Tobacco Barn Home Page




Bookhardt family at the Clarence Walker Homestead, Jeff Davis County, Georgia, 1962. Front: James and Brenda. Back, l. to r.: Eva Lou, June, John, Jesse, and Edward Lee, Sr. Not present: older sisters Sara Jo and Daniela, and older half-brothers Edward and Calvin.
South Georgia Tobacco Patch…

Growing ’Backer on the Wiregrass Plain


Jesse M. Bookhardt
Acworth, Georgia

September, 2006

Webkeeper's note: Jesse Bookhardt grew up in the mid-20th century in a family of sharecroppers and tenant farmers in Jeff Davis County, Georgia, and assisted with the family's annual tobacco crop throughout his childhood and youth. Jesse earned degrees in American History and education from Georgia Southern College and West Georgia College, and was a teacher and principal with the Cobb County, Georgia, School District until his retirement in the mid-1990s. He and his wife, also a former educator, reside in Acworth, Georgia, and spend much of their time on their farm in northeast Alabama, where they garden and tend a muscadine vinyard.

Jesse's account of the stages of planting, raising, curing, and marketing tobacco, written from the perspective of someone who had a hands-on role in every part of the work, is the most complete and detailed that I have ever seen. While some specifics of the process and some of the terminology used differ slightly from the flue-cure tobacco traditions of North Carolina, thousands of Tar Heels, and others in flue-cure tobacco regions of the country, will find his story familiar. Jesse has generously permitted us to post his reminiscence on this website. - Michael Southern




Introduction:


         During World War II, I was born on my grandparents’ farm between Snipesville and Denton, Georgia. In the early days we were sharecroppers, and later, renters. My childhood was filled with stories told by my dad about how he came to Georgia in the late 1930’s, where, while living with the Smith family, he learned to grow and cook tobacco. Daddy spoke of sleepless nights when he stayed up all night stoking wood-fired tobacco barns. Some of my most vivid memories are images of early days farming tobacco on the Wiregrass Plain of Jeff Davis County. With bare feet, I remember following my daddy down deep freshly plowed furrows and taking-in all that the fresh earth had to offer. Plowed soil has a distinctive smell that has stayed with me all these many years. The cool earth on one’s feet leaves a lasting impression. As we grew-up, all nine of us kids played an important role in the tobacco patch, Mama too. Tobacco was our main source of income and consumed untold amounts of energy. The whole Snipesville/Denton Community depended upon tobacco for its main cash crop. The surrounding counties were the same and most had at least one, and some had several warehouses where annual tobacco auctions took place.

Tobacco Planting:


Edward Lee (Eddie) Bookhardt, Sr.
Preparing the seed beds

       Back then tobacco season started early.  Usually in February through early March, tobacco plant beds were prepared and sowed. They were long and rather narrow rectangular structures. Depending upon the amount of plants needed to supply a given farm’s tobacco allotment, they varied in size and number. Perhaps most were about 12 to 14 feet wide and maybe 40 or more feet long. If possible, before anything else was done, a piece of new ground was found and plowed. New ground helped limit fungi and diseases, and especially Blue Mold. Then plant beds were laid-out and a frame constructed. Daddy usually used slender pine trees to frame the beds. When the pines were cut and arranged on the ground to form the desired rectangular bed, he would then drive wooden stakes next to the logs and anchor them to the frame with nails. Next he hammered small nails along the logs about every eighteen inches.  After that, he broadcast the small dark seeds upon the bed by hand and gently raked them into the soil. Finally, he placed a type of cheese cloth over the bed which we called “tobacco bed cloth.” When hooked to the nails, this covering was kept taunt and in place. The cloth covering protected against cold weather and wicked wind. To allow for drying and proper sun penetration, on warm sunny days the cloth was rolled to one side or to the bed’s ends. As the plants matured and the weather warmed, the cloth was eventually removed completely from the beds.

      I remember the fresh pine smell of the woods where Daddy sowed the beds and a few seed brands that we planted. Hicks Broadleaf was a popular cultivar and one by which my Uncle Clifford always swore. Also we grew White Gold. In the later years Daddy found that for a small farmer with a few acres of allotment, buying plants from a bigger farmer who had extra was less expensive than growing the beds ourselves. Growing was not only expensive in fertilizer, seeds, and land preparation, but fighting dreaded Blue Mold was a risky business. Sometimes farmers lost their entire bed to that scourge. To me the plants never looked blue, but brown and dead.

Preparing the field

          Anyway, after plants were grown or purchased, it was time to transplant them in the field. The first task was to select a place where we hadn’t grown tobacco or peanuts the prior year. Crop rotation was important to guard against a host of diseases and insects that attack tobacco plants without encouragement. Once the site was decided, then we set about preparing the dirt. I can recall my daddy and oldest sister sitting down at the kitchen table, prior to the actual field measuring, and calculating on paper the required length and width of the tobacco patch.  In order to make sure that we didn’t plant over our allotment and be forced to cut up some plants, Daddy used a homemade measuring device. We called it the “Measuring Stick.” It resembled a crude compass, and was made from tobacco sticks. Two stick sections were attached to each other at a determined angle so that the distance between the legs (radii) at their ends would be a known measurement. I can’t remember the exact distance, but this stick or device was taken to the field and one leg was placed on the ground, and the device was rotated from leg to leg along a projected field perimeter. The rotations were counted until the amount of space was measured to equal the allotment. It appeared to be a very awkward method, but it worked well when an experienced farmer used it. We never used a chain or tape measure.  I only remember once when we had to cut up plants that were found to be over allotment by the Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) agent who annually measured to insure that farmers stuck to their allotments.

        In the early days, we used a red mule named Lou to plow the fields and make the rows. To burst the drill where we spread 3-9-9 fertilize, a scooter and small sweep were used. Daddy said that too much nitrogen made tobacco rank, not cook well, and brittle when cropped. We added a side dressing of fertilizer at laying-by time. After the fertilizer was distributed, a mound of soil was plowed over it forming long hilled rows.  To flatten the tops of the rows and make a place to plant the tobacco plants, a short wide board attached to the plow was used. The process was grueling labor, yet Daddy was a stickler for well constructed straight rows.

