A long time ago now, I grew up in south central Virginia, in the tobacco belt, the bible belt, the belt across you backside if you weren’t careful part of the country. A huge percentage of the kids I knew from school grew up on farms, mostly tobacco farms. A common way to earn cash in the fall was to help out with the harvest, ‘pulling’ tobacco; I got my first taste of this at age 13.
Not an easy job by any standards, some kids couldn’t do it, some wouldn’t.
The work began in the field as soon as it was light enough to see. The fields were laid out in roughly 4 acre plots, enough to fill a barn, with 8 rows in a section, divide by tractor paths. The leaves often were cold and wet with dew and at first you’d get cold and wet pretty quickly. Before long the sun would get up and dry you off along with the leaves, but after a short equilibrium, that welcomed sunshine began to roast you to the point you’d start to question the not so orderly universe.
If you were fast enough and get ahead of the tractor you might slip in a quick cig at the end of the row, otherwise there was only one official break, measured in time by the stick count or when the barn was half full. These breaks were frequently taken in the shade of the ‘slide’, a sled pulled behind the tractor to haul the leaves on, with a much welcomed little Debbie cookie and a cold soda pop provided by the farmer.
The field harvesting process for bright Virginia tobacco was to pull only the ripest leaves from the bottom of each plant, usually 3, sometimes more, shove them under your arm and quickly move to the next plant repeating this action plant after plant, row after row, heading to the slide to unload when you couldn’t carry more under your arm. Once the slide was full the tractor headed to the barn and quickly unhitched and came back with an empty slide.
The tractor was driven often by the farmer you were working for, sometimes an elderly member of the family, and occasionally by a kid the rest of us saw as ‘privileged’. Meanwhile, at the barn, several women of all ages were busy unloading the slides and sorting the leaves on to an electric stringer (imagine a 16-foot-long sewing machine) or sometimes hand tying the leaves butt end up, to hang over a wooden stick. These sticks would be taken into a barn and hung on poles for drying, the poles ran the length of the barn and were carefully spaced for hanging the sticks. there were usually 4-6 tiers of poles, rising to the top of the barn. The hard wood sticks would hold about 30 pounds of uncured tobacco. these were handed up by a person who would take them off the stringer as they came out sewn, then hand them up into the barn where, usually, two guys awaited, one positioned high in the barn, the other at the bottom tier. Each guy was straddling the 4 (aprox) foot space between the poles. The lower guy passed the loaded stick upwards for the other to hang on the top tiers.
The sticks were placed evenly, semi-snug, but not to tight, to allow heated air to pass; thus the barn was loaded. Being tall and possessed of excellent reach, I got to load quite a few barns over the times I worked there.
Back in the field, finally, before lunch and just when you’d forgotten that there was a world beyond the end of the rows, the signal to halt was given. We’d all hitch a ride on the slide or hang on to the tractor someplace you wouldn’t want your kid on and head to the barn. Here we’d grab another soda and pile up in any available shade while we rolled tobacco gum off our hands and arms and awaited the farmer to dole out the hard earned cash one hand at a time.
Sometimes we’d stay and do a second barn in the afternoon or spend the rest of the day picking up hay. Most often, we’d pile in a car and head straight to the store and chip in on a carton of beer for the ride home. Meanwhile the farmer would light the gas burners and close up the barn to begin the curing process that made bright Virginia tobacco famous and most used.
Nostalgia. Surely, I’m not the only one who’d rather pack a pipe and reminisce instead of finishing shop clean up. Oh, the beer in the car thing, wasn’t repeated too often, and the statute of limitations has passed many times over.
Thanks for listening.
Smoke a pipe.