Oh my aching back – Tobacco farming in the 1960’s and 70’s

I was raised on a tobacco farm. Tobacco farming has changed alot since I was growing up. Like everything else in the world, it has become a more mechanized process. Today I thought I would share my memories concerning what is was like to grow tobacco in the 60’s and 70’s.

Priming – This is term used when harvesting or removing the leaves from the stalk. Tobacco would ripen from the bottom of the plant to the top. You could not wait for all of the leaves to ripen before harvesting so you would prime 2 or 3 at a time. The “first primings” or lower leaves still bring back unpleasant memories. You would be bent over all morning reaching under the top leaves to pick these leaves. This would usually be in the middle of July when it was nice and warm. You would get a good night’s sleep after this if your back was not hurting to much! Most crops would require 6 or 7 primings to harvest all of the leaves.

Stringing – The tobacco would be transported to the barn on a “slide” for “stringing”. A person would take the leaves in bunches of 3 and wrap “tobacco twine” around them very tightly and place them over alternating sides of a “tobacco stick”. The stick would be placed on a “buck”, a frame that would hold the stick and a high tech device(i. e. a Luzianne coffee can) for holding the ball of twine. In most cases a couple of people would hand the tobacco to the person stringing it. They had to make sure the ends of the leaves were even to make it easier to string. The people priming the tobacco also were responsible for keeping the ends, or “butts”, of the leaves straight when placing them on the slide to transport to the barn.
Housing – This the term for placing the sticks of tobacco in the barn to dry. The barn was divided into four sections wide called “rooms” and 5 to 7 sections high called “tiers”. These sections would be separated by a series of poles that ran from the length of the barn and began about 6 feet off of the ground. One person would hand the sticks up to a person standing on the poles and they would hang the ends of the sticks onto the poles. In rooms with several tiers a second person person would stand above the first person to hang the sticks on the higher poles. Usually you would hang 1 room at a time. Space would be tight when finishing out a room so a person would have to hang sticks in one room while standing in another. This could be challenging at times. The last room could be really cramped, so being a contortionist helped when hanging the last few sticks.

Curing – The leaves still contained a great deal of moisture when primed. This is the reason the tobacco had to be placed into barns for drying. This process usually took about a week. Large heaters, or “burners”, were on the floor of the barn. The temperature would be kept around 160 degrees until the leaves were dried out. In some cases the leaves would dry out too much and be too brittle to handle. Then you would have to do something to “bring it in order”. This means getting enough humidity in the air for the leaves to absorb enough moisture for them to be handled without crumbling. If you were lucky a good foggy morning would take care of this. If not, you may have to put some water in the bottom of the barn

Sacking – Once the barn was in order, you would remove the strings and sticks and place the tobacco in sacks to take it to market to be sold at an auction. Great care was taken to place the leaves neatly into the sack with dead or poor quality product removed the rest of the leaves.
I guess this wraps up my brief history of what tobacco farming was like when I was growing up. Hopefully it will give you an idea of the hard work this was. Please share any thoughts or comments you may have about this post. If you remember these days, I would like for you to share any memories about things I may have forgotten to mention.

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3 Responses to Oh my aching back – Tobacco farming in the 1960’s and 70’s

  1. Kathy Sumner says:

    I was a city girl before moving to Surry County. The first summer here…we went school shopping. and I didn’t like the clothes mom and dad were buying for me. Dad made the suggestion that I work in the tobacco barn with my mom…make some money to buy my own clothes…..in my unlearned mind I thought…..easy peasy.

    The next morning mom wakes me at about 4 in the morning….we worked till after sunset. Back in those days I had hair that hung below my waist…..no one bothered to tell me to tie it up! By the end of the day I was beyond tired…and it took me washing my hair three times to get it clean….I worked that entire summer….learned ALOT of lessons about farming…working….and life in general. Needless to say……I didn’t complain the next time mom and dad bought my clothes!…..lesson well learned!

  2. Jeff Perkins says:

    you know I know. How about standing in simpson mill road hitting gravel for baseballs with tobacco sticks for bats. I remember.

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