Setting-out


"Blackeye" with Jesse, Sara Jo, and Daniela, 1940s.
        When “setting-out” day came in April it was a time of excitement and great anticipation. Our entire year pretty much depended upon our success. The whole family participated in the planting. We got up early before day break and ate a hearty breakfast of ham, eggs, grits, and coffee. The day before planting, we assembled things we would need such as plants, tar barrels filled with water from the creek or water hole, hand planter, and plant trays. When pulling plants from the bed we counted them and placed them in wooden crates, cardboard boxes, foot tubs or other such containers that could be found around the farm. The plants were gently placed in these receptacles with their roots at the bottom of the container. If they were held very long before transplanting, they were sprinkled with water to keep them fresh. Out in the field the entourage of workers trooped around the end of the first row until all were ready. Daddy usually operated the hand planter and my sisters and Mama took turns performing the duties of the plant dropper. I helped with water and plant supply.

        The hand planter was a metal machine or tool that looked somewhat like two yard-long sections of stove pipe. They were attached to each other on their sides, and had a hinged spade end. One section was larger around than the other. At its upper end the planter had two ports. One port was large and actually was a tank for storing water. The smaller was just bigger in diameter than a large exhaust pipe. It was a flue through which the tobacco plant was dropped or thrust. Furthermore, this hand planter could be used not only to plant tobacco, but peppers, and tomatoes as well. The planter had a trigger which was attached to a rod and plunger.  When pulled, water was allowed to escape from the tank, along with the tobacco plant. Properly positioned in the soft dirt of the row, the machine did a pretty fair job of introducing the plant with water to the earth. The planting process involved the operator pushing the planter’s spades into the soil, the plant dropper dropping a plant down the plant flue, and then the operator pulling the trigger which released the plant and water into the dirt. The operator then removed the planter from the hole and used his foot to firm the soil around the tobacco plant. The operator and plant dropper then moved on down the row until the row was planted, and then down other rows until the entire patch was planted. Water was replenished from turpentine barrels that were positioned along the edge of the field. Plants were taken as required from the plant containers stored under shade trees at the row ends and placed in a homemade cardboard tray that was strapped around the neck of the plant dropper. The plant dropper backed along the rows facing the planter and dropped plants in the planter when needed. It was definitely a team effort and took good coordination between the operator, dropper, and water boy.  Plants were spaced approximately 28 to 32 inches or more apart in the drill.        

        Planting was hard work and few complained about not being able to sleep at night. If the weather were hot on the day of planting, the plants would wilt and one could hardly appreciate what had been done when looking back across the field of wilted green. Next morning when the cool night had had a chance to do its magic and the plants had revived, one could see why farmers have a special connection to Mother Nature. Upon approaching the field, a beautiful erect and ordered plain of green plants could be observed where only a few hours before there had been a mess of plants drooped upon the white sandy soil.


Growing the Crop:

        Once the plants in the field started growing, many things began to happen to keep them from becoming the specimens we wanted. It was our job to intercept, impede, or destroy all that would or did attack. The tobacco had to be hoed, plowed, poisoned, sprayed, topped, and suckered as it grew.

Fighting pests

        Almost immediately after the roots hit the dirt, problems arose. Insects love tobacco. The succulent stems and leaves provided food for a myriad of predators. Cut Worms cut the small plants down by eating away the stalk and roots. We often dug them out of the ground by hand, or I should say fingers. We would run our finger around the plant stem where it entered the earth, and lo and behold a worm would be found.  We sometime trailed mole crickets by following raised soil they left behind. Other organisms that infested and destroyed tobacco included nematodes, stink bugs, budworms, and hornworms. Green July Flies, identified by their oversized grasshopper-type legs and mandibles, also ate tobacco. We would pull their heads off and throw them into the air to see how far they could fly. Further, tobacco was attacked by a variety of diseases and fungi. If all these challenges were not enough, farmers had to deal with wind, hail, drought, and flooding. I remember damage done by all. We loved and hated the weather. It was our constant companion for good or bad, and we had no control. When thunder rolled we shrank, and when the sun shined we thanked the good Lord. A few times we cropped tobacco in mud with our pants rolled up to our knees. Other times, trying to save what we could, we picked hail-damaged tattered and broken leaves from the ground.


In addition to insect pests, the family contended with sometimes uncooperative weather. Jesse's cousin Linda Faye Walker Hayes bogged to her ankles in a tobacco field drowned by heavy rains, 1969 or 1970.
       Fighting insects involved applying large quantities of pesticides. Back in the 1950’s on small farms, insecticides were applied by hand. I remember well the process for doing this job.  We were sometimes late for school because we had to “poison” tobacco before class. We would be rousted out of bed at the crack of dawn, and after a quick breakfast, sent to the field with wash tubs of powdery insect poisons. Frequently we mixed several different poisons with our bare hands. We often made hand prints in the soft flour-like stuff. I remember some of the poison was light-green and was called Paris Green; others were white and pale pink. Anyway, no matter the color, it was deadly to the insects and probably to us. In those days we knew little about the hazards of insecticides. To apply dust, we constructed dispensers from empty coffee cans. Like a pie crust, the can’s bottom was punctured many times with an ice pick, and then the can was nailed to a tobacco stick handle. We filled the cans full of powdery insecticide and each child or person would go down a row shaking a small amount of dust on each plant. It was called “dusting tobacco.” Sometimes we cut a square section of tobacco bed cloth and gathered the four corners forming a pouch in which we placed poison dust.  We used it as a shaker as well. Both worked well enough to get the job done.

