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Jim Ellis: Putting In Tobacco

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 9/10/2000. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

I visited with Jim Ellis in Fountain, a small town 70 miles east of Raleigh. A retired tobacco farmer and country preacher, he grew up there between the two largest tobacco markets in the world, Greenville and Wilson. When he was a boy, he told me, "Everybody we knew was a tobacco farmer."

For all the hardships and uncertainty of raising tobacco, most older farmers recall at least harvest-time with an enduring fondness. In the days before tractors and mechanical harvesters, the tobacco harvest brought together family and neighbors, young and old, town and country cousins, for five or six weeks every summer. It was hard, hot work, but it was also a time of visiting and fellowship.

Progress ended those summer gatherings, of course, but neither Ellis nor untold thousands of other people who worked in tobacco have forgotten them.

In Jim Ellis's words: 
I probably started handing tobacco when I was 5 or 6 years old. Now, when I first started handing tobacco, I stood on the truck and handed, so I could reach the tobacco and reach the looper. That was the way people started. During the lunch time, when everybody else was quit, my brother and I would go to the tobacco rack and we'd loop us some tobacco. We thought it was a great thing!

We would have about three or four people to prime tobacco. They'd take two or three leaves off every stalk as they went through the field. When it got to the barn, the handers take it off three leaves at a time, bunch it together and hand it over to the looper. The looper had what she'd call the looping rack, up about three foot high, and she had a stick on there about four foot long, and she'd tie her string and she'd loop the tobacco onto that stick.

The folks that were handing, when they finished, they'd line up and get that tobacco out of the rack and pass it into the tobacco barn. Then a person would do what you call "poking it up." He'd hand it up to the first one on the tier. A man would stand on the bottom tier, which was about head high, and he'd hang the first three or four tiers, and then he'd have a man up on the fourth or fifth tier and he'd hang the top tiers.

They'd start the wood furnace in the barn up that night or next morning first thing. They'd want to keep the temperatures about 90 degrees until the tobacco yellowed. Then they'd go to what they called "the raising the heat." They'd creep on up. When the leaf dried, they wanted to dry the stem. You couldn't go up to 170 or that would turn it red.

If they put in on Monday, they probably turned the heat out of that barn Sunday morning. It would take nearly a week for curing. Then they'd open the doors on that barn, and the moisture in the air would let it what we call "come in order." The tobacco would soften up. If you didn't, it would shatter, it would be so dry.

They'd have it out of the barn and into the pack house in time to be in the field priming tobacco when it got light. They'd wake up at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. When the men got up, the women would cook breakfast and dinner. When the first truck got to the bench, they were there ready to start looping and handing at the barn. They would stay right there till the bell rung at 11:30 or 12 o'clock, then they'd go to the house and get dinner. It would be a cold dinner. That's the way you did in tobacco season.

Tobacco season was a celebratory thing almost. Everybody was carried to the barn. There was nobody left at the house, unless they were so old or sick they couldn't get there. Right on down to the babies - if they were in the crib, they might put them on a pallet and a quilt. I never heard of anybody being sick or absent or anything when you were putting in tobacco!

It was not unusual to have singing. They would sing hymns and they would sing popular songs and they would sing old songs. They'd sing "The Old Rugged Cross" and they'd sing "In the Sweet Bye and Bye." At about that time, they were singing some of the songs that were in the picture shows, too.

Nobody had a time clock. Most of the time, they didn't even keep up with the time they went to work. Now in later years, they did. But in the old days, you swap work. If you went down there and helped somebody put in tobacco, if it took you till dinner time, OK. If it took the lantern light, it was the same thing. He come to your house the next week and he helped you. You swapped. But you didn't say, "I made so many hours there, you got to pay me back so many hours." That won't what you call swapping. Swapping was, "I help you put in, you help me put in."

After World War II, they got to curing more with oil. After a while, we started using a looping machine. Then the bulk barns came in. They started having a riding machine, a two-story harvester. Now days, I don't imagine you can find a person under 50 years old who even knows how to loop.

They also quit using mules and started using tractors. But I bet you that the great majority of those mules died in the lot. They didn't sell them, because them mules were members of the family. They had names just like the young'uns. Out our way, we had Mary and Molly and Kate and Rodie. My daddy never sold a mule that he quit using. He kept him in corn till he died.

Used to be, a family would have three, four, five acres of tobacco at the most. Now, if a person farming doesn't have 40 to 80 acres, they don't think they can make a go of it, because they have so much money invested in the mechanical harvesters, and in the bulk barns, and in the chemicals and the fertilizer.

Some of those folks started getting jobs in town, and in the mills. The farm economy was a stay-at-home economy. You didn't spend a lot, you didn't go a lot and you didn't do a lot. Your main thing was, you had a place to stay, clothes to wear and food. It didn't mean you had a new car, a television, that sort of thing. The old way just wasn't going to afford people the style of living that they wanted and that they saw other people having.

Everybody used to be farming.

Now, if you ride through my country out there, there's not a tobacco farmer out there.

David Cecelski is the Whichard Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities, East Carolina University.