Monday, August 30, 2010

A Comprehensive Synopsis
of the Golden Leaf

By Willis Boice Walker

Opening day tobacco sales used to be a big event in Rocky Mount. One of the things I remember from my childhood was that we went to the ice house and the man at the ice house took a tin cup and dipped down into the thing that was freezing the blocks of ice. He got some water and let us drink it. It was so cold it made your teeth ache. It was just before freezing. That was something we didn't have at home.

It was a treat, while we were at the tobacco market, to watch auctioneers like Tom Kent Jones from Nashville and some of the buyers that were almost as comical as he was. Also, while you were in the warehouse, you could buy a popsicle. People had "dry ice” boxes and they sold the popsicles. Going to the tobacco market was more or less like going to a festival. The tobacco market put new money into circulation.

In eastern North Carolina, "the opening" meant the first sale day of flue cured tobacco. Tobacco had replaced cotton as king of crops throughout the South and wielded its influence in some way on nearly every person within the area, the nation and the world. Percentage-wise, there will probably never be another product that will be as important as tobacco was in this area. Every farm had a tobacco allotment, and all the owners either grew tobacco themselves or rented their allotted acreage for a premium price.

Tobacco Sale in Progress in Rocky Mount, Nash or Edgecombe County, NC Warehouse
In the beginning, the parity program was started on an acreage basis. Each farmer could plant a certain number of acres. It was later amended and the allotment was based on pounds—a pound limit on each participating farm. The original tobacco farmer's main concern was a high quality cured leaf from bottom to top. Poundage with quality was a bonus, but if a farmer had to sacrifice something, it was always poundage. His reputation weighed on the average price per pound and the single high dollar sale. To achieve this meant separating and placing each leaf into its proper grade. Government graders checked each pile of tobacco on the warehouse floor prior to sale time and placed a tag on it with the proper grade clearly marked.

Although not guaranteed, the government grade helped the grower to decide, after the sale, whether to accept the buyer's offered price or "turn the tag," rejecting the offer and maybe, after some manicuring and waiting for the next day's sale, re-sell it for a higher price.

This privilege created the "pin hooker." Walter Tharrington was a pin hooker on the local tobacco market. A pin hooker was an independent buyer without processing capability. He bought piles of tobacco along with the regular buyers at the auction sales. He'd bid on mostly un-manicured or mixed grades, maybe some green tobacco or maybe what we called soft or very damp tobacco. He would re-work the tobacco, usually without removing it from the warehouse floor. He would get the tobacco re-graded and then put it back on the market and re-sell it. After the re-grading, it would bring more money than it did when it was all mixed up or when it was in poor condition. It was not unusual for the re-sale price to more than double the original price. The pin hooker had to have ready cash, post a tidy bond and pay his helpers. His sharp eye and good judgment were his biggest assets.

The warehouse owner, or his proxy, the auctioneer, ticket marker, bill writer, and the required number of buyers representing the required number of companies all had to be on hand before a sale could begin. The warehouseman would reach down and pick up about three bundles from the pile, hold it to his nose, and yell out a suggested opening bid and the auctioneer would take off on his spiel.

The buyers gave hand signals to the auctioneer who called out in an audible voice the high bid and the name of the buying company. The bill writer recorded this with a lead pencil and, between opening bids and closing bids, totaled the figures. The ticket marker marked the tag and left it sticking in the so-called basket of tobacco. Runners carried the bill-of-sale to the warehouse office and the warehouse wrote checks to each seller.
Tobacco Buyers at Sale

Next stop, the bank— which sets the scene for the most electrified, effervescent atmosphere throughout the town that you can imagine. To explain this exciting aura, let us pick a time just prior to the do-it-all tractor and unborn herbicides, pesticides, and big-time irrigation—before the big war, World War II.

The process began when the grower selected a wooded or virgin area that contained well composted soil, natural drainage terrain and, if possible, weather protection from the north and east. This would be what was known as "The Plant Bed."

