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 Tobacco Farm Culture 1940/60

in the Roanoke - Chowan area
of North Carolina

          This is my working hypothesis - the way I see it as of this moment!! 

Tobacco Barns at Maple Lawn 1949

yippee.jpg (23080 bytes)
Arthur Moore, Yippee and Sally Moore 1949
photo by Margaret Stevens

   Our Tobacco barns, at that time, were all of log construction with hand-hewn cypress shingles. The shelters gave some relief from the sun during the day when we were handling the green tobacco and cover for the men as they camped out at night to keep the fires slowly burning in the brick ovens for about five days and nights to cure the tobacco to a golden yellow. The brick furnaces were built into the barn. These were fueled by wood until oil burners were installed in the 1950's.

Wood  to CureTobacco
photo by Margaret Stevens

  Every winter the men would scour the forest for fallen and other waste wood to prepare for the summer's curing of tobacco. (Many a barn has gone up in flames because of dried tobacco falling onto the hot hot metal flues that distributed the heat evenly throughout the barn.)

  17 Aug 1939 in "The Hertford County Herald"
  "Ahoskie Firemen go to Powellsville
    Ahoskie volunteer firemen took
  a trip into the country last Saturday
 morning after receiving an
 urgent call from W I Early of 
 Powellsville stating that one of his
 tobacco barns was burning and
 others were threatened.
   Fire Chief Theo Mitchell and 
four assistants arrived on the 
 scene with truck and equipment
 a few minutes later. They were 
 unable to save the burning barn
 but they saved the two barns
 nearby, thus preventing a
 considerable loss to Mr. Early."

ca Feb 1950 Earnest Moore of Maple Lawn
spreading tobacco canvas on the tobacco plant bed
often some tomato and pepper plants were snuck in by the Mrs.

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Velner Ruth Cooke-Nichols
Weeding the seed beds ca 1950
photo by Ross Joseph Nichols

tobacco-transplanting.jpg (16602 bytes) 
ca 1950 Ross Joseph Nichols and Louis Vann 
Transplanting tobacco on the Nichols farm
the mules have been replaced by a tractor
this one is driven by Fred Nichols
photo by the Nichols family

 "putting in tobacco"

tobaccoprimers.jpg (20300 bytes) 
Priming [pulling] tobacco in Hertford County
photo from Ed Copeland 
[these plants appear to be stunted probably due to lack of rain during the growing season. Often the plants grew to six feet or so.]
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Priming tobacco on the Nichols farm 1950's
photo by the Nichols family

   My job was handing bunches of three or four leaves to the

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Everybody in the Newsome family is busy at the barn
granddaughter, grandmother and daughter
staff photographer RC News Herald of Ahoskie, NC

 loopers to be looped  onto the sticks to be hung in the barns.  

tobacco-looping.jpg (14715 bytes) 
1954 Anita Newsome looping tobacco
at Union in Hertford County, NC
staff photographer RC News Herald of Ahoskie, NC

   Looping was an art, the string had to be tight enough to hold the tobacco onto the sticks while it was curing and not so tight as to cut the leaves so they would fall off during the curing process.

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Alonzo Nichols displaying a stick of looped tobacco
 before it was hung in the barn to be cured. photo by the Nichols family

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1959 William Britt and son Bruce with sleigh full of primed tobacco
photo by F Roy Johnson

  On our farm my brother Arthur was one of the  drivers of the old mules drawing the sleighs  full of primed tobacco from the fields to the shelter to be hung onto the sticks. 

