I am a man of few vices. I limit them to drinking good bourbon and swearing occasionally, like when the Bengals give up the game-winning touchdown or the Reds blow a lead in the 9th inning. Okay, I suppose that means I cuss a lot. However, smoking is one vice that I have avoided for obvious reasons: its detrimental effect on one’s health, its significant costs (I am notoriously cheap), and the lingering smell that envelops the smoker and everything he possesses like a moldy wet blanket. But, I also avoid tobacco because as a kid I worked in tobacco and saw behind the curtain of what goes into making cigarettes. Much like an employee at a food processing plant cranking out hot dogs or chicken nuggets, once you see what goes into them, you never want to eat them again.
Growing up in rural Kentucky in the 1970s I spent many long hours laboring in the fields, barns, and stripping rooms where tobacco was grown and prepared for the market. It was the devil’s work for less than minimum wage, but I was young and needed money. If I wanted something, I paid for it myself, be it a car, college, or Old Milwaukee, which sold for $3.99 a twelve pack. Tobacco farmers were always looking for cheap labor. Some of the manual labor Mexican migrant workers do today was done by back in the 1970s by poor Catholic kids like me.
For many years tobacco was the #1 cash crop in Kentucky, though in recent years it has been replaced by Marijuana. But in the 1970s in rural Kentucky tobacco was king. Fortunately for my Old Milwaukee habits and me, raising tobacco provided almost year-round employment. Starting in late winter or early spring the Tobacco seeds were meticulously planted in beds and covered with linen cloth to prevent freeze damage. This work was not labor intensive and was typically done by the farmer.
However, come spring, usually in late May where I lived, those farmers needed labor to plant the tobacco seedlings. The first task was to plow and disk the fields to prepare them for planting. This required long, monotonous hours on a tractor going back and forth. It wasn’t as boring as watching paint dry, but it was close. Next the young plants had to be pulled out of the seed beds and planted. By the 70s the planting had been somewhat mechanized using a device called a tobacco setter. This contraption, pulled very slowly by a tractor, had a rotating wheel where two laborers sat side by side alternately placing the plants into this finger-mangling device, well that’s the perception it gave at first glance. The wheel continuously rotated and placed the plants into the ground, along with a quick shot of water.
Planting tobacco was my first paid job outside of helping my Father on Seltman’s farm. I was about thirteen years old (apparently labor laws did not apply to tobacco farming) and got paid $17.50 for working all day helping my brother’s friend plant his tobacco field which equated to $2 an hour. I was excited beyond all measure, and felt gloriously rich. They even paid me by check, which was the first check ever written out to me. I still have that cancelled check framed somewhere, next to my citation for open container violation in Missouri. With all of that money burning a hole in my pocket I wasn’t sure if I wanted to buy a car, a nice light blue polyester suit with wide collars, or a cassette of my favorite bands: ELO or The Cars. In the end, I bought some new clothes for school as part of a bold statement. No more hand-me-downs from my brothers or cousin Mike that were two sizes too big, forcing me to pull my pants above my belly button so I wouldn’t trip. Instead I debuted at school in the 7th grade that fall wearing brand new clothes that fit and did not have the knees worn out. I was totally sure the girls noticed. Roger Westermeyer had arrived that year, and yes, the chicks were digging me and my new designer jeans with white stitching and my silky soft polyester shirt with floral designs! I still recall the fragrant denim-never-worn-or washed-before smell of my first ever brand new jeans, brought to me by king tobacco. I walked stiffly into school that year confident that I was a player. Nowadays kids buy new jeans faded with rips and tears in them, which I find baffling. To make jeans look old, spend a summer wearing them working in the tobacco fields or visit Goodwill where they sell them for $2 already broken in.
But, I jumped ahead a bit there. A lot of work and attention goes into tobacco before harvesting in the fall. The grueling work of nurturing the tobacco along over the summer has to be done. Many farmers had their tobacco manually hoed to keep the weeds down. Hoeing was especially boring and exhausting work. The tobacco rows seemed endless; the summer heat unrelenting. Blisters erupted all over tender young hands . . . and did I mention the low pay? I do not fear hell, I have spent an eternity hoeing tobacco–it can’t be worse.
