A Childhood Memory: Tobacco By Viola Jarvis
As seen through the eyes of a child.
Although war raged in Europe and the South Pacific in the early l940’s farming still went on in North Carolina. Most of the young men were gone, fighting to keep America free. The younger generation had to take the place of those that usually were responsible for the work that went with farming.
We are the Huffman’s, Jennings, Aleis, and children, Earl, Lena, Velma, John and myself. Our home is a small farm in the Back Swamp community of Richlands. Mostly we grow tobacco, corn, peanuts, sweet potatoes and a large vegetable garden. The peanuts are for fat-ting the hogs in the fall of the year so we will have fat hogs to kill during the winter. Pork is our staple meat and lard for cooking, the hams we sell for cash money. From our vegetable garden everything is canned, or dried and packed away for the winter. Mother even cans sausage meat, and ribs in jars to feed us during the lean months of spring. Chickens provide us with eggs and chicken to eat. A flock of guineas gave us eggs during the summer. One of my jobs was to listen for the guineas to cackle and run to where the sound was coming from to find the nest. Lots and lots of eggs would be in the nest, for several guineas laid in the nest. We live on a dead end road that was only 1 mile in length. Our nearest neighbor was Henry and Katie Futrell, and children Edith, Elbert, Billy, Iris, Alice, and later David. Next to them was Herbert and Lula Futrell, and children Alton, Jennette, Oswald, and Troy. Next came Carl and Arthina, and their children Nadene, Virginia, and two girls that died while babies, also Mr. Amos Futrell the father of all the Futrell’s. Next the Gurganus’s, Dennis and Akura and children O’Neil and baby Mack.
The last family on the road were the Wilson's, Eddie and Martha and children Albro, Norwood, Lenwood, Alma (who later became my sister-in-law) and Elma. Albro, Norwood, and Lenwood were in the army and not around home to help us.
Most of our shopping was at Tom Fountains Store, he had most everything that a farm family needed. Needles, pin, cloth, patterns, farm equipment, shoes, underwear, baby clothes, blankets, sheets, candies, I remember most in shinny glass jars with lids, some ready made dresses, overalls, jeans, hams, bacon, potatoes irish and sweet, dry beans, rice, grits, flour, lard, and gas and oil and fertilize and seed.. I remember the store was very dark inside because it did not have any windows, It was a big place with shelves reaching almost to the top of the store and to a small child this was really high in a high ceiling place. There was a blacksmith shop where the farmer went to get their plows mended and horses shoed if they wore shoe. Their was a grist mill where corn could be ground into corn meal, and in the summer they would also grind your sugarcane and cook it into molasses, oh! how good a hot biscuit was in the winter with sugar cane molasses poured into the center.
Daddy took a job helping to build Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville, he would leave on Sunday evening and return Friday night. During the week he had a room in a boarding house that he rented. I well remember how we laughed at him the first weekend he came home. As he told us about the first night when the house started shaking and the roaring sound that he could hear, he said that he sat straight up in bed scaredered than he had ever been before in his life. He thought the Germans had landing and were attacking. Then he told us of the loud whistle and the rumble of a train going right past the house. The next morning the other people told him that the house was next to the train tracks and that each night about the same time the Silver Streak went by going from north to south. Oh! but those wonderful Friday nights when Daddy got home after a long week, he would always bring us a bag of chocolate drops, oh! that creamy center with chocolate covering, nothing could be better.
We very seldon went to Richlands shopping because we could buy most of everything we needed at Tom Fountains store. This is where we went to school after the country schools were consolidated into the county High Schools. On Saturday afternoon if we did not have to work, Daddy took us to Jacksonville it was the town seat of Onslow County and also the nearest town of any size. After you crossed the bridge known as Old Bridge first came the Pelletier house, a hotel right across the street, next Sabistan Bros, then the Court House and across the street Aman and Sons next to it was a Bar then a Barber Shop and Johnson Drug Store and the First Citizen Bank. Turning right onto Court Street and on the right was Dr. Turlington office, Leader Bros. and Balance Gro.,across a street there was the Depot. At the Depot you could get on the train and go to Wilmington or New Bern or Morehead City, [I never got to ride on the train] back up the street on the right was Aman, and turn right down a side street on the left was Loy’a Gro., FCX feed store and Kellum’s Fish Market. Back on Court St. turning to the right was the Post Office, Roses five and ten cent store, Jeans five and ten cent store, Ketchum’s Drug store, Margolis Dept. store. Next turning down what is know today as New Bridge St., some private homes and Jacksonville, High School. Back up the street was A and B Gro. Turning right was a Gas Station and the Bus Stop then another street with the Victorian Hotel, and across the street from the hotel was Dr. Turner’s Office. Back on Court Street you turned left there was the Onslow Theater where I went to see movies with Jean Autry, Roy Roger, Hoplong Cassidy, and where I saw Gone With The Wind for the first time. Mother and daddy would usually shop or find friends to talk to while we went to the movies. Daddy liked to drink and sometimes he would be quite tipsy on the way home. So much for that because I don’t really like to talk about it.
