Tobacco Farm Culture 1940/60
in the Roanoke – Chowan area
of North Carolina
Tobacco Barns at Maple Lawn 1949
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 the 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 kind people would want. The wood gathered in the winter fueled The brick furnaces built into the barn. We installed oil burners in the 1950s.
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 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 firefighters took
a trip into the country last Saturday
the 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
the scene with truck and equipment
A few minutes later. They were
unable to save the burning barn
but they kept the two barns
nearby, thus preventing
A considerable loss to Mr. Early.”
Often some tomato and pepper plants were snuck in by Mrs.
Velner Ruth Cooke-Nichols
Weeding the seedbeds ca 1950
photo by Ross Joseph Nichols
“putting in tobacco.”
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.]
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 loopers. She looped the tobacco onto the sticks. At the end of the day, everyone joins in hanging the green tobacco in the barns.
Looping was an art; the string had to be tight enough to hold the tobacco onto the sticks while it was curing. But not so tight as to cut the leaves so they would fall off during the curing process.
Alonzo Nichols displaying a stick of looped tobacco
before hanging it in the barn for curing. Photo by the Nichols family
1959 William Britt and son Bruce with a 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 golden-green leaves from the fields to the shelter where that crew hung it onto the sticks.
Delores, Linda, and Barbara Nichols catching a ride on the back of a sleigh. Kay Early, her uncle’s tobacco truck and his mule “Rabbit,” whose hind legs and long tail are at the extreme right edge of this photo, ca 1954-55
Then after all the tobacco had been pulled and cured in the tobacco curing barns; it was stored in the tobacco packhouse until the grading process began.
The wooden stands were everywhere. In every pack-house and even in some dwellings folks were all preparing the golden leaves for the market.
Alice Harrell, her brother
Kenneth Harrell and niece Diane Pierce ca 1957
grading cured tobacco in the packhouse on the Harrell farm
photos by Robert C Avery, Sr. of Chesapeake, VA
now back at Merry Hill, NC
1954 These Powellsville ladies are grading tobacco
in 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. The farm work hummed along 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 pound. 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 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. He told the warehouseman 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.”
My father and I went to see the tobacco sold.
As I had never been inside a tobacco warehouse before, Daddy explained everything to me. Then the auction went by our piles of tobacco.
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 about my tobacco selling for 15 cents he forgot to look at the rest of his tobacco. Some of his piles 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 goodwill gesture. He didn’t worry about what to do with that green tobacco because every farmer present was sticking into his hip pocket a bunch of that green leaves that had brought 15 cents. They left still shaking their heads in disbelief because they knew that no one would believe them when they told how green that tobacco had been without the sample.
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.)
Below1949: Inspecting the newest tobacco barn
Margaret Stevens, Arthur, and Sally Moore
(Margaret’s set her new camera on a timer)
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 a thin cloth (like cheesecloth) to protect it; they protected the seeds using cloth 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 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, as 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.
It was called cropping tobacco ( in the fields) when you broke off the ripe (yellowing) leaves to take to the handers and loopers. Handers and loopers are 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 balls…it 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 4 am 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 to escape…All that and my father never grew tobacco –just cattle…I worked for the neighbors.”
Martha Marble’s 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 ’60s 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!”
the tobacco hornworm and moth
Order Lepidoptera, family Sphingidae
the larva can eat!!! they can grow to 3 3/4 inches
adult: large fast-flying hawk moths with a five-inch wingspan
are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds
Another Peggy speaks here of a more recent approach as well as that of the ’50s 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 covered 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 them to the women. These young girls are called handlers. The women then have a tobacco stick about 4 feet long hung onto 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 placed 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 nowadays. 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 website:
“I appreciate your website 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 pictures 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 are — 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 have 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 sisters 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 website 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 ’50s and early ’60s, I worked in tobacco to earn money for school clothes. At the time we 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 packhouse. 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 handmade, mostly out of dogwood. I still have one my Bertie grandfather made and used, and I treasure it. ”
“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 of?
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 hummingbirds 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!!!”
I was raised in St. Johns and helped “put in the 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 menfolk. We made money each summer in the tobacco fields and under the barn shelters to buy our clothes 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 3 AM 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 womenfolk. 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 252-398-3554252-398-3554