When we had finished we often were covered from head to toe with poison. Our eyebrows would be white, and our dungarees and shoes covered. We would then rush home, clean-up and go to school. It was the way of farmers in the old days in the tobacco belt of South Georgia. Who knows what ill effects this might have had? During some years it would be necessary to have the tobacco patch sprayed by airplane. It was expensive and for a small farmer not always affordable.  When aerial spraying was required, the spraying company was contacted and the spraying scheduled. Prior to the spraying date, to make sure that the right farm was sprayed, a white bed sheet was staked next to the tobacco patch.  On most allotments only a few passes of the plane was necessary to complete the job. For us kids it was fun and exciting to see the plane dip nearly to the ground and then roar back into the blue sky, almost clipping the pine tops. Crop dusting certainly was dangerous. Almost yearly we heard of accidents, some of which involved the loss of the pilot.


Jesse, 1940s
Hoeing and "laying-by"

        When the plants were young they were not all that grew. Grass and weeds loved the same environment as the tobacco. I recall many a day spent in the tobacco patch hoeing. Often we would come home from school and find a note on the kitchen table saying for us to come “just a hopping to the tobacco patch.” Daddy owned several hoes. Some were modern and others ancient instruments of hacking that were heavy and dull, probably survivors of the antebellum days when slaves did the mind-numbing monotonous work. To make the job tolerable we kids sang church songs. My sisters sometimes passed time by talking about the different strips found in the “funny paper.” They discussed “Smiling Jack,” “Beetle Bailey,” “Mary Worth,” “Brenda Starr,” and “Snuffy Smith.” Often we counted airplanes that flew overhead. We did a lot of daydreaming. With a shallow clean movement of the hoe through the top few inches of soil, hoeing was done to remove weeds without removing much soil. Another hoeing technique involved making a few weed sweeps followed by several cultivation chops around the plant. The latter loosened the dirt around the roots and allowed the roots to spread more quickly into the surrounding soil. Learning this took some teaching from Daddy at the beginning. Hoeing was also done to pull dirt to the plants. As the days and years passed, these techniques became a rather natural way of hoeing for us kids. Blisters always appeared at the beginning, but as one worked, the hands toughened, the back strengthened, and the task became endurable. After the tobacco plants had grown to a sufficient size and were near “lapping the middles,” Daddy “side-dressed” the tobacco with some moderate fertilizer and gave it its last plowing to control weeds. This was called “laying-by.”  Any more plowing would have been destructive, because the plow and mule would have broken leaves, and the sweep would have cut up roots.

Topping

        At the point that hoeing and plowing were no longer necessary, and the plants had been layed-by, soon “topping” the tobacco was required. When the plants were about chest high they began to bloom. Beautiful pink and white blossoms appeared over a few days and the patch would be covered with bees and other insects gathering pollen and apparently some nectar; even though, I have never heard of tobacco honey. The fields were quite attractive; yet, we never stood round marveling at the beauty for we knew that blossoms meant that topping needed to be performed. To accomplish this job, we would assemble in the field, and each person work down a row breaking out the tops of the tobacco stalks removing the pretty flowers. This process made the tobacco spread its leaves and gain body. If left untopped the plants would grow spindly skyward and would be of less quality.

Suckering

       When the tops were removed not only did the plants start to grow into robust specimens, but they started to produce rank suckers where each leaf was attached to the stalk. We dreaded “suckering” for it required us to pull thousand of suckers from the stalks at a time when the tobacco was growing rapidly and producing “tons” of tobacco tar. Though not visible on the plant, the stuff seemed to exude from all parts of the plant.  The sticky stuff would build-up on any surface that came in contact with the plant. After working in the fields for a short time, your hands, shirts, arm hairs, and eyebrows would all be covered with a thick film of the dark sticky stuff. To prevent this accumulation, farmers wore “get-ups” that were designed to cover the body. Even though the temperature might be in the 90’s, we wore long sleeved shirts, long trousers, and hats that covered as much as possible. It certainly was no time to wear shorts, even though a couple of my sisters tried it in their bathing suits. Most often the women and girls wore old dungarees, sneakers, one of Daddy’s tattered long sleeved shirts, and a Poke Bonnet (Pioneer type).

Suckering involved removing tender sprouts at each junction of leaf and stalk. This backbreaking job was done while watching for Black Widow spiders and snakes that might be resting under a leaf. After the suckering was done, removing the tar from one’s hands was a real job. Back in those days there was only one brand of commercial soap that farmers in our area used, and that was Lava. It was the only soap that would even make a dent in the tar. We often mixed the soap with a handful of clean Georgia sand. After much scrubbing, working in tandem, the two would finally remove the stuff. I remember that in the summer of 1962 when I was in Canada cropping tobacco for a Dutch-Canadian farmer to earn college money, we croppers wore our pants day after day without washing them. They become so coated with tobacco tar until we could literally stand them in the corner of our bunkhouse and they would almost remain upright on their own.

         Removing the suckers strengthened the plant, encouraged the development of body, and improved over all quality. Suckering tobacco was probably the most hated of all tobacco-growing jobs, yet it was necessary. So, sometime in the 1950’s a great sigh of rejoicing went out across the tobacco belt when an anti-sucker agent was introduced. When we first heard of the chemical MH-30, we hardly believed it would work. We wondered how it would be applied to the plant without killing the whole stalk. We questioned what the stuff would do to us. However, before too long the agent was being used by the more progressive risk takers. For a while some stuck with the old method of suckering, but in time the chemical treatment of suckers became accepted methodology.


Puttin-in Tobacco:

       

Lonnie Hayes proudly demonstrating the length of a single tobacco leaf in a field of beautiful tall plants almost ready for "puttin-in." 1960s.

