Remember Fred Flintstone saying to his pal Barney, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should” or the ad proclaiming “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette”. I’d bet my doctor never smoked a cigarette in his life. You will never again see ads on TV like these, and rightfully so. A government study in 1965, the first year statistics were monitored it was estimated that half of all adults on a regular basis smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. At this time it was estimated that 150 farms in Northumberland and Durham Counties grew 6,500 acres of the crop. Prime growing areas were Pontypool, Orono, Osaca and Campbellcroft and along the appropriately named Tobacco Road near Castleton.
In late March, the planting of the tobacco crop would start with steaming the seed beds in the green house, the steam sanitizing would prevent soil borne disease. The seedling were started indoors and as they grew they went into the green house soil, transplanting was done by hand, one plant a time. As the plants grew it took constant monitoring to ventilate the greenhouse – too hot and it could cook the plants and too cold would chill them. A watering system kept the soil hydrated. In the spring when the seedlings would “reach from a man’s fingertips to just past his wrist” and the danger of frost was over, usually by May 22, it was time to transplant the seedlings to the field. Timing was critical especially in an area where a late frost could destroy such a tender crop. The average tobacco farm needed 30 to 40 acres of land, a greenhouse (usually about 2-3000 sq. feet in size), a pack barn for storage and grading and four or five kilns (kil’s to the locals). A kiln would take approximately six days for drying and would be used for six more drying sessions during the season. The tobacco farm could usually be identified a mile away by the kiln’s familiar asphalt cladding.
In the field two operators would sit on the back of the ‘trans-planter’ with a water barrel, fertilizer hopper and boxes of plants. An operator would place a plant in the rubber ‘fingers’ of the planter to be dropped down into the soil along with a spray of water and some fertilizer. The planter would make an audible ‘click’ when it was time to drop the next seedling. Sufficient sun and rain were essential and when nature did not cooperate, irrigation was required. Irrigation ponds can still be found even today somewhere in the corner of the fields. Three of four inch pipe were hauled out to the fields on a hay wagon and set up by hand, moving these pipes and sprinklers from field to field was extremely time consuming and hard work.
During the summer it would take several passes with a plow to ‘hill’ up the soil along the rows of plants, weeds were controlled by tilling between the rows and some hand hoeing was also used. Pests were commonly sprayed with chemicals, sometimes aerial sprayed (crop-dusting). A common pesticide once used was the white-blue powder DDT which was legally banned in 1972. During the growing season, usually the first of August, the plants produced flower heads and secondary leaves at the bottom of the plant, both need to be removed from the plant as they siphon too much energy from the primary tobacco leaves. Removal of flower-heads was called ‘topping’ and secondary leaf removal was known as ‘suckering’.
From personal experience, I can tell you tobacco ‘suckering’ was one of the worst jobs I ever attempted! The plants towered above your head, the morning dew would soak you to the skin as you moved from row to row, bending over snapping the suckers with your fingers. Suckering was done on the hottest
days of the summer and you would be sweating buckets but never, ever wipe your eyes as the ‘baccor’ gum or tar turned your hands sticky and black. By the end of the day the tobacco tar covered everything but again never, ever wipe your eyes as the ‘baccer gum’ or tar when introduced to the eye burned much like the drops your optometrist uses for eye examinations, but the pain lasts for many hours! When stopping for lunch you would have to wash your hands in sand to avoid ingesting any of that nasty substance while eating your peanut butter sandwich! Today weeding and suckering are accomplished with chemical spraying. By days end you would clean your hands in a mild lye soap and dish detergent and boil your clothing to get them clean. The pay of a dollar an hour was better than three dollars a day on the mixed farm.
In July when the plants were nearing maturation the picking or ‘priming’ harvest season which would last about six weeks would begin. The first leaves picked were the ‘sand leaves’, the leaves at the bottom of the plant which matured first, followed by the ‘cutters’ and the ‘tips’. Priming would continue up the stalk until all the leaves were removed. Once the leaves as long as three feet were hauled to the kiln yard the leaves were looped to a tobacco cedar lath ‘stick’ and sent by an elevator to the top of the kiln. The kiln was filled from the top down to allow proper air flow for curing the leaves. Tobacco was cured by a heat source usually propane and with burners running 24 hours a day fire was a constant danger that needed to be monitored day and night. The curing process would greatly affect the final grade and thus the price of the crop. To prevent the dried leaves from damage when removed from the kiln, the night before, the doors were left open to soften them by the dew.
When the tobacco was cured it was moved into a barn where it was stored until the weather had turned cold. The tobacco still attached to the sticks was hung in a steam room for an hour to soften the leaves to prevent them from shattering while being handled. The sticks were now removed and the tobacco was packed in a paper lined bale box which compacted the tobacco into a tight 50 – 60 pound bale and wrapped in thick brown paper and stored in preparation for auction. After two years the tobacco field was usually rotated and planted with rye which would then be ploughed under to help fertilize the soil.