A day in the tobacco fields

My late and beloved grandfather’s first cousin Bobby died this weekend. Bobby was the last one of our family to make a living as a tobacco farmer. He hung up his tractor keys around 1990 or 1991 – but not before his grandchildren, myself, and a friend spent summers finding out what it was like for our forefathers to labor in the fields of south Virginia tobacco country.

That’s something I’ve thought about blogging before, so what the hell. The work we do is known in the area as “pulling tobacco.” If you want to follow along with some pictures, open this link in another tab or window. The process is similar enough as to not make any difference. In tribute to a whole hell of a lot of people: Howson, Will, Howell, Billy, Bobby, Tommy (both of them), and others, here’s a portrait of my life on a day like today, twenty years ago.

My alarm sounds and I groggily roll over. It’s 4:30am in late July, 1988. I roll over and shake my head a bit to clear the mental fog. No need to shower this morning. Hell no. I make myself a breakfast of cereal, wash it down with sweet tea, and dress myself in a pair of old blue jeans, a ratty t-shirt, and a shitty old long-sleeved button-up shirt of my dad’s. I slip outside the door even before my parents are awake, and step outside into the pregnant morning mist.

It’s humid already, and warm – probably 79 degrees or so. It’ll be hot today. Very hot.

White mist clings to the hay field between my house and my uncle’s, a hundred yards up the hill. Things are deathly quiet – so quiet that I can hear my friend Tommy crank up his motorcycle about a third of a mile away and over the rise beyond my uncle’s house. I start walking down my driveway and a minute later Tommy appears over the hill and coasts to a stop at the end of my driveway. I hop up on the back of his bike and we ride together farther down the hill to Bobby’s house. It’s 5:00 in the morning, and still before first light.

Bobby, as always in his suspenders, is already moving, and his grandsons Tommy (I’ll call him Red to distinguish him from my already-named friend) and Leslie are already there. Red is 13 years old, Leslie and I are 14, Tommy is 15. Other adults, usually black, often join us on the weekends when they have time off from their main jobs. Mexican laborers will dominate the area in a few years. But the four of us, none old enough to drive, are the help for the day. With the day promising to be a scorcher and a lot of work to be done, we want to be working as soon as it’s light enough to see. Bobby cranks up the old International and we hop onto the old “slide” trailer-an old car axle with a flat wooden bed about six feet wide by twelve feet long, no top, and sides only on the front and back-and the tractor headlights light the way as we chug down rutted roads in the white sandy soil toward the field we’ll work today.

It’s about fifteen or twenty minutes past five when we get to the field, and light enough to get to work. So we do. It’s early in the season, and tobacco leaves ripen from the ground up, so we’re pulling the “ground leaves” this time around: the most back-breaking labor there is. The ground leaves are largest, heaviest, and require bending all the way to the ground to reach them beneath the other leaves. The plant itself is chest-high to a boy of fourteen, and the leaves are dripping wet with the morning dew. Many tobacco pullers wear rainsuits to keep dry, but I’ve tried that and decided that the summer heat in Virginia is just too much. I wear the long sleeves and pants to keep as much of the nicotine off of my skin as I can, but I’d rather get wet in the morning and have the wetness to keep me cooler a bit longer. Even so, it’s gone before 9am. After that, it’s all sweat. And lots of it.

Starting one boy to each row, we bend to the ground, wrap our right hands knuckles-in and thumb-down around the stem of the plant, and in a sweeping circular motion sweep our hands back toward us, breaking off the three or four leaves from a hand’s-breadth of the plant. These leaves are tucked under our left arm, and we move on to the next plant without straightening up. You learn quickly that straightening up after each plant will sap the energy and strain the back of even a strong and healthy fourteen-year-old.

We repeat this step until the pile of leaves underneath our left arms are so large that we can’t hold them anymore. At that point we walk across the rows over to the “slide row,” the wider row placed to accommodate the tractor about every 7 rows of tobacco. We swing the pile of leaves up and onto the flatbed slide trailer, stem out, and go back to our row. We have an acre to pull before lunchtime between the four of us: Bobby laughs at us and points to me, saying “Me an’ your granddaddy used to pull this same field by ourselves in a half a day.” At 10:00 when it’s over 90 degrees and ninety percent humidity, this challenge to our youthful masculinity isn’t as effective as it might be.

Tobacco leaves have a sort of waxy coating on them. Sometimes they can actually make a squeaking sound when you touch them. As the day goes by, you begin to notice your hands picking up a yellowish tint: from the wax, and nicotine. At the time, my father is a smoker. I don’t vomit in the fields, but a day’s work can make me queasy, especially if I’m stuck working in the row next to the tractor where I can also breathe in exhaust fumes. But many tobacco workers do vomit from the nicotine, just as a child smoking his grandfather’s cigar might. The leaves smell strongly – not as strong as when they are dried and cured (at that point they smell much like a cigarette does if you tear it open and smell the tobacco), but still a thick, heavy and utterly unique smell that seeps into your skin and clothes.