     During the time with which I am familiar, in South Georgia tobacco began to ripen about mid June. Depending upon factors such as weather and rain, the cropping season usually ran into early August. When lower leaves began to turn a light greenish yellow, the tobacco “gathering” season began. At this time farmers started to implement their plans for harvesting the leaves and “cooking.” The process of gathering the leaves and putting them in the barn for curing was called “puttin-in tobacco.” Cropping the leaves was usually conducted by a gang of men and/or teenaged boys. They were called the “Croppers.” A younger boy usually was tasked with driving full sleds of tobacco to the barn and then returning to the field with empties. Some “sled drivers” were barely able to drive a tractor. I remember that on one occasion when I was about eleven years old, and had just started driving sleds for Mr. Herbert Kight, that I mismanaged and somehow got a Super-A Farmall tractor astride a turpentine barrel that was sitting next to the lane from the field to the tobacco barn. After a few minutes working with the situation, I somehow got the tractor off the barrel without anyone being aware. That saved my reputation, as a rookie driver, and prevented a whole lot of ragging by the field and barn crews. At a typical barn most help was female. They strung the tobacco leaves onto tobacco sticks in preparation for the tobacco being hung in the curing barns. The farmer was in charge of puttin-in day and ran the field and barn activities. He most often was located at the barn and looked after unloading of the sleds and hanging of the tobacco in the barn. On most small farms tobacco was strung on sticks and placed in neat piles near the ’backer barn door, so as to facilitate the transfer into the barn. Generally, after the croppers finished the cropping, they came to the barn and did the “hanging.”

Swapping hands

Puttin-in tobacco required lots of dirty manual labor in very hot conditions. To supply this labor, farmers often swapped hands. The farmers agreed to help each other gather tobacco on puttin-in days. Our puttin-in day was Monday. Uncle Clifford’s was Tuesday, and Mr. Ray’s was Thursday, etc.  On these special gathering days the harvest usually started early with the croppers expected to be in the field ready to crop by seven o’clock. In the early mornings, the tobacco was nearly always wet with dew, sometime to the point that you got wet from head to foot, and your hands shriveled. We wore old clothes and caps or hats to ward off as much tar as possible. The crew of croppers numbered four or more. A mule or horse was used to drag a tobacco sled down the middle between two rows. If you had four croppers you put the sled down the second middle, so that you had two croppers on one side of the sled and two on the other. An uneven number made the sled placement more difficult, but was always manageable. It just meant that some croppers had to cross over several rows to put their tobacco in the sled. I always preferred any row except the one which required you to follow the mule, for the corresponding middle sooner or later would be filled with droppings, and one always had to put-up with the smell of mule.

Sleds and mules

         Sleds were made of 2 x 4 frame lumber mounted on 2 x 6 runners. Their sides were constructed of burlap fertilizer or feed sacks tacked to the framing. They were long and narrow. Throughout the Canadian flue-cured belt, they were called “Tobacco Boats.” South Georgia sleds were somewhat like a crate or rectangular box on runners. A chain was attached to the front of the sled and was linked to the mule’s trace chains and single tree by a “C” link.  Also a “C” link connected the sled to the tractor for the trip to the barn. Keeping up with the location of portable “C” links was a constant endeavor. Since they were small, they were easily lost in the dirt or sled.

At the beginning of the day the mules were strong and sometimes restless. I remember that Mr. Ed Ray had two big mules. One year he allowed us to borrow one on our puttin-in day. The mule had a stopping problem. Each time we put him in the middle with a sled and we clucked to make him go forward, he wouldn’t stop until he traveled the whole length of the row, even though we were yelling “whoa” at the tops of our lungs.  Mr. Ray’s son, Polly, would hop into the sled, and while mumbling a few curse words, slap the lines across the rank mule’s back and run the critter around the patch a couple of times. That being done, there after each time we called “whoa,” the mule would obey directly. Tobacco leaves were cropped and neatly laid in the sleds. When a sled was full it was parked at the end of the field, and a second sled filled.  Then the sled driver on a tractor would hook to the two full sleds of tobacco and take them to the barn. In a jiffy he returned to the field with empty sleds, and the process would go on until the patch of tobacco had been cropped. The sled driver was also responsible for keeping plenty of cool water available for the croppers. Many a driver got in trouble with the field hands by not taking that job seriously enough.

Stringing

Diane Mobley and Linda Faye Walker Hayes with a strung green stick of tobacco. 1969 or 1970.

In the meantime back at the barn, tobacco leaves were being removed from the sleds and placed on stringing benches which were made of wide boards and built just under the edge of the barn shelter facing away from the barn. The benches were equipped with an upright tobacco stick holding frame or rack. It was high enough so that when a stick was inserted into it, the stick would be somewhat level at a horizontal height to comfortably fit under the arm of an average size woman. This height facilitated the stringing of the leaves on the tobacco stick. With a tobacco stick, which was about 54 inches long, placed in the rack, the “stringer” would take “hands” of tobacco from a “hander” and “string” it on the stick. The process involved a stringer and two handers. Handers stood one on each side of the stringer with tobacco on the bench in front of them. The stringer first tied cotton string to one end of a tobacco stick and placed it into the stick rack. The hander on the left of the stringer then handed the stringer a “hand of tobacco” which was made of two or three leaves. The stringer took the hand and strung it on the stick by clockwise looping the cord over and around the leaf stems and drawing the string tight as she pushed the leaves up against the stick. The stringer then reached under the stick and grabbed the leaves being handed by the hander on her right and counter-looped the string over the hand and pulled it to the stick while tightening the twine.  This process, which was called “stringing tobacco,” was done until the stick was full except for a few inches on each end. At this point the stick was “tied-off,” and was placed on the ground in a stack where it would stay until it and many more could later be hung on the barn tiers. It took a stringing team with experience to make this job seem easy. Some were very good and could make the leaves seem to fly off the benches and on to the sticks. Stringing made squeaking sounds as the string slipped pass the green stems cutting into them slightly. When the process was going smoothly this rhythmic sound was very noticeable. Farm girls started early to learn the stringing technique. When just little girls, my sisters would gather dog fennel and use that common Georgia weed as a substitute for tobacco leaves. They practiced stringing the weed to a tobacco stick. Even though they were playing, a necessary skill was being learned.