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Delores, Linda and Barbara Nichols
catching a ride on the back of a sleigh

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Kay Early, her uncle's tobacco truck and his mule "Rabbit,"
whose hind legs and long tail are at extreme
right edge of this photo, ca 1954-55

 "grading tobacco"

  Then after all the tobacco had been pulled and cured in the tobacco curing barns; it was stored in the tobacco pack house until the grading process began. 

tobaccoph.jpg (30485 bytes) 
the pack house on the Harrell farm
Perrytown section of Bertie County

   The wooden stands were everywhere. In every pack house and even in some dwellings  folks were all preparing the golden leaves for market.

  tobacco-grading.jpg (25158 bytes)
Alice Harrell, her brother
Kenneth Harrell and  niece Diane Pierce  ca 1957 
grading cured tobacco in the pack house on the Harrell farm
photos by Robert C Avery, Sr. of Chesapeake, VA
now back at Merry Hill, NC

tobacco-grading2.jpg (15838 bytes) 
1954 These Powellsville ladies  are grading tobacco 
on the shed behind the Cowan home.
 Susie Myrtle Myers (wife of James S. Cowan) is in the foreground. Ethel Hardin Wynns (wife of C.T., Sr.) is to the right rear of Myers, and Irene Overton McKeel is to the left. 

staff photographer, The Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald

Toward the end of June 1951 - my father Raynor Moore suffered a severe heart attack and spent the next six week flat on his back at the V. A.  hospital in  The farm work went smoothly except there was a very rainy spell toward the end of July. Those at hand decided to go ahead and put in Daddy's tobacco on his scheduled day.  That barn ended up full of tobacco leaves  that were still grass green after the curing process. 
  So came September as we graded that barn, Daddy bemoaned the fact that if those "numbskulls" had just pulled the tobacco when it was ready,  it would have brought about 80 cents a lb at the market. instead he was throwing all those green leaves into his trash pile  He wasn't even going to think of taking this trash to the market.  
  Then I had a bright idea, "Daddy, Can I have this green tobacco?  If I tie up it up, would you take it to market for me?"
   He chuckled and said, "Yes, I will do that, but don't go getting your hopes up high because  it won't bring anything--no one in his right mind will bid on green tobacco."  
  Earnest Moore carried it to the Ahoskie market with his and Daddy's tobacco and he told the warehouse man that that was Miss Sally's tobacco, the clerk thought he had said "Satter"  and so recorded it on the slip. "Well," quips Daddy that evening, "That's an apt name for you, Satter Moore."
   I went with Daddy to see the tobacco sold. 

tobaccowh.jpg (28150 bytes) 
Farmers Tobacco Warehouse, Ahoskie, NC
destroyed by fire mid 1950's

As I had never been inside a tobacco warehouse before, Daddy  explained everything to me. Then the auction went by our piles of tobacco. 

tobaccoauc.jpg (53928 bytes) 
Oct 1954 - sale in progress 
at the Farmers Tobacco Warehouse
photo by staff of The Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald

  I ran to check my pile of about 90 lbs of cured grass green leaves and it had brought 15 cents per pound!!.  "Daddy! Look! Daddy! I got 15 cents!" 
  "What?!" and as he told it he got so excited over my tobacco actually selling for something he forgot to look at the rest of his tobacco some of which had even sold for 85 cents per lb. 
Having learned that the green tobacco belonged to a young girl  the warehouse owner had bought it as a good will gesture, but he didn't have to worry about what to do with it because every farmer present was sticking a bunch of that green tobacco that had sold! for 15 cents into his hip pocket as he left still shaking his head in disbelief because he knew that without the sample no one would believe him when he told how green! that tobacco had been. 
  With my windfall from marketing the green tobacco, I bought myself a zippered leather notebook just like one I had been coveting for several weeks.

(All this culture of the  life at the tobacco barn, harvesting and curing, and the pack house grading the leaf is a phenomenon of the past. Machinery has replaced most of the manual labor.)

tobacco-stalk-cutter.jpg (20611 bytes) 
a pair of mules draw a stalk cutter
in the fields after all the leaves are pulled
staff photographer RC News Herald of Ahoskie, NC

Below1949: Inspecting the newest tobacco barn
Margaret Stevens, Arthur and Sally Moore
(Margaret's new camera has been set on a timer)

tobaccob.jpg (16565 bytes)  

for the inside of a log barn see pictures of the Carter Farm  

 by others who worked in tobacco when young:
(note: three years ago, we discussed "farming tobacco" on the Bertie list.)

