There are many kinds of beds: Hospital beds. Queen and King sized beds. Flower beds. But how many of you know about tobacco beds?
Back in the thirties and forties when I was growing up in Western North Carolina, tobacco beds were very common. Almost every farm would have one or more. They could be 20 to 30 or even 45 feet long, and about 5 feet wide, depending on how big the farmer’s tobacco allotment might be.
In those days, each farmer had to apply to the federal government for an allotment before any tobacco could be planted. The government could therefore control the supply and the price of tobacco, subject to the vagaries of nature such as drought and flood. The size of the allotment could contribute greatly in determining the value of the farm.
During the winter the farmer would pile brush on the tobacco bed site and in early spring the brush would be burned. The heat from the fire would destroy the weed seeds and the bed would then be virtually weed-free. No chemicals were used to kill the weed seeds. The tobacco seeds were then sowed into the bed. The bed was then covered with a white mesh material to protect the bed from birds and other animals, as well as from frost.
Having an abundance of healthy tobacco plants to plant on the allotment was extremely important since tobacco was the cash crop for most farmers. Grandfather Medford let my brother Mark use his land to raise tobacco to pay for some of his college education. Mark did not have an allotment, so he paid a penalty to the government and still did quite well with the cash flow.
There was a lot of hard work involved in raising a tobacco crop. First, a successful tobacco bed. Then the plants had to be set out and water carried in buckets to water the little plants. The weeds had to be chopped out with a hoe. Later, the tobacco started to develop seed heads. These had to be cut off —called topping — so that the energy of the plant went to develop larger leaves. When mature, the tobacco stalks had to be cut and strung on tobacco sticks. The tobacco was then transported to the tobacco barn where poles had been installed to hang the tobacco, in order for it to cure.
Little boys sometimes would get some of the tobacco and roll their own cigarettes and have a smoke behind the tobacco barn. Yep, some of us got caught. Some little boys and girls also occasionally smoked rabbit tobacco to imitate the grownups. My wife, Lucy, has confessed to doing this!
The farmers in Western North Carolina grew burley tobacco to supply the nicotine kick. Flue-cured tobacco, which enhanced the flavor of cigarettes, was prevalent in Eastern Carolina. After the tobacco was cured, the leaves had to be sorted and graded into brights—the largest and most valuable of the leaves—and the lugs, tips, and reds. The tobacco had to be “in case” in order to be stripped from the stalk without crumbling. “In case” meant that the amount of moisture in the leaves was just right for handling. The various grades of leaves were then tied into “hands” and stacked neatly when taken to the tobacco warehouse for auction.
Regardless of how good the quality of the tobacco, the farmer was at the mercy of the tobacco companies who were bidding on their product—which had taken many, many hours of work to produce and bring to the floor of the auction warehouse. Tobacco that was processed by the farmer who took great care and knew the process well was rewarded with higher prices.
Tobacco brought cash to the farmer, but it eventually brought disease and early death to millions. All the movie stars of the time were smoking in their films. This was the cool thing to do. Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt displayed a long cigarette holder as he unknowingly set a bad example to his many supporters.
It was never difficult for me to choose a Christmas gift for my grandfathers. They both preferred Apple brand chewing tobacco, so I gave them each a little box of chewing tobacco plugs. Some of the church men of the day preached against the use of tobacco, but most people did not heed them. Nor did I, until two months before the original Surgeon General’s report. Maybe I had a premonition, or maybe it was blind luck.
Now, smokers are exiled to special rooms or to stand outside of public buildings to draw on what the owner of Atlanta’s Varsity Drive-In called “coffin nails.” No Smoking on planes eventually happened, too. It was a long time coming.
It seems that the Great White Father in Washington “spoke with forked tongue” when he told us not to smoke for health reasons—but on the other hand maintained price supports for tobacco.
We always knew that spring was here when the tobacco beds appeared on the hillsides along with the spring flowers. But we now know that the tobacco beds brought more than hard work for the farmers and a little hard-earned cash in the farmers’ pockets.
Special thanks to Lobo Loco and these talented creatives…!
Everything on the Colne is good
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When The Mockingbirds Are Singing In The Wildwood
Frank C. Stanley