The next step was selecting and marking the standing trees that would form the border and support frame for the canvas cover. There again, be reminded, this was before one piece covers, so the canvas material was available only in four foot widths and came rolled on so-called spools. It was referred to as a bolt of canvas. A sewing machine and a sewing wife or daughter were a must in most cases, and even if you were fortunate enough to possess both, there were still limits to how much bulk could be handled while sewing. That controlled the length and width of the finished cover.

Tobacco Plant Bed Layoout

To compensate for the canvas limitations the beds were planned and laid out in rectangular grids. This was after first cutting the selected trees for the border-support, leaving them full length and fully trimmed, somewhere near the site. It was important to leave at least three feet of stump when sawing down the trees. This allowed for a hook-up and leverage in removing it. A shovel, a grubbing hoe, and an axe usually got everything but the tap root. Two mules and chain finished the job. In case there happened to be a real large tree, it was cut as low as possible and left as it was.

After all trees, bushes, briars and weeds above the surface were removed there still remained a network of large and small roots. An axe, an adz and a grubbing hoe were necessary to cut the roots and loosen the soil to the point that a five-tooth rake was able to remove the roots and prepare the soil for a very small application of fertilizer before planting the tobacco seeds.

The seeds came from selected plants of the previous crop that, instead of being "topped" (the top broken off and discarded), were left standing until they reached full maturity. The entire top was cut off and hung indoors to dry. Each bloom produced a pod which contained hundreds of seeds. A stalk's entire bloom would yield thousands of the tiny seeds. In fact, they were so tiny that they had to be mixed with some other ingredient like sand, and broadcast thinly over the planting area to keep the new plants from being too close together to tend.

The newly sown plant bed was raked over (by hand) with a multiple tooth yard rake, which served two purposes. It left the seeds covered at the desired depth and also removed small roots and twigs. All of the roots, stumps and other refuse were piled in one large pile and allowed to dry before it was burned.

We were then ready to put the poles in place that would form the football field-like grid. The pre-selected trees were measured and cut to produce almost the same diameter from end to end and would need only to be placed in position.

Before the bed was covered with the canvas, we visited what we called a reed mash and cut enough slender four-foot reeds to support the canvas cover inside the grid. This was done by sticking one end of the reed in the ground and bending it over to form an arch and then sticking the other end in the ground at about a 45o angle. The height of the arch would be approximately 12 inches.

In order to simplify the process of putting the protective cover over the bed, it was first sewn with an imaginary grid in mind. The areas of suspension were pleated and double-pleated. This allowed the canvas to be attached by impaling it over outward angled nails on one side and stretching from the other side and impaling it there on outwardly protruding nails.

The canvas remained on the plant bed until late March or early April and protected the plants from freezing while allowing enough sunlight, rain and air for them to mature. While the plants were germinating, weed and grass weed were also germinating, making it mandatory to remove the faster growing weeds by hand, one at a time, without harming the tobacco plants. This was a common curse and fittingly referred to as "weeding the plant bed."

As soon as frost was no longer a threat the canvas was pulled off to allow the plants to finish maturing and get tough enough to be transplanted without causing them harm. The earliest form of transplanting was done with a pistol-grip carved peg, and always following a "freshet," preferably a slow, soaking rain. This allowed the plants to be set out without being watered. Hand operated mechanical setters with their own reservoir and riding machine transplanters came later.

Frank Nobles With Tobacco Setter
The setter held both plant and water.
In order to grow wrappers the tobacco plants had to be spaced far enough apart to provide unobstructed growth while allowing as much direct sunlight as possible to aid in the ripening process. A 24 inch leaf was very common in the body part of the stalk, so some growers built a sled-like, horse-drawn contraption and marked off the rows at four feet by crossing them. This was referred to as "planting four feet on the hill," and also left scads of space to be chopped and plowed before the final tilling or being "laid by." In the meantime it was a never ending job to hand pick and kill any worms that might have escaped the reach of our turkey flock.

After marking the choice stalks to be used for seed, the tops were broken out of all the remaining plants. This caused the suckers to start growing and, to prevent them from sapping the rest of the stalk, they had to be broken out. A sucker emerges between the leaf and the stalk and grows 10 to 1 in relation to the rest of the plant. Left unbroken, suckers will take up almost half the weight of the harvested leaf.