Camp Lejeune had just begun to be built, and daddy stopped working at Fort Bragg and got a job helping to build Camp lejeune. Cherry Point was being built at this time and several Marines would come on the bus to visit friends that where stationed at Camp Lejeune. A lot of Marines were in town on Saturday evening and the little town was full of young men. Velma and Lena were old enough to pay attention to the young men, and had a lot of fun picking out the one they would marry, although they were to shy to even talk to them. One moment I do remember very vividly was in Jean’s Five and Ten. I was looking at some rings that cost ten cents, it was my birthstone and I really wanted that ring but didn’t have enough money to pay for it. A solider came and stood behind me, he said, do they have one your size, I pointed to the one that I had tried on, then its your he said, and paid for the ring. I have often thought about this time and I wonder did he leave a little girl back home and I hope he made it back home to her. Camp Davis a tent city was built at Holly Ridge and there was plenty of Soldiers in town. We were familiar with the Army, because they practiced their war game in the woodland all around the farm. Earl became friendly with several of the Army and Marines and invited them out to our home, not believing they would ever walk all the way to our home for it was at least 18 to 20 miles from town.. It was not long before each weekend two or more would show up on our doorstep. Mother treating them like she would her own child. On Sunday afternoon Daddy would take them back to Jacksonville, so they could catch a bus back to the station.
Tobacco at that time was the chief money corp. Growing a crop of tobacco required long days of back breaking work. Rain or shine the work must go on. It took months of work to produce a crop of tobacco beginning in January and lasting through October.
There are really 5 stages of growing a tobacco crop. First the planting of a seedbed. Second transplanting the young plants in the field. Next hoeing and plowing to keep the grass and weeds out. Third topping and suckering to produce strong large leaves for harvesting. Fourth housing or barning after the leaves begin to yellow (or as farmers call ripe) had to be cropped from the plant. Then it was tied onto a stick with tobacco twine and the sticks hung in a tobacco barn for curing. Fifth grading and tying the cured tobacco into bundles and taking to market.
Sometime in early January a place is picked to make a tobacco bed. This is where the seed is sown for the new plants that will be transplanted later in the spring. Most of the time a dry protected place is picked in a wooded area. A wooded area is picked far from a cultivated field because the grass and weeds are less likely to germinate. The soil is disked then plowed and leveled. Next the seed are broadcasted and lightly tamped down with the tines of a garden rake. A silk like material (called tobacco cloth) with fine breathable pin like holes is spread tightly across the bed to protect the seedling when they germinate. After the plants began to grow they push against the cover but grow very slowly because the weather is still cool this makes the plants become very sturdy. As soon as frost is over the cover is removed. If frost is expected the cover has to be replaced to protect the plants. When the plants are about big enough for transplanting the farmer and his wife and children have to pull the weeds that came up in the bed with the tobacco seed have to removed so the plants will be stronger. These weeds are usually rabbit tobacco (which looks like young tobacco plants expect it is a little more silver in color) iron weeds or cart wheel plants like to grow in with the tobacco. When the plants are about 8 to 10 inches high they are removed from the bed and transplanted in the field.
In late April or early May you start transplanting the tobacco plants. The farmer has the rows ready for his field of tobacco. Water is taken into the field in barrels and left on the sled (also called drag) with the mule hitched to it for easy movement up and down the rows, extra plants are also on the sled for easy access. Women usually drop the plants into the tranplanter and the men work the transplanter. The transplanter is a cone shape device large at the top and small at the bottom. It is open at the top with a divided section for the plant and one for the water. The water section is larger than the plant section. The bottom is closed but has a hinged flap that opens to let the plant and water out. It has a trigger device that lets the mouth of the transplanter open. The plant is dropped into the plant section root first. The man pushes the pointed shaped cone into the soil and pulls the trigger; the mouth opens and lets the plant and a small amount of water out. Across the field you can hear ker plunk, ker plump as the trigger is released. The young children carry the water in buckets to the man that calls out for it. The transplanter only holds about half a bucket of water at the time, so it is not to heavy for a small child to carry it. Women carry the plants in their arms and when they need more they call the child to bring them some off the sled. The man next to the mule calls out get up to the mule to move the sled down the rows. School lets out at 1:00P.M. to let the children be home to help in the field, this usually starts about the middle of April. Neighbors help each other during transplanting season.