From the bottom up

         As the weeks passed, starting at the bottom of the plant and proceeding up the entire plant to the top, the tobacco plant ripened its leaves a few each week. At first the croppers removed the bottom leaves referred to as “sand lugs” because they were covered with sand. These leaves were usually of the poorest quality of all the leaves. If they judged them to be of such poor quality as not to be worth the effort of gathering, some farmers pulled and discarded them. Next, the croppers harvested the “middle tobacco” which when cured was the best of the crop in weight and sugar content. The leaves were bigger and of greater body than sand lugs or the top leaves. Finally, at the close of the gathering season, the “tips” were cropped. Whereas, they were inferior in overall quality to the middle leaves, they were far superior to the sand lugs. Since the last cropping removed all the leaves from the stalks, it was called “stripping.” At that stage of the harvest, the attitudes of the workers significantly improved. The crop was almost finished. Stripping was a romp in the field. One didn’t have to bend to crop, nor distinguish between ripe and green tobacco.

Hanging

        Cropping tobacco was not the only hard and dirty job. Stringers were required to stand in one place and string hour after hour. Stringers suffered cord burns on their fingers. Some used white bandage tape around their stringing fingers and hands to prevent these burns. Also, after cropping and stringing, came the dirty, hot task of hanging the heavy sticks on the barn tiers. After the croppers finished their field work, and returned to the barn, they usually were the ones who “hung the barns.” A team effort was required here as well. Starting at the stack of strung sticks outside the barn door, a brigade of hands lined up and passed the sticks of tobacco to a couple of hangers who had climbed into the barn and stood spread-eagle on the parallel tiers. The object was to hang the green tobacco on these racks so that it could be properly cooked-off.” Most barns were made of rough sawn unpainted framing lumber and wide board siding. Generally, barns were divided into four “rooms” which had open tier walls separating them. Barn overall dimensions were 16 x 16 feet. However, my PaPa Walker had one old log barn that had five rooms and measured 20 x 20 feet. Tar paper was often used to help insulate drafty barns. Some barns were made of cement blocks, and the oldest ones were made of skinned logs and pole tiers. These barns appeared as tall log cabins.  Early barns had wood shingle roofs. By the late 1940’s most roofs had been converted to tin. Anyway, sticks of tobacco were passed into the barn and handed up to the hangers who worked in a room in very dim light which came through the door. Small vent doors at the top of each gable end of the barn provided light for a short time, but that illumination was doused quickly by sticks of green tobacco being hung on the top tiers.  The hangers stood on the tiers which were about 48 inches apart. I preferred hanging in the log barns for, even though their overall space was cramped, their tiers were log poles and were much more comfortable to my feet than the sharp edges of rough sawn 2 x 4 tiers; however, one had to be careful not to allow your feet to slip off the rounded surfaces. From the outside the sticks were passed up to the first hanger standing on lower tiers. He then passed it up to the top hanger who actually hung the sticks on the tiers. As the hanging progressed, the outside pile of sticks got smaller while the barn became fuller.  A couple of things that the hangers had to deal with included short sticks that fell after being hung and sticks that were too long and would not easily fit the span between tiers. After some tobacco was hung, soon hangers would be working with tobacco which had been cropped in the early morning and was still usually dripping with dew. With moisture on the tobacco leaves, wet stuff fell on the heads of the hangers, and if sand lugs were being hung, sand rained along with the water. It was not a fun job and one learned never to look directly up if possible. All this was being done in the heat of the advanced day when the temperatures might be in the nineties, near one hundred.

         Hangers were familiar with “falling out” at the barn. The term didn’t always mean literally falling from the tiers to the ground, which sometimes did happen, but most often referred to getting too hot and suffering the ill effects of heat exhaustion. A good hanging team could hang a full barn of tobacco rather quickly.  It was common for the top hanger to hang a half barn, and then rotate to the outside, and another hanger hang the last half. The key to hanging the barn was not just surviving the water, sand, and heat, but also using good judgment in making sure that the barn was not overly packed. The sticks of green tobacco had to be spaced properly. If placed too closely on the tiers, there wouldn’t be enough air circulation, and the tobacco could sour and ruin. Placed too widely, precious barn space was wasted.

"Cooking" (Curing)

        After the barn was properly hung with green tobacco, the curing or “cooking” process started. Most early barns were originally heated by a brick furnace which was built in the barn. It was equipped with flues and was stoked from the outside with wood. During my experiences in the 50’s, all of the old wood cookers had been converted to kerosene cookers. Yet, many of the old furnaces remained in the barns. I remember the oily smell of the kerosene burner and flues. The burner was notorious for clogging and smoking the tobacco. Carbon had to be removed regularly from the burner plate to keep the cooker going from week to week. Some farmers cooked with LP gas during this time period. In the mid 60’s Frazier Oil Company in Hazlehurst became a dealer for installing and servicing an advanced automatic tobacco cooker. The model used a fire chamber and electronic spark to ignite the fuel. The system cycled on and off as the temperature fluctuated. I spent one summer working with Frazier Oil helping install these systems. Anyway, cooking tobacco was not just a job but an art. Some could do it right and others never seemed to get the hang of it. My daddy had experience with old wood furnaces and kerosene flue cookers.

Jesse's Uncle Clifford and Aunt Loudine Walker holding a  stick of "cooked" (cured) tobacco in the pack house.  1967.

        As soon as the barn was hung with green tobacco, cooking started. During the first stage of curing or “coloring” the leaf, if the weather were really hot and the barn could be maintained in the 90’s, then the burner was not needed. Vents at the foundation of the barn and gable windows were used to regulate the amount of ventilation. Some barns were equipped with ridge roof vents. On occasions main barn doors were “cracked” to aid in this process. The idea was to wilt the tobacco and not let it sour or mold. As time passed, the heat was cranked up and the temperature rose between 90 and about 110 degrees. During this time the tobacco was “coloring.” The wilted leaves began to turn a beautiful creamy yellow, but not yet golden. As the days progressed and the leaves had been properly colored, the time came when one needed to “go up on the barn.” This was a critical time because if one advanced the heat on a barn too soon, damage was done. If tobacco had too much green still left and you increased the heat, you set the color and the tobacco was forever green, instead of the golden leaf desired in the industry. Sometimes the leaf would color but the stems would lag behind and still be green. The farmer had to know when and how much to go up on heat. After the leaf was colored, the object was to dry the tobacco of moisture, so eventually the heat was gradually pushed from the 110-120 coloring range to a transitional range between about 121-139. Later the heat would be advanced to the 140-180 range. At this stage the barn was said to be on “high heat,” and the tobacco definitely quickly lost its moisture. Getting a barn of tobacco up to the upper ranges of drying was dangerous, and some farmers lost their barn by not paying enough attention to the process at this stage. Daddy preferred to keep the barn’s heat at about 160 at this time. At this stage a barn seemed to be a live creature; one could hear roaring and smell the distinctive sweet smell of cured tobacco. Sometimes the kerosene burner glowed red hot, and that was scary especially when observed at night. Some farmers were known to actually sleep on the barn’s benches during high heat time, at least until the rising temperatures were stabilized. That was a common practice during the early decades of growing tobacco when barns were heated by wood-burning furnaces.