Peggy Ward recalled ".... the farmer would  seed a plant bed and cover it with thin cloth (like cheese cloth) to protect it until the plants were about 4-6" tall.  Then it was replanted in the field to grow to maturity. I remember working in it as a  young girl age 11 and 12. My uncle had a farm and tobacco then was  [trans] planted using a mule to pull the equipment with two seats (made of  Metal) You would poke a hole in the earth with a peg made of wood, like they did in gardens for vegetable plants  and drop the tobacco plants in the hole [and add water which was carried in a drum on the trans-planter].

  Later the tobacco plants had to be suckered as  they called it then. Breaking out the tops so it would produce more and  larger tobacco. I use to hand tobacco to the 'loopers' but I have been to the field [just for fun] and 'cropped' the tobacco also. Only it wasn't  fun to the guys who had to be there all day in the heat.     But worst of all, when you hung the tobacco in the  barns to cure it was so hot from summer heat; you would come out dripping wet.

tobacco-hanging.jpg (21639 bytes) 
10 Aug 1954 in the hot loft of a barn hanging looped tobacco to be cured
Eddie Newsome and Bootsie Burch 
staff photographer, RC News Herald of Ahoskie, NC

 It was called cropping tobacco ( in the fields) when you broke off the ripe (yellowing) leaves to take to the handers and lupers.  Handers and lupers is what the barn help was called. It was hard work, you were up early in the morning around five o'clock and worked until maybe five or six in the evening."

 [note by Sally, on our farm at Maple Lawn the men in the fields were caller "primers" who "primed tobacco."]

Carol Pridgen Martoccia of Greenville, NC wrote 
    "Working in tobacco in the 1950s and 60s was backbreaking, hot, dirty work.  I had the job of handing the tobacco to the ones who would wrap/loop in on  a tobacco stick. The men in the field loved to send up snakes and turtles and all sorts of wildlife in the tobacco trucks (small little wagons with curtained sides that were pulled to the shelters by mules. The tobacco worms were miserable. Worse of all was when it was raining and you got soaking wet from head to foot and the yucky tobacco gum would cake on your hands and you would end up rolling it into was tar..  I would soak my feet in clorox to whiten them . Oddly enough, when the colored people (and that is what we were instructed to call them in the old days) would start singing those fine old spirituals and the feet would start tapping, the day would pass by with a bit of good fun. The day would start early--about 4am and end at dark. Pepsis and RCs and Moon Pies were break time food and I did it for a measly $4.00 a day which I requested in ones so I felt I had a pocket of money.
    Yep, those were the days...enough to make me leave the farm and go to college in order to escape...All that and my father never grew tobacco --just cattle....I worked for the neighbors." 

Martha Marble response "Amen - I looped but beat Carol - I got $5.00 a day plus room and board - Daddy made his children work harder than anyone else to set an example.  Managed to "have" to go to summer school every year during college. But it  made me a better person. I know what hard work is and worked twice as hard  in college to get away from it. Maybe some of our children would be a lot  better off going through the same experience. "

Patty Day said "I was born in New Bern, but was raised as an Air Force Brat. I remember one summer in the middle 60's  helping in the tobacco barn with my Great Aunts. My hat is off to all of you who did it. I made it through one day and never went back. I  hate creepy crawly things and the things that hid in the tobacco leaves  were more than I could take."

Linda Gamel wrote" Yes, those huge tobacco worms WERE picked off the  plants by hand! My  grandmother (b.1872) remembers as a child having to do this task along  with her brothers and sisters on their tobacco farm in western KY.  (Her  grandparents came from the Bertie/Hertford area.) She said it was a  disgusting job and the worst part of growing tobacco!"

tobacco-worm.jpg (15940 bytes) 
the tobacco hornworm and moth 
Manduca sexta
Order Lepidoptera, family Sphingidae
 the larva can eat!!! they can grow to 3 3/4 inches
adult: large fast flying hawk moths with five inch wingspan 
are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds

Another Peggy speaks here  of a more recent approach as well as that of the 50's that I remember.
"This is from an old North Carolina girl.  I started barning tobacco when I was 10. The "bugs" you spoke of are  called Tobacco worms. Yes they are picked off by hand if the poison  doesn't kill them. The tractor pulled a tobacco cart for the boys and  men to sit on so they could sow the seedlings. They are then cover with  black heavy plastic to start the growth process and to protect from  frost. After they reach a certain height about 6 to 10 inches if I  remember right, they are uncovered to mature.  The pruning you speak of is called topping and again it is done by hand.  This takes the tops off the tobacco plant so it can grow more. If this  topping process is not done all the water and nutrients go to the top of  the plant [bloom and seed].
   When the tobacco plant reaches maturity anywhere from 4 to 6 feet tall  the leaves are then harvested. This process is called cropping and again  is done by hand. Before all the new machinery was invented for the  tobacco farmers, young boys and men went out into the fields and cropped  the leaves by hand. (Now it is done on a harvester where men and women sit  on the bottom of the harvester and send the leaves up to the top of the  harvester to be tied onto tobacco sticks.) 
   Once the tobacco has been harvested and sent to the barns, the young  girls take the leaves and bundle them in their hands (usually about 3 to  4 leaves in a bundle) and give to the women. These young girls are  called handlers. The women then have a tobacco stick about 4 feet long  hung on to a looping horse. It looks sorta like a sawhorse used by  carpenters. This allows the tobacco stick to rest in place on each end  so the women can loop the tobacco onto the stick with twine. The  bundles are looped (tied) onto the tobacco stick until it is full.
  Once  the tobacco is looped, the tobacco stick is given to the men to hang in  the tobacco barn. The barn has a heater in it to cure the tobacco. The  men take each tobacco stick and hand it in turn to the next man until they  reach the top of the barn. The barn is usually about 2 stories high  inside. The tobacco is hung until the barn is full.  The tobacco hangs in the barn and the heaters are lit. This process  takes several days. Once the tobacco is cured it is taken out of the  barns and un-looped from the tobacco sticks. It is then place in piles  on a truck similar to haystacks by not as steep. It is taken to the  local warehouse for auction.
    The new machinery has taken a lot of the hand process over now a days.  Even the new metal tobacco barns have helped a lot. It is not near as  back breaking as it was when I was young." Peggy

Response to my web site:
 "I appreciate your web site on tobacco. I was reared on a tobacco farm and left to enter nursing school in 1950. It brought back many memories. A lot of my childhood was during World War II and we had watermelon and sometimes ham biscuit for our break and water to drink."   Prandy Chamblee 

 "Thanks for the memories! I have spent many summers working in tobacco. I've often said that everybody should
have to work in the tobacco harvest and they would appreciate any other job the rest of their life. That's the hardest work I've ever done.   My grandparents, Joshua and Gertrude Turner Tripp of Pitt County, NC, moved to Bertie County for awhile so Joshua could teach the farmers how to cure tobacco. This was in the late 1800s-early 1900s. Wish someone could come up with some pictures of them."  Janice Tripp Gurganus

  "My name is Barbara Nichols-Mulder and I have just surfed your page on tobacco.  My Dad, Ross Joseph Nichols, born on June 10, 1905 took pictures of our family after my oldest brother, Curtis, joined the army. Daddy would send the pictures to Japan to keep Curtis in touch with the family.  Curtis said he knew there were better ways of making a living than farming. Curtis joined the army in 1951 or 1952 and after returning home he got a job at Lipton Tea Company in Suffolk, Virginia.  Several of the picture you have on your site are some of the pictures my Dad took.  The lady weeding the tobacco bed is my Mother, Velner Ruth Cooke-Nichols.  The men sitting on the back of the tractor is -- from left to right -- Ross Joseph Nichols and Louis Vann.  The young man on the tractor is my brother Fred Nichols.  Fred is the 3rd oldest child of eight children.  I was wondering if you meant tobacco worms had wings and could fly, I have never seen a tobacco worm with wings. Fred is the only brother I have that is still farming and tobacco is the only crop he and his wife grow.  Tobacco farming  has really been hurt in the Ahoskie area, all the warehouses in Ahoskie has been closed down. Fred had at one time 150 to 160 acres of tobacco and has been cut back  to under 100 acres.  Working in tobacco was hard work, but the fellowship with the hired tobacco hands was worth it.  I can honestly say that I enjoyed it except for the mornings we had to get up at 5 am to take out a barn of tobacco so we could fill it up again.   The first pulling of tobacco, the tobacco that was next to the ground, was so dirty it was called sand lugs.
When the older children moved away I always had to go into the tobacco barn when the men were taking the tobacco down, and the dirt that fell in my hair and my face was terrible.  My two younger sister  were braver than I was because sometimes they would climb the tier poles and go way up to the top of the barn and take the tobacco down."