Tobacco Growing in The Field
After the tobacco is transplanted and starts to grow the farmer has a few days to do other things on the farm. After about 2 weeks he goes through his tobacco field and replants any plants that did not survive. Next the tobacco has to be chopped the older children and their mother usually do this. They
chop between each plant and get all the weeds and grass out, and they pull some soil up to the root of each plant. Now the farmer must plow his tobacco field. Pushing soil up onto the row to make it higher he uses a Lewis upright sweep, this sweeps soil up to the plant. He used a 5 toothed cultivator to cultivate the middles and a plow about 24 inches wide to open up the middles between the rows. Making the middles deeper helps to keep the rain away from the plant so it want drown. Budworms like to eat on small plants, you have to mix some arsenic with corn meal and shake it on each plant. A 1 pound coffee can is nailed to a stick and small hole punched in the bottom is used to shake a little arsenic on each plant.
Topping and suckering
When the plants are grown the family goes trough the field breaking the flowery top out of each plant. Topping the plant will help the leaves to get bigger and the plant stronger. Next came the suckering (the worst job in the world.) A sucker grew between each leaf on the stalk, start at the top and work your way to the bottom, breaking out each sucker. Next week they were back and you started all over again. By removing the suckers help the leaves grow bigger.
Day before First Barn Day
Sleds or drags were checked to see if any repairs needing to be made. Metal runners on the bottom of the sled were tightened so it would slide better. Tow sacks that make up the sides were replaced if needed or fasten back with nails if they had pulled loose. The tow sacks were nailed to a board at the top that fit into slots so they could be lowered for easy access to the bottom of the sled. The sacks are nailed to the bottom of the sled so they would not slip out and let the tobacco leaves fall out of the sled. Tiehorses were nailed back together is they had come loose during the winter. Sticks are counted and stacked in bundles of 100 off to one side. The inside of the barn is cleaned. Sometimes they would buy young biddies in early spring and put them in the barn where they could have heat to keep them warm. All the chicken waste had to be cleaned out. The furnace is cleaned and kindling is laid so it can be easily started. The furnace has an outside opening so logs can be added as needed during curing of the tobacco. It runs into the barn about half way. The furnace is make of brick and concrete with a mud dobbing cover, it is oval in shape. Space is cleaned of anything that would trip you for about 30 feet around the barn. Harness for mules or horses are checked and repaired then laid out for easy harnessing. Women pick and prepare fresh vegetables of all kinds available. Stove wood is split and the wood box filled. Outside at the pump, pans, washrags and homemade lye soap are made ready for the next day.
The morning of barn day, the men have the mules hitched to the 2 sleds that are to be used. They are waiting at the end of the first rows of tobacco. As the workers arrive the cropper go to the field. The farmer wife has cooked a big meal earlier that morning, and is ready to go help at the barn. The women and children stop by the house to see if there is any special instructing and pick up the package of tobacco twine and a pitcher of ice water. They then go to the barn and pick out a place in the shade to begin the mornings work. They place the tiehorse where they want them and get a bundle of sticks. They put a stick in the tiehorse and tie the twine on the stick. Now everything is ready for the first load of tobacco.
Cropping, Handings and Stringing
About 6:15 the first load is pulled into place and the work begins. The tobacco is wet with dew and dirty because it is the bottom leaves on the stalk (these are called the sand lugs). Dirt and stinging water goes flying as the stringer fling the tobacco over the stick, it burns the eyes and dirt get in your eyes, also you are soon wet all over. It only takes about 3 leaves of lugs to make a handful. The stringer start on one side of the stick with a handful and the next handful goes on the other side. The twine is wrapped around each handful so it will slide down the twine next to the last handful. She wants it to be tight against the last handful and not slip on the stick. When she finishes the stick she ties off at the end. The hander try not to look toward the stringer so they will not get so much dirt and water in their eyes. They just stick their hand out toward her, if you are not close enough she will tells you about it in no uncertain terms. When she finishes a stick she will call out stick and the person that is responsible for carrying it to the pile of finished stick of tobacco will take it off the tiehorse and quickly take it to the pile and hurry back. The sides of the sled are let down so the leaves are much easier to reach. They
work as fast as they can so they will have the sled empty and pushed off to one side and ready for the next load. Around 9:30 someone brings the Spur cola, (Pepsi are unavailable because of the sugar rationing) Grape and Orange drinks along with a package of nabs or a moonpie to the barn. You work as fast as you can to empty the sled so you will have time to eat and drink while sitting down.