Other tasks required to foster a robust crop were “topping” and removing “suckers.” As the tobacco plants flourished and began to flower we snapped the buds from the top of the plant, hence the term “Topping.” Similar to “topping” we also removed “suckers” which were additional buds that started to grow further down the plant. Topping the plants and removing the suckers helps the plant continue to grow rather than go to seed and was essential for a tall and healthy plant with big leaves.
In late August it was time to harvest the tobacco plant: this is where the real work started. Three tools were essential to tobacco harvesting: a tobacco knife, a tobacco spear, and a tobacco stick. The knife looked much like an Indian tomahawk; however, the blade was thin and razor sharp. A tobacco spear was shaped like a miniature ice cream cone, made of metal, about 4-5 inches long, with an extremely pointed and sharp tip. Lastly, the tobacco stick was just that, a strip of wood and 3-4 feet long, about an inch thick, made from a strong wood, typically oak.
The first step to harvesting required cutting the plant at its base using the razor sharp tobacco knife. This was relatively easy for a strong 18 year old boy who played baseball most of his life–just reach back and take a big swack while holding the middle of the plant. Now came the tricky part. You picked up the plant with both hands, then speared it onto the tobacco spear, which you had placed on the end of the tobacco stick. Great care had to be taken here, because if your aim was off by a few inches you could spear a finger. Ramming a razor sharp spear into your finger was excruciatingly painful. Make the mistake once and you were much more careful after that. Trust me.
You cut and speared about 4-5 plants per tobacco stick, and then after completing 3-4 sticks you arranged them in a type of tripod to dry and be more easily picked up. Repeat this over and over, following rows and rows of tobacco plants, endlessly, or so it seemed. It was backbreaking work in the heat of late August. I never had to worry about my weight then, I was skinny as a tobacco stick. At the end of the day I’d be absolutely exhausted, and my hands stained black from the tobacco “juice” of the cut plant. Tobacco stain is devilishly difficult to remove, so I often went to school with some of the stain still etched into my skin. I notice other boys with the same stain on their hands, and we nodded at each other in school, knowingly. It marked us members of a special club who knew the meaning of a hard day’s work.
But the job of harvesting the tobacco was not yet done. Next a crew had to pick up the cut tobacco in the field. This involved a tractor slowly pulling a wagon with one person picking up the speared tobacco plants from the ground and handing them to someone on the wagon who would stack them. When a wagon was fully loaded it trundled to the tobacco barn to be hung and cured. This is where the fun began.
You see, housing tobacco was part weightlifting, part gymnastics, and part trapeze, requiring feats of strength, tremendous balance, and bold courage. Typical tobacco barns have 6-8 levels of beams ranging some 40-50 feet up from the ground for hanging the plants. I use the term “beams” loosely—some indeed were square beams nailed in place, but others were round timbers that sometimes were not even nailed to anything. The housing crew had to carefully climb to their designated level to house the tobacco and in this endeavor there was a pecking order. The middle-aged farmer or his strongest son typically worked from the wagon and hung the lowest beam and handed the remaining sticks of tobacco up to the laborers perched above. The next two levels were manned by the more senior laborers, who worked two beams. Then the youngest laborers, me amongst them, worked the top two levels, typically about 40 feet in the air. This was where the tree climbing skills of my youth were put to the test. Getting to the top tier required the skills of a monkey and the intelligence of one too. I fit that bill. I did mention that the tobacco was cut and housed in late August, in typically around 90 degrees with high humidity in Kentucky. But, I forgot to mention that tobacco barns had tin roofs and the temperature at the tops of these barns sweltered at well over a hundred degrees. That’s Iraqi hot. Housing tobacco required much bending and lifting, so think of it as doing an aerobic workout in a sauna for two hours and you get the drift, only, no spandex.