Topping Tobacco, Shows Flower and Seeds
The tobacco barning period was usually from July through August. The field croppers or primers were required to have a good knowledge of tobacco harvesting so as not to pull green tobacco before it ripened. After cropping, the leaves were placed in a home-made, mule-drawn, slide truck and taken to the barnyard where handers, loopers and pilers attached the tobacco to a wooden stick with a ball of cotton thread called tobacco twine. The stringing crew was made up of two loopers and four handers, and the job did not require a college education to perform. The time required to crop a truck of tobacco matched the time it took to string it, so it balanced well.

Priming Tobacco
Hanging the looped sticks of tobacco in the barn was not random placing on the tier poles. It was carefully spaced to allow air circulation and prevent scalding. The curing barn consisted of one or two furnaces or one twin furnace and 12-inch galvanized flues around the perimeter and through the adjacent center. The taller smoke stack usually exited the barn directly over the furnace for two reasons—good support and it was surrounded by bricks and mortar, not wood.
Hanging Looped Tobacco on Rack

Three days and nights were needed to complete the curing cycle. Constant evaluation of the leaf and stoking the wood fire meant someone had to sit with the barn all night and day. The stages were basically yellowing, setting the color, drying the leaf, and drying the stems. In order to remove the bone dry, brittle tobacco from the barn, it had to absorb enough moisture to become limp enough to handle without crumbling. Sometimes, after pulling the fire and leaving the door open all night to allow the tobacco to absorb moisture, we still had to haul water and wet the ground floor to get the tobacco "in order."
Checking the temperature in the barn as the tobacco cures.

The average person could not reach high enough to pile a whole barn of fresh cured tobacco on a regular big wheel wagon, so we built a block wheel wagon using 16-inch diameter, 12-inch wide solid round wooden blocks. By making the flat bed body wider than a stick of tobacco and longer than a normal wagon, we could easily put a large barn of tobacco on it with no strain at all. With careful piling, we could even transport green tobacco to a distant curing barn. One big pack house would hold one year's yield of cured tobacco, but it had to be transferred to the combination grading room-ordering pit for the final preparation.

Unloading tobacco from truck to basket for sale.
Grading tobacco involved opening each leaf between the hands and, according to its feel and color, placing it one of seven or eight grades. The grading bench was a C-shaped bench with maybe nine one-inch holes evenly spaced into which was inserted a 4-foot dowel. The upper dowels separate the graded leaves and the lower dowels separate the tied bundles. The bundles were formed by grasping an equal hand full of leaves by the stems and folding a single leaf to form a ribbon and beginning with the top, lay the first band before continuing candy stripe fashion, about three inches. Then you would take the 3 or 4 inch tail and pass it through the loose leaves. If done properly it would not come un-tied before reaching the factory.

The bundles were saddle mounted on smooth splinter-less sticks and pressed by a six foot board with someone standing on each end of the pressing board. The "starched and ironed" condition enabled the warehouse labor to remove one half of the stick as the farmer extended it from his load and place it neatly on the saucer-like baskets. Every bundle in place, the farmer would reverse the stick ends and the other half was removed. The farmer kept his sticks.

No pile of tobacco could exceed 300 pounds. A full sale would have six rows of 60 piles each. This was divided into a morning sale of three hours and an afternoon sale of three hours. Sales activities were planned to accommodate the fact that even though sales were going on, the warehouse remained open to receive, weigh and place on the reserved part of the floor any tobacco coming in during the actual sale. Competition as well as security dictated a 24/7 season, including holidays.

The crowd, the one of a kind odor of flue-cured tobacco, and the exciting mystical chant of the auctioneer formed an imaginary picture in our minds of all the good things we had worked and hoped for and that were finally materializing to the tune of the auctioneer's song: "Fortee-one-do-da-dah-dollar-bid-SOLD-AMERICAN!"

[This story was first published in A Rainbow in the West, by Willis Boice Walker, 2008. The photographs are taken from Bright Leaf Tobacco: Economic Gold in Northeastern NC, compiled and edited by Billie Jo Works Matthews. The drawings were done by Boice Walker.]

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