Hanging the sticks in the barn
At about 11:15 the cropper come out of the field to start hanging the mornings work. There is 4 to 5 rows of tiers in a barn, they are 4 feet apart and extend up to the top of the barn. Tiers are hard to explain, but they start about 5 feet off the ground and are about 18 inches in between each rack and go like this to the top of the barn. One person goes almost to the top and the next one almost on the bottom. There is only 2 people are on the tiers hanging the sticks of tobacco. Some farmer has enough helper they can hang 2 sets of tiers at the same time but most farmers only have enough helper to hang 1 tier at the time. When they finish hanging the mornings work they go to the house for dinner.
Men wash up first and go inside to eat. They get to eat first because they need to rest before going back to the field. Meals usually consist of butter beans, string beans, corn, tomatoes, cucumber, okra, potatoes, cornbread, biscuit, boiled pork, fried chicken, ice tea, pudding sweeten with peach, apple, grape, pear preserve because of the lack of sugar, sometimes potatoes salad or chicken and pastry. When the men finish they go outside and find any shade they can to rest. Now the women and children can go in to eat. There was always plenty to eat. After you finish you get to rest, unless you were a member of the family, then you had to help clean up the kitchen, so the wife could go to the barn to help in the afternoon.
At 2:p.m. the cropper went back to the field, the handers and stringers also go back to the barn. All afternoon the work goes on, just as it had that morning. The tobacco is dry and much easier to handle now. They begin to sing songs they know, either country or hymns. Some of them have very good voices and can harmonize, each one doing a different part. Tempers did not flare up much that first day, because everyone is fresh. As soon as the last load comes in from the field, the cropper began to hang it in the barn. Sometimes if the farmer had a small acreage you could finish before dark. Most of the time it would be after dark when you finished hanging the last few sticks.
Getting the barn ready for curing
After the last sticks are hung, the farmer begins to clean up all the fallen leaves off the floor of the barn. It would not do for any fallen leaves to be on the floor inside the barn for they could cause a fire. Taking a flashlight the farmer checked to make sure no animal had gone to sleep in the furnace. Then he lit a fire in the furnace and added a few logs to get it started. He does not want the furnace to get real hot this first night for that would cause the tobacco leaves to scald and that would make the leaves turn black instead of a orange yellow color. Next he would shut the barn doors, there, was one on each side of the barn. He would check to make to sure the air holes under the foundation were clear, then he would put the cover back over them. It was important to have air holes because sometimes the heat would get to hot and you could open the air holes to cool it down inside. Sometimes it was necessary to open the barn door for a short time to let it cool down inside. Now he could go to the house and eat his supper, this was food left over from dinner. After he had his supper he would take some home made quilts and his pillow and go back to the barn. He would first check the temperate and add some logs to the fire. He wanted the temperate to stay around 90 to 100 degree that first night. A thermometer inside the barn would show him how high the temperate was. Then he would make himself a bed in one of the sleds and set his alarm clock to get him up every 2 hours. This low temperate in the barn was called the drying out period. The next day the temperate could be a little higher, this was called the yellowing period. The leaf would begin to turn yellow from the tip up to the stem. After the leaf became yellow all the way to the stem the heat was increased until the temperate read 170 degree, this was called the stem drying time. When the stems were dry enough to snap into, the heat was stopped and the barn allowed too cool. It usually took about 6 days to cure a barn full of tobacco.
Swapping help is when you helped the Futrell, and Wilson’s that helped you. This type of work was for the birds, you received no money and you had to work every day to pay back the farmers that helped you. If you had any spare time you had to sucker tobacco. At night you stayed up to shell beans, or peel tomatoes, suck corn, or string beans. The farmer wife would stay up and can all the vegetable.
