By Darlene G. Snyder (find me on facebook)
While riding recently, Mike and I sped by an enormous field of tobacco. I asked him to pull to the side of the road and stop. I jumped off our 750 Honda and began to take a few photographs. In Kentucky, fields of tobacco are getting to be a rare sight. With the tobacco buy-out program, more and more farmers have been forced to find alternative means for financial resources.
As a youth growing up on a farm, tobacco became an obstacle on my course towards independence and freedom. I’d wanted to slip on high heels, but I have to put on work shoes. Many weekends were spent working in tobacco. My free time wasn’t actually free. I eventually came to despise tobacco. My father always reminded me that tobacco was what bought clothes for me as well as helped put food on our table. That of course, meant nothing to a sixteen-year-old girl trying to escape the realities of farm life.
Now as I look back, I can find some things that I enjoyed about tobacco fields. I recall fondly the annual burning of tobacco beds. This consisted of an area in a field about 9 ft wide and 100 ft long. Wood piled onto the bed and burned killed off the weeds. Daddy would rake the fire and ashes to make sure every inch was covered.
This was usually done at dusk, and of course with the wide-open fire, we’d roast wieners and marshmallows; I loved being outside, watching the fire lick the night air. That part never seemed to be a chore, but I’m sure it was for my father after working as a heavy equipment operator all day. He did have my brothers who were always there helping.
The one job I especially hated came after the plants grew in those beds became adults and ready to be pulled and planted. Since I always feared worms and bugs and such, this job seemed to be particularly harrowing. The process was to pull the plants from the ground, roots and all and pile them onto a burlap sack, laying them in the same direction. We were to pull as many as we could as fast as we could. Often others were waiting on us to get the plants pulled before they could set tobacco (plant) in the fields.
I usually pulled one plant at a time, shook the dirt off the plants and looked for worms and bugs. If I saw one, I’d throw the tobacco down and jump back in fear. After about an hour of this backbreaking job, my parents, siblings or other family would be so perturbed with my behavior that I’d be “sent to the house,” thankfully.
Setting tobacco consisted of two people sitting on a piece of equipment attached to the back of a tractor, which was referred to as a tobacco setter. It had two seats and a contraption in between the seats that plants were dropped into. Those sitting on the setter faced the opposite direction from where the tractor was headed. The plants were set into the ground by the contraption. Occasionally, when one was missed, those of us who followed the setter had to set the plants into the ground by hand. This was another backbreaking job.
Once tobacco setting was completed, the next job we had to do was chopping weeds out of the tobacco. The correct way to do this was using a chopping hoe, gently cut at the weeds without bothering the tobacco. I always accidentally chopped down many tobacco plants. I really didn’t always do this purposely, but I was accused of chopping the tobacco to be sent to the house, again. I never realized what the big deal was anyway it was just a plant. The lecture I received later was always about how much money the tobacco brought into our household.
I was never required to participate in the next process, however my mother, sister and I made sure there was an abundance of food for the men working in the fields. This was a time for spraying the tobacco for worms and bugs and topping tobacco. This job entailed breaking off the blooms to get rid of the succors. These succors were like new growth. After spraying again, and waiting two or three weeks for the tobacco to turn from the dark green color to a golden yellow, it was time to cut the tobacco. First sticks had to be dropped in the rows of tobacco, and then the plant was cut with a knife that some refer to as a tommy-hawk or a tobacco knife. Spheres were fitted onto the sticks and the tobacco was thrust through the sphere onto the stick. There usually were five or six stalks on each stick. The tobacco was left in the fields two or three days to wilt before being loaded onto wagons. Once the tobacco was loaded onto the wagon, it was hauled to the barn to be hung from rails to cure.
After curing, and coming into case, this was when the tobacco was soft enough; it was thrown down to the ground. Tobacco usually came into case after a rain or a heavy fog. In Kentucky, this was around November. The tobacco had to be booked, which was the process of piling it and covering it with plastic. Now it was time for it to be stripped from the stalk. The tobacco was sorted into three or four grades depending on color. Once there was approximately seventy-five pounds in a bale, it was pressed and stacked, waiting to be loaded and hauled to the warehouse to sell.
All of us were expected to help with stripping tobacco. The stripping room attached to the barn had electricity in order that we have lights so that we could strip tobacco each evening. There was a wood burning stove inside, with stovepipes running out the side of the building to keep smoke out. We ate supper many times in the stripping room. Usually we ate soups or beans and cornbread. The pots sat on top of the stove to keep the food warm.
Everyone had a job to do. The bouncer was the person assigned to carry the tobacco into the room, and carry out the stalks out once the tobacco was stripped from it. He also, pressed the tobacco. Often time’s two people were assigned to this job. The rest of the people stood in front of the wall-to-wall table, stripped the tobacco, and listened to country music on the radio. The music served only to further irritate me, since I hated country music – still do. Eventually, if I complained enough and messed up everyone’s routine, I’d be sent to the house once again. Oh what punishment!
The first time I was ever at the warehouse was after I got married. Each year daddy and my brothers hauled truckloads of baled tobacco to the warehouse where it was auctioned off to the highest bidder. We always looked forward to this time, because we knew there was money in the house! Selling tobacco came just in time for Christmas.
I swore I would never marry a farmer, but I did. He swears that I made him sign a contract that kept me out of the tobacco fields. I do remember telling him that he should know he wasn’t marrying a work hand. He must have taken me seriously, as I’ve not been near a tobacco field since we married until I took the above photographs.
I’m thankful for my tobacco field memories, but I don’t miss being around it one bit. I hated it so much that I’ve never smoked or put a cigarette in my mouth. I’ll stick to wearing my high heels and dress up clothes. That’s more like my style.
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