         The cooking process took about five days, sometimes six. On the fifth day or there about, test sticks were removed from different areas of different rooms in the barn to check to see if the tobacco were dry. The stems were checked because they were the last part of the leaf to “cook-off” completely. We always snapped a few stems, and if we got a good dry clean snap, the tobacco was finished and the burner was extinguished. Soon thereafter, the doors and windows were opened to allow the tobacco to take on a certain amount of moisture making it pliable and workable. In other words, cooked tobacco needs to have enough moisture to allow it to be handled without the leaves shattering into small pieces. In the tobacco business when a barn or leaf of tobacco had hydrated enough to be handled, it was said to be “in order”, or “to have taken order.” However, too much moisture was not good either, for it would cause the tobacco to rot. As in most things, a balance was necessary.


Preparing Tobacco for the Market:

Taking out

        On a tobacco farm work was never finished. Tobacco once cured and ordered had to be taken out of the barn and placed in the pack house. There it would be removed from the sticks and processed for the market. The “taking out” process usually took place during the early morning hours of puttin-in day, or the day before, if you were lucky. Our family often took out tobacco on Mondays, our gathering day. We didn’t like taking it out on Sundays; even though, I remember on some occasions having to perform that task before we attended Sunday school. On the day of “taking out,” we got up early, about four o’clock, and rushed to the barn with kerosene lanterns. Inside the dimly lit barn, we could no longer feel the heat of the flues, and with the doors and windows open, the tobacco had taken on order. We sat about quickly passing the ’backer sticks out of the barn. While standing on the ground, we started by removing lower tier sticks. When all the sticks that we could reach in a given room had been taken out, I would climb up on the tiers and pass the sticks down to a brother who in turn passed to a second family member, and then to Daddy who placed them on the back of our truck. During the process, and especially with sand lugs, the sand would roll down our collars, get into our eyes, and dig into any place that was not covered.  Merely touching a stick of sand lugs usually set off a near mini sandstorm. When the truck was fully loaded with the golden cargo, we hauled it to the pack house where it was stored for processing. Then it was back to the house and a bit of breakfast before reporting to the field for another puttin-in day. The process of gathering tobacco went on for several weeks until all the tobacco was cropped, cooked, and stored in the pack house. Usually the marketing process started before all the tobacco was gathered, so at some point in time, we were “puttin-in tobacco,” “cooking tobacco,” “taking out tobacco,” “taking off tobacco,” and selling all at the same time. It was a good thing that the season was not a year long thing.

Taking off and grading



"Taking off" tobacco in the pack house. Left to right, Rudy Clark, Loudine Walker, Maggie Clark, and Rosie Clark. August, 1967. The Clark family lived on the Clifford Walker place and helped with tobacco.
        Preparing the tobacco for sale was a critical job. After the tobacco was in the pack house, it had to be taken off the stick. It needed to be graded into stacks of good, poor, and poorest, or at least some grades so that all the tobacco didn’t reach the warehouse as a polyglot mess. The “taking-off” process was no fun.  We tried to make time “fly” by singing, joking, and telling tales. When removing the tobacco from the stick, it was necessary to wrap string around one’s fingers. Sore fingers were common, and used string clung to everything. Stick splinters infested our hands. Since my uncle had more allotment than we did, and not nearly as many kids to work, he paid us to help with this task. We were paid a penny per stick taken-off. If lucky, I could take off about 150 sticks a day; some skilled and motivated adult managed many more.  During the grading process, any foreign matter found was removed and we constantly checked for what was called “green stem” tobacco. Green stems were tobacco leaves that somehow didn’t completely dry during the cooking, and their stems remained plump and green. Such tobacco could sometimes be identified by its unique green smell. If left in the tobacco piles, green stems caused rot and that was not good. Daddy made sure that his tobacco didn’t have green stems, nor smell as if it did. If a significant quantity of green stems were found, they were usually restrung on sticks and if possible placed in a neighbor’s barn that was already cooking on high heat. There the green stem sticks would be recooked.  Any tobacco that showed the slightest hint of gaining too much moisture and beginning to mold or mildew was thinly spread on newspaper to dry. Once graded, the tobacco was packed on sheets and sent to town to be sold at auction. During all this handling process, if the tobacco fell out of order, we would lightly sprinkle water on it to help it regain moisture.
       

