables would be piled or stacked so high with tobacco leaves one couldn’t see over the top of the table. A short little girl inevitably would pull the leaves out of the middle of the pile causing a large part of the leaves to topple over onto the ground causing work to stop and a box or bucket found for the little one to stand on making her tall enough to reach the top of the pile. No end in sight one would think, no break for the girls as the tobacco had to be strung on those sticks before the day was over.

The crop had been transplanted in the early spring and harvesting began in June. Small plants over the field turned into large head high plants with blooms which had to be plucked off, and as the leaves ripened on the bottom of the plant they turned a paler green than the leaves farther up the plant.

Once the leaves were cured or cooked out they turned a brown or a golden yellow. Golden yellow was the preferred color as it was top grade and bought the highest price per pound when the tobacco was taken to the auction market.

Wood was first used to fire the barns for cooking the tobacco; farmers had to set up all night keeping the fire going at an even temperature. Then propane gas became available with burners inside the barn making for a shorter cooking time.

With progress came many changes to the flue cured tobacco industry. The government changed the farm labor to where the farmers had to pay the minimum wages for farm workers. Thereby cutting out the use of family members and children to gather the tobacco and did not allow one farmer to swap labor with another. Expenses cost the small farmer so much many had to sell or rent out their allotment of tobacco, then came the new harvesting and curing method. A machine gathered the tobacco in the field where once there had been teenage boys working, laughing, teasing and playing tomato wars as there was always a long row of tomatoes planted beside the tobacco.

The machine gathered the tobacco in bulk now when the boys had picked the leaves according to how they looked. The tobacco was left in the field longer to allow for more ripening making for less curing time in what was called the “bulk” curing tobacco barn. The large containers held many leaves thereby also eliminating the workers at the barn the tobacco did not have to be strung on sticks and placed in the barn for curing anymore.

The new way of gathering flue cured tobacco revolutionized the tobacco farming industry in South Georgia.

Where there had once been large auction warehouses, buildings now stood still. In the silence of the large buildings there was a quite hush where once children’s laughter sounded in the background as the auctioneers bellowed out the prices per pound going from one pile to another. “Phillip Morris, Camel, Lucky Strike, or maybe Winston,” could be heard with the price, and one knew who had bought their tobacco.

It was a treat at the end of the tobacco season before school started back to go with ones parents to the tobacco auction Not only had you made a little money gathering the tobacco but if one was lucky they had been given a small pile or sheet of what was called trashy tobacco to sell as their own, the reason being, a reward for helping to grade and sheet the cured tobacco making it ready for the market.

Flue Cured tobacco was used to make cigarettes, snuff, chewing tobacco, and some pipe tobacco. While Shade tobacco was used in making cigars.

Another dawn was breaking the Eastern sky, as the old farmer walked his fields one more time. His footprints had been left here many years now and as he trudged along. Once again he whispered to the morning air, “God has given me a fine day to walk one last time. He has blessed us low these many years to provide for our family from this ground I now walk on. He guided us in raising our children in His admonition and love. It is time now to leave my footprints for the last time on this solid land, and to walk toward that Home where many have gone before. It is time now for our next generation to make their footprints visible.”