Second and remaining weeks
The second week when it was your barn day you got up around 3;30 in the morning. The tobacco that was in your barn had to be taken and stored in the packhouse. Two people went up into the barn and passed the cured sticks of tobacco down so it could be piled on a trailer. Most of the time you had to put the first load of cured tobacco in the packhouse, then go back and finish taking it out of the barn. Sometimes you did not have time to unload the second trailer, so that night you had to unload the rest of it. Days began to run together. You got up early each day and went to bed late each night. Gardens had to be picked after we got off work and you sit up late working on the vegetables. Tempers began to flare and harsh words were often spoken to be forgotten and hour later. Rain or shine you had to get up and go each day. Somedays it would be only an afternoon shower, but many times it was raining when you got up and raining when you went to bed. It could get very cold when it rained all day, so you put on coats to try and stay warm. Extra clothes were brought with you so you could change at dinner. The men changed inside the barn first so they could go on to the house to eat. The women changed and followed the men to the house. At least for a little while you could be warm. The field worker would try to cheer up the barn hands, so they would get a watermelon and hide it in the sled. Sometimes they would kill a snake in the field and then they put the snake in with the tobacco leaves. When woman grabbed up a snake with some tobacco leaves she let out a scream that could be heard around the world. Hornworms would get on your clothes and crawl on you until they found skin, then there was another squeal heard round the world. I will admit this was some of the happiest times I spent in my childhood was spent working with my neighbors, singing, laughing and talking with them. On Sunday afternoon we young folks would gather at one of the neighbors house to play ball. Everyone got to play. We played in pastures so we had to dodge the many cow pies. Sometimes you forgot where the pie was and jumped into the middle of it. Much laughter was shared as this person went to the ditch to wash.
This was a joyful occasion every one was full of high spirits. Songs were sung all day. At lunch we always had something different, hot dogs or hamburgers. After we finished we would all load up in somebody's truck and go to the swimming hole.
Working cured tobacco
As soon as harvesting was over or even before the farmer starting working on a barn of cured tobacco. First you took it off the stick, then it was graded and put into separate piles one leaf at a time. Next it was made into quarter size bundles and a nice leaf was folded just right and tied around the bundle. Next it was put back on a grade stick. Grade sticks were made by shaving some of the edges off to make it more round. Next it was put into a press. Daddy made ours, it was several board nailed onto some 2 by 4 about 3 feet long the 2 by 4 were longer than the boards were wide so you would have a set of handles. He made 2 of these boards so they could be hinged together. The handles had a loop made of heavy wire at the end. The loops slipped around the handle on the other side to hold the press together while the stick of tobacco was begin pressed. My sister was helping one time and daddy got his big toe caught under the loop, my sister just kept jumping up and down while daddy hollowed. She did not know why daddy was hollowing she just knew he had told her to press down hard. Daddy finally got it out that his toe was caught and for Velma to quite jumping.
As soon as the tobacco was ready for market we loaded it onto the trailer and covered it real good with some of mother’s old quilts. Then off to market at Kinston we would go. Always the family would go on the first trip to the market. In the warehouse the farmer took big round baskets and took the tobacco off the stick and placed it into the baskets. The best leaves were put in the first baskets, then the next best leaves, in another and finally the trashy leaves. Each farmer had a market card; copies of the card were placed on the top of each basket you filled. Soon the auctioneer started his chant going down each row of tobacco. If a company bought the basket of tobacco he would say sold to American, R.J. Reynolds, and Brown and Williamson. If the farmer was not satisfied with the price, he would turn the market card over and this meant it was not for sale. He would load this basket full back on the trailer and take it back home to be brought back at another time.
After the tobacco was sold the family would usually go get a hamburgers or hotdogs for lunch Daddy and Mommy would get a Barbeque sandwich. Then it was to the store to buy school clothes. The girls could get 2 dresses and 3 pairs of socks and underwear and 1 pair of shoes. The boys would get 2 pair of pants, 3 shirts, 3 pair of socks and underwire and 1 pair of shoes. When we finished shopping we started for home. Daddy would get lost while mother took us shopping, but he always seemed to know when we got to the car. When we got home the new clothes were unpacked with loving care and hung in the closest. The girls took their Sunday dress for school and picked the best of the new ones for Sunday.
In late October or early November the last of the tobacco was sold. All the bills were paid from the summer crops, now the farmer could begin planning for the next crop.
Passing the time
For young and old every Friday night during tobacco selling time someone would have a tobacco tying party. We would all gather in someone's packhouse and tie bundles of tobacco and gossip with the neighbors. This was fun for everyone and you could get a barn full of tobacco tied in one night. Later in the winter we would have peanuts shelling and corn husking. These parties broke the monotony of a long cold winter. There will be more stoeries later.