Jesse's cousin Linda Faye and Uncle Cliff Walker taking a break on a sheet of tobacco that is being "made up."  1967.
Grading tobacco also involved hand shuffling through the tobacco and removing leaves that didn’t fit, such as parched ones, or ones that were significantly damaged by insects. Nothing should detract from the sheet of tobacco being sold. The very poorest quality tobacco leaves were graded out as well. Tobacco that was uniform in quality and type was not graded, and that was what we wanted. Daddy usually grew very good tobacco and got a high price for it at the market. He produced tobacco with freckles that indicated high sugar content. When the tobacco was taken off the stick and graded, we placed it on a sheet made from four fertilizer bags or feed bags. The fertilizer bags were burlap and the feed bags white cotton sacks with brand labels on them. They were sewn together with burlap cord, or white cotton twine. Daddy used a large needle with a slight curve to do the job. He also made repairs in sheets that had been torn for one reason or the other. The tobacco was placed on top of the square sheet which we had lined with a layer of newspaper. The stems were positioned so that they stuck outward from the center. Succeeding layers of tobacco leaves were placed on the sheet creating a pancake- like structure. Some tobacco was put in the center which helped tie the whole sheet of tobacco into one cohesive unit. Packing was done at intervals to make sure the tobacco stuck together. For this task a “pack board” was made from wide boards. It was pretty much square and fairly heavy. To give added weight, Daddy placed as many kids on the board as possible. Uncle Cliff used a barn door as his pack board. Sometimes we would place bricks and cement blocks on the board and allow it to sit on the tobacco over night.  Pack board imprints were visible even when the tobacco was displayed on the warehouse floor. Packing made a sheet of tobacco attractive, compact for transporting, and difficult for pin hookers and buyers to pull apart, destroying  over-all appearance. Some unscrupulous farmers sometimes attempted to hide poor quality or damaged tobacco in a sheet by packing it so tightly it could not be examined very well. When the tobacco had been properly arranged on the sheet and packed, the sheet’s four corners were lapped over the top of the pile and tied into knots. Because of the practical need to move sheets around during the warehousing and transporting processes, sheets of tobacco could not weigh more than 300 pounds. Sheets that topped that limit were rejected at the warehouse. Daddy approached but seldom exceeded the limit.


Selling Tobacco at the Warehouse:


Tobacco warehouse sale, Hazlehurst, Georgia, 1960s. Jeff Davis Ledger photo.
        The most delightful time of the tobacco harvesting season came when the tobacco was sold. After the sheeting and packing at the pack house, we would load our small pickup with as many sheets of tobacco as possible, frequently as many as five or six, and go to the Planters Warehouse in Hazlehurst where we always sold our tobacco. Daddy was a friend of Mr. Slim Johnson from North Carolina, a part owner and operator of the warehouse. One summer Daddy worked for Mr. Johnson as “floor manager.” The trip to town might take place at night, or even on a rainy day. To protect against rain, we always covered the precious load with a canvas tarp. When we arrived at the warehouse near the icehouse in Hazlehurst, we joined a line of trucks waiting to be unloaded. Along the street that led to the warehouse loose tobacco leaves that had fallen from trucks lay everywhere. If we kids ever got a chance to ride to town, we usually sat on top of the tobacco sheets where we had a perfect view of the entire “goings ons.” Eventually, a warehouse crew removed the sheets from the truck and placed them on the floor for auction the next day. On tobacco buggies (hand truck) the sheets were rolled across certified scales and weighed by a scalesman. If a sheet weighed 300 or less pounds, it was tagged with the owner’s name and the recorded weight. It then was pushed to an established row where other sheets had been located, all waiting to be auctioned.
          
       To earn college money, once I worked the night shift at Planters Warehouse and helped perform the unloading and sheet alignments. At some point during the night, we worked our way down rows of tobacco sheets flipping the tobacco onto shallow hardwood baskets. At that point, the bottom of the sheet became the top and that was what the buyers saw when they examined the tobacco at auction. The “dumping” of the tobacco allowed farmers to reuse their sheets. Dumping a sheet of tobacco was a big job for a skinny teenager who only weighed 128 pounds.  The job required two guys to pick a sheet slightly off the floor and with a quick swing dump the pile of tobacco upside down into a basket. Very large sheets often had to be rolled over, while hoping that the farmer had done his job of packing the sheet well enough that during the roll the whole thing didn’t fall apart. When it did, we placed the leaves back in the basket arranged in the usual pancake shape. Generally speaking, a unit of tobacco was referred to as a “sheet of tobacco” when it was in the pack house and at the farm. Once it was “dumped” into a basket on the floor of the warehouse, it was mostly called a “pile” of tobacco, or “basket” of tobacco. It sometimes was called a “lot” of tobacco.

       With youngsters loudly calling, “fresh boiled peee-nuts!” buyers, warehousemen, and farmers running about, sales days were most exciting. The warehouse projected its own unique character and odor. It smelled of boiled peanuts, stale cigarette smoke, burlap, and sweet cured tobacco. It functioned like a beehive, with each person knowing his job and doing it. Before each auction, a government grader graded each sheet and left his score on the ticket. When the auction started, the auctioneer stood at the head of a row of tobacco piles, and mostly walked sideways, or backed down the row facing buyers who were broadcasting their bids to him in distinctive ways. Fingers and hands would be lifted into the air in personalized fashions, and certain calls made to get the auctioneer’s attention. Once everyone got used to each other’s style of bidding, every thing moved rapidly. As the animated crowd moved along pulling tobacco from the piles and examining the leaves, the auctioneer rattled off his musical chant.  When a sale was made you could hear him loudly bellow, “Sold to American,” or to R. J. Reynolds, or a host of other tobacco companies.  I can remember several companies that bought tobacco at the Hazlehurst tobacco markets, both at the Planters and the Farmers warehouses. The companies that I remember include: R. J. Reynolds; American; China American; Leggett & Myers; Brown & Williamson; Imperial; and P. Lorillard. Perhaps there were others.  Independent buyers also speculated on the market. These buyers were called “pin hookers,” and farmers resented their being there buying their tobacco. As a small child, based on talk by farmers, I envisioned them as devil-like creatures that wielded a big sharp hay hook, with which they snatched sheets of tobacco off the warehouse floor. In spite of their perceived evil persona, these businessmen bid on piles of tobacco they thought could be resold for higher prices. They would buy the tobacco, rework it and then resell. Sometimes they didn’t do much reworking, just resold. Apparently farmers didn’t like the pin hookers making money off their hard work and tobacco. In general, tobacco buyers as a group tended to have a “reputation,” either earned or unearned. A few favored strong drink and cards. Being away from their families and communities might have added temptation.

Tobacco warehouse sale, Hazlehurst, Georgia, 1960s. Jeff Davis Ledger photo.