 "My Grandparents farmed in the Wayne County Community near Dudley, NC. We grandkids helped out. Thank you for sharing this web site for those "forgotten days" Those were times when family, neighbors, and friends helped each other. My Mom is the oldest of 11 children. I love hearing the tales she shared of growing up in a large family. I think the best childhood is living on a farm. Again thank you for sharing." Gayle L...

"In the late 50's and early 60's I worked in tobacco to earn money for school clothes. At the time us kids thought it
was going to kill us to have to work so hard. Now, looking back, it seemed fun. I can hardly believe my father had a full time job AND farmed. My mother had 5 children, cleaning, cooking, laundry and also worked in the field. When I was younger and was just playing at the barn, my mother cooked a huge dinner (lunch) for all the hands and still never missed any time at the barn!! Hard work makes wonderful people.
 I recently put together a Time Capsule for my grandson to open when he is 25 years old. I put inside 9 handwritten pages, front and back, explaining the process of "putting in tobacco". Every time I would write something like "tobacco truck", I would have to explain what it looked like. Takes a lot of time and writing to explain things like looping, handing, hanging up, taking out, grading, tying. All those terms that we just say and know what they mean. I also included pictures of a tobacco barn and pack house. I'm sure he will enjoy reading it and will probably think we lived very primitive." Connie Hill Pope

 "As a very young kid, I would ride on a sleigh with my uncle leading the mule through the tobacco fields and was terrified of the tobacco worms, made worse, of course, by the tobacco leaves brushing my face. Those critters are still big but not as big as they were to a child. In the summer of 1954, I graded tobacco in the shed behind Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Jim's house in 
Powellsville. Sure it was a dirty job and hot, but earning four dollars a day made me feel rich and I could buy all the Orange Crushes that Mr. White had in his store! The peg made of wood that Peggy spoke of, which was used to drive a hole in the ground to receive the tobacco plants, was called a dibble. These were hand made, mostly out of dogwood. I still have one my 
Bertie grandfather made and used, and I treasure it. " 
 Lynn McCarthy

  "I am going to add this URL to my QUICK LINKS. Hope you don't object." ~Jim  ~ 
  "I once read  ~ I think in Roy Parker's "Ahoskie, the First 50 Years." that Tobacco always had been grown in Eastern Carolina and Virginia ~ even by the Indians.
But if I am not mistaken, the story went that the new cigarette industry didn't like the old types of tobacco that were used mainly for dipping, chewing and pipes and cigars.
So the "bright-leaf" variety was introduced for cigarettes, but the farmers of Northeastern NC didn't know anything about it or how to cultivate and "cure" it.
The story went, I believe, that it was developed a little further south, and then those folks found that the Northeastern NC land was better for growing it than their home regions.
So some of them moved into Tidewater NC and VA to "teach" the local farmers about the new "bright-leaf." (This is all off the top of my head ~ don't have the real story around anywhere.)
If I am not mistaken, this occurred around the end of the First World War, and the farmers in the area made a lot of money in the late Teens and early Twenties.
My understanding was that "bright-leaf" was the reason my dad, who hadn't farmed since his childhood, leased some land in Hertford County and tried his hand at it.
Of course, the depression ruined everything for most folks like him ~ farming and building houses both. Some of the old farm families managed to hang onto their land, but the doctors, lawyers, bankers etc had practically all of it by the end of the 1930s ~ and everybody else was reduced to tenantry. (My dad was dead and out of it by 1941.)
Of course, now we know that the cigarettes really were the "coffin nails" everyone said they were back in the early years ~ while the doctors and TV pitchmen told us how wonderful smoking was for us.
And I remember also that there was something called the "green sickness" ~ that occurred among the people who worked the "green" tobacco. It was said that everyone who handled tobacco had to become "adjusted" to it ~ that after two or three weeks of being exposed the "green sickness" would go away.
Do you remember that? Or is that something I dreamed?
Cheers" ~
Jim Pearce ~~ At "Poor Town" 