Each member climbed to his assigned level and then straddled two beams that were about three feet apart. The bottom person on the wagon then handed a stick of tobacco up to the level 1 person, who handed it up to the level 2 person, who handed it up to me. To receive the tobacco I had to lean over, with my feet straddled three feet wide, with maybe one hand on a beam, and other reaching for the tobacco. I then had to put both hands on the tobacco and place it on the appropriate beam, all while still straddling the two beams that were three feet a part. It required strength and balance and courage, especially the courage. Years later watching my daughter skillfully do flips on a balance beam at gymnastics meets I appreciated her courage. For those of us on barn beams our task wasn’t too difficult if we stood on square beams that were secured. When the beams were round timbers and unsecured it was a high-risk venture not for the fainthearted. Doing it once made me appreciate the bravery and skill of the Flying Walendas. Fortunately, I never fell, but I can’t say the same for my brothers. Working the top did have its advantages though; first you were only involved in handling about a third of the plants, so the pace was not bad at all. Secondly, in the extreme heat perspiration was heavy, but due to the laws of gravity sweat fell downward. The guys working the lower levels experienced the constant drip drop of sweat from the guys above landing their heads and backs. It also served to gently remind them that the large adult males standing above them might fall on you at any time.
After all of the tobacco was hung, next came curing. Proper curing added color and flavor to the tobacco and was an art form requiring skill and experience, like a distiller aging a fine bourbon. A trained and wise eye had to monitor the tobacco to make sure it did not get too hot or dry. Tobacco barns have wide doors in the middle, and narrow doors on the side, which are opened and closed as needed to control the curing throughout the fall.
Once properly cured it was now time to “Strip” the tobacco. This is the slow process of pulling the leaves off the plant. To strip the tobacco it had to be “in case”, which meant that there was enough humidity or moisture in the air so that the tobacco leaves were soft, not brittle. When the tobacco was in case it was brought down from the rafters and hauled to the stripping room—no don’t think some exotic or erotic place—these were often dank little rooms inside the tobacco barn, or nearby and barely kept warm by a space heater or potbelly stove. You see, tobacco would be in case in late fall or early winter and you really didn’t care about work conditions because stripping tobacco made you good Christmas money.
We were trained to strip off the tobacco leaves by varying quality. The leaves at the bottom of the plant were referred to as trash and removed first. They were as the name implies, low quality. Next, the middle leaves, referred to as lugs, were removed. This was the “prime cut”. Then finally, the tops of the plants, called tips, were removed. As you stripped the leaves you held them tightly in your hand keeping the stems up, and when your hand was full you used a large leaf to tightly wrap the fist full of leafs at the top. This package resembling a giant dried out corsage and was called a “hand.” You placed the hand back onto an empty tobacco stick with the sad wilted leaves facing down. After the stick was filled with hands you would take it to a tobacco press to compress the bundled hands. In later years many farmers started using balers to compress the different grades of tobacco, which didn’t require the time-consuming fine art of making hands.
Stripping tobacco was easy but monotonous. We played country music to pass the hours and I recall hearing just about every classic country song ever recorded from Johnny Cash to Waylon Jennings to Merle Haggard. If there was a song about cheating, lying, stealing, or heartbreak I had the lyrics memorized. One of my favorites was David Allen Coe’s, “You Never Even Called Me by My Name.” I think I know why so many rural people are so depressed and hooked on opioids—it’s caused by years of listening to country music. Damn straight!
Some of the older workers sipped on beer or cheap bourbon; us young folks might get an RC Cola or Mountain Dew if we earned it. To break up the monotony, the farmers would tell stories, complain about their wives, and razz the younger workers. It was all in good fun. The stories were mostly true and the razzings often deserved. There is nothing like spending eight hours with people stripping tobacco to get to know them and earn their trust. If all politicians were required to spend a few weeks stripping tobacco with their cohorts, they might get past all their posturing and arguing and work together on the business of solving our nation’s problems.
After the stripping and compressing the tobacco was then hauled to the market, which were huge barns in Erlanger, Kentucky with rows and rows of tobacco bales as far as the eye could see. At the time, tobacco was subsidized by the federal government as part of the Farm Bill to keep tobacco farmers afloat. Ironically, the farmer that I worked for took great pride in the quality of the tobacco he produced, but because the real market price was low, everyone generally received the subsidized price of $1.66 a pound, regardless of quality. Eventually the government eliminated the subsidy and only the farmers who adopted modern highly mechanized processes that were more cost effective stayed in the business.
Today, with the decline in smoking in the United States, nearly two thirds of our crop is exported to Russia and China, and sales and profits are booming. Sadly smoking is still a common vice throughout the developing world.
But, as for me, I’ll stick to bourbon and cussing as my vices. I had my fill of tobacco in my teenage years toiling in fields and barns, and will be happy never to have a cigarette touch my tips or have cigarette smoke fill my lungs.