          If farmers weren’t pleased with the sales price, they rejected the sale and tried another warehouse, or a different day. Some would check the price and rip the sales ticket. The US government offered low support prices and farmers hated accepting. In some cases where the tobacco was damaged or had significant quality problems, support prices were all that could be expected. As a kid I never understood the support programs well, and today still don’t.  When Daddy sold our tobacco, he followed a ritual. He was superstitious. He grew a good crop, so he should have expected a good price; yet, he wanted insurance that he would get the best price. On sales day he would dress in his cleaned and pressed brown khaki pants, polished and shined black dress shoes, and pressed white short sleeved shirt with two pockets. A check was made to ensure that he had his marketing card in his pocket. He always wore a special gold ring that we called the “Crazy Tooth” ring. The ring was set with a tooth that supposedly came from the dental work of a crazy patient at my grandmother’s nursing home. Anyway, Daddy always wore that ring and rubbed it several times during sales day. It worked, for most often he came home with good news. Good prices back then ranged in the low to middle sixties. If you got sixty-six cents per pound, you had gotten the very best for your tobacco.

        Tobacco sales were the climax of the gathering season and during that time many kids could be heard practicing their auctioneer chants as they went about doing their farm chores or conversing with family and friends. Once the tobacco was sold it was re-sheeted and shipped by truck or train to the different tobacco factories located at various places in the country. Some were shipped overseas. At the end of tobacco season, auctioneers, buyers, warehousemen, and pin hookers left town and things drifted back to normal.

Getting the Job Done:


Edward L. Bookhardt, Sr. (center), with sons Edward Jr. (left) and Calvin
       
All said and done, growing tobacco was a difficult job; yet, it was a living. The hard labor was off-set by certain antics practiced by the field hands. Fellowship between family and friends helped us deal with bone-numbing labor. Antics that I can remember included such things as placing a turtle or cute baby bunny that we had found in a tobacco sled. When the sled was unloaded at the barn, the special delivery created excitement and lots of oohs and aahs. Even though it was done occasionally by some croppers, putting a snake in the sled was a no-no. That naturally created consternation and some strong denouncing from the barn crew. Another way we passed time and made the farming experience more exciting, involved tussling with each other in the field or around water holes. Such fooling around usually started when one guy challenged another to see who could throw the other in the pond. If nothing else, it was a good way to cool-off. I remember one day earning points with my Uncle Cliff by being able to throw him in the water hole where we had been drawing water for planting tobacco. He had already thrown me in the muddy water. Polly Ray used to horrify us boys by taking a dare to walk barefoot through a stinging nettles patch. He would aggressively stomp on the sharp thorns as we cringed and howled. Dressed in his oversized overalls with frayed legs, he never wore shoes in the summer and his feet were truly as tough as shoe leather. He was one of our favorite characters who talked without moving his lips, and always had a hand-rolled Prince Albert cigarette on his lower lip as if glued there. We delighted in predicting how long his cigarette ashes would grow before dropping. Other favorite tricks performed at the tobacco patch included Uncle Cliff pretending to eat a hornworm or swallow tobacco poison. He was so good at the trick until even those of us who had seen him do it before were almost convinced. The poor rookies who had never seen him perform became alarmed and expected him to fall over any second, which he usually did with great fanfare. Cool clear water fetched from the barn and taken to the field was a good thing. Most often water was delivered by the sled driver in a gallon Twelve Oaks Vinegar jar. It was passed among the croppers, and after all had had their fill, stored under a shade tree or tobacco plant. During most years, friendly competition existed between the female barn help and the male field crew. The girls liked to show the boys that they could string all the tobacco that the guys could crop. Often they hurried and just before the sled driver arrived, would sit down on the barn benches as if they had been idle for a time. They complained that they had to string the stuff and guessed that they would also have to go to the field and crop it.

        Thinking back on those interesting days, I recall that the most pleasurable part of puttin-in tobacco was the dinner meals served by farm wives and their helpers. It was the custom, in the 50’s, to provide dinner for all the tobacco hands. Actually, the meal was a feast and consisted of available farm products. The menu included a copious amounts of ice-tea, and a selection of the following type foods: Fresh Purple Hull, Black-Eyed, or Brown Crowder field peas;  butter beans, potato salad, hot cornbread wedges, new boiled potatoes, buttermilk biscuits, hot fried pork chops, fried chicken, beef stew, boiled pork backbone, fried or slickum okra, stewed squash, pickled beets, garden onions, rice, turnips, mustard greens, macaroni and cheese, roasting ear corn, creamed corn, snapped beans, cucumber pickles, yellow cabbage pickle  relish,  vine ripened sliced tomatoes, cobbler pies, banana pudding, and cakes. The meal was served at twelve noon, and during segregation days, the black help, if there were any, ate last. I never understood that proposition, but that was the way of things back then. After the big dinner a break was taken to digest the food before returning to the hot tobacco patch. The men and boys usually sat under shade trees or lounged on porches. The women gathered in the house. As time passed, this tradition was suspended by those who had a small allotment and only needed a half day of labor. During the waning of the old, a new tradition was born. This tradition held that crews deserved a short break and refreshments during mid-mornings about ten o’clock. When this custom had taken hold, it was widely practiced. Tobacco hands were provided a “Co-cola,” candy bar, and a few minutes in which to take them down. It was a burden for those farmers who had a small crop, yet still had to “cough-up” for the refreshments. On the other hand, for the workers it was a moment of revival.

Conclusion:

        Growing up on a farm is a privilege. Few live as many rich diverse experiences that help you appreciate life. As a kid complaining about getting up before dawn to “take out” a barn of tobacco, I never dreamed I was learning discipline and responsibility. While sticky and sweaty, cropping up and down tobacco rows, perseverance never crossed my mind. When hanging sticks in the barn, I never realized that I was learning to be a team player. Developing do-it-yourself skills was the last thing on my mind, when I was helping build sleds. When just walking round the farm, “green space” didn’t mean what it does now. Farming builds character, and farmers are tough and enduring creatures.


To the best of my memory,

Jesse M. Bookhardt

September 25, 2006