"... how well I remember all those things mentioned!! 
I have worked in tobacco and with tobacco many many times when growing up!! The thing I hated most about the tobacco process was the suckering part!! The sun was so hot and the tobacco was so tall and sticky!! 
Jim, there was a thing called "Green Tobacco" sickness and I experienced it many times growing up!! This would happen especially if the tobacco was wet with dew and I got wet!! It is a horrible sickness with nausea and vomiting!!! 
I promised the Good Lord if he would let me learn how to do anything else I would never sucker another leaf of tobacco .
 I became a registered nurse and true to my word I have never suckered another leaf, HA!! I have helped with other things such as "putting in, grading, etc." but not suckering and topping!!!! 
Did you know that humming birds love the tobacco blossom?
 I have enjoyed this series about tobacco and the pictures very much as they have brought back so many memories!! I left Ahoskie in 1949 but have been back to visit often especially during the years my parents were still living!! 
My children spent the summers there and love the area!!!"
            Ina Harrell

  I was raised in St. Johns and helped "put in tobacco."  One of the local farmers had four cute sons, and I begged to help with the tobacco to earn some spending money but mainly to be around those cute guys, particularly at break time when they would come out of the field to the barn for a Pepsi and "nab" or moon pie.  The only part I really hated was having to touch the tobacco near the end of the season when the insecticides had worn off and those awful looking worms were on the leaves.  I had nightmares about those worms.  All in all, I have great memories of this time in my life. - Becky Baggett Jones 

I enjoyed reading about putting in tobacco with mules. Brought back a lot of memories. Just thought you might like one more picture. This is me driving my uncle's mule, "Rabbit," around 1954 or '55 ...... My uncle lived about a mile from us and when we got through at the end of the day I had to drive Rabbit home. He would be fine until we got within sight of my uncle's house. Then that crazy mule would speed up. The closer we got to his home the faster he would run. I could never slow him down, and when we turned into the driveway the tobacco sleigh would turn over, throwing me into the ditch. I never once drove that mule all the way to the stables! - Kay Earley 

I stumbled onto your web page, and it brought back so many old memories. Some of which I have tried really hard to forget. My whole childhood and teenage years were consumed with tobacco. When I was very small, my sister and I stood on each side of my mother and handed her small handfuls' of green tobacco for her to put on the stick. Boy, if she hit her knuckles on that stick, you were in real trouble. I was so happy when I was old enough to go to the field with the men folk. We made money each summer in the tobacco fields and under the barn shelters to buy our cloths for the next school year. Boy, times were hard! We called it, putting in, hanging, taking out, grading, tying, sticking up, and going to the market. I remember getting out of bed at 3AM to take out a barn of cured tobacco, so we would be able to put in a barn of green that same day. After we would leave the field and come to the barn in the late afternoon, we would have to hang it all, because it had been piled down outside in the shade, or hung under the shelter on tier poles by the women folk. I swore if I ever got grown, I would not touch another leaf, and I haven't in 40 years. I sure don't miss it. Anyway, thanks for the memories... . .
  Johnny Ransom [Domtar]

pictures from "Tobacco Market" on this site with Mr. Stephenson's  permission.

 "Tobacco Market, Ahoskie NC"
by E. Frank Stephenson, Jr.
301 E. Broad St.
Murfreesboro, NC 27855
to order call 252-398-3554

 tobacco web sites:

Tobacco Farm Life Museum,
 Kenly, NC  

A Day on the Carter Farm 1985
Rockingham County, NC

History of Tobacco

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This is my working hypothesis - the way I see it as of this moment!! 
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