It is hard, filthy, and backbreaking work – exactly the sort of work that slaves might have been employed for on this same land a hundred and fifty years before. And like the slaves, we pass the time and distract our minds by singing, only instead of spirituals or gang chants, we laughingly sing old AC/DC songs into the misty morning, making fun of each other for our singing or our exhaustion until we’re all just too tired to do either and we drag ourselves along, working in silence.

We finish the field, loading up about three or four of the slide trailers three feet high with leaves, and break for lunch. It’s about 11:30 in the morning and 94 degrees. Red and Leslie eat at Bobby’s house; Tommy and I hop his motorcycle back to my house for sandwiches. Before we eat, we scrub our hands over and over and over with a bathroom tile cleaner containing bleach – it’s the only thing we’ve found that can come close to taking some of the yellow wax off of our hands.

At 12:30 we gather back at Bobby’s for the afternoon’s work. Several of the women in the family are now present: Bobby’s wife Mary, a few of his daughters, and a few of their husbands or boyfriends who are now off of their early-shift jobs. The women start to put the leaves on a mechanical stringer, a device that is basically a huge sewing machine attached to a conveyor. The stringer stitches the leaves, stalk side up, to an old square tobacco stick somewhere between three and four feet long.

As the finished sticks come off the stringer, they weigh anywhere from thirty-five to fifty pounds, depending on how many leaves are there, how large they are, and how wet they are. The men pull the sticks from the stringer and pass them, bucket-brigade style, into an old log tobacco barn. The barn itself could have been built anytime after about 1800 by its appearances; it’s nothing but old logs and mud, except for the modern LP gas burners in the floor to heat the tobacco and cure it. Rows of poles line the inside all the way to the tin roof. Standing on those poles are myself and the other boys and men, as we each reach beneath us, take a stick, and pass it to the fellow overhead until it reaches the top and the “top man” hangs the sticks from the poles.

It’s 2:00 in the afternoon, 96 degrees and 95 percent humidity outside. Inside the tin-roofed barn, it’s easily over 110 degrees and the air is both full of tobacco smell, moisture from the wet leaves, and utterly still. It must approach the sensation not of being baked, but of being steamed. In tobacco. We’ve ditched the long shirts we wore in the field, but we still wear t-shirts and jeans, now thoroughly yellowed with nicotine and soaked through with the sweat that stings our eyes and runs in rivulets from exposed skin.

At some point between 4:00 and 6:00, we finish for the day. (If not, we’ll eat dinner and come back to finish up.) Bobby thanks us all for the help, tells us whether we’ll be needed the next day and if so, which field we’ll be working, and we’ll collect $3 an hour for the work. I’ll ride back home on the back of Tommy’s motorcycle, shower for thirty minutes or so, scrub my hands with the tile cleaner again until I can put some food into my queasy stomach, and fall asleep before the sun sets around 9pm.

It was some of the most horrid work under the most horrid conditions I’ve ever done, and it certainly made me appreciate the value of a college education, I can tell you that. I swore it off after that one year, and got a “regular” job the next summer and every summer thereafter. But in some ways I’ll always be glad that I spent that one summer sweating my ass off in the tobacco fields, if for no other reason than to have that connection to my forefathers and the land they worked. Replace the tractor with a mule, and the mechanical stringer with hand-stringing, and the work was really no different than my great-grandfather would have done as a boy in his father’s fields.

It’s a connection that, as I grow older, I’m glad I had the opportunity to make.

However, to all of you out there I’d say that if you ever have the chance to try it…definitely pass.


5 Responses

  1. Nice story. Excellent reflection.

    My father’s family was from Durham, NC. Don’t know much about them but that is one smoking place.

    In the 60’s my Mother was smoking and found something hard in a cigarette: a kids tooth. She sent it to the company. Got a carton in return.

    Yep. Same part of the world in general. My aunt and uncle lived in Durham for a while and we used to visit. And it wasn’t too long a drive for us; my dad took my brother and I to the old Durham Athletic Park to see the Bulls play back when they still played on the same field from Bull Durham.

  2. Very interesting acount of your experience. My DQ experience seems luxurious by comparison.

    The first time I ever saw tobacco plants was when I went to a WKU friend’s farm near Hopkinsville, KY. It was eye-opening for me to see the life of a farmer. Her dad had had skin cancer, a heart attack, and various other injuries by the time he was 45.

    My grandfather quit tobacco farming and started working as a delivery driver/repairman for one of the propane companies that delivered LP gas for home heating, and especially to the tobacco barn tanks where LP gas furnaces heated the barns to cure the tobacco. He died in his late 60s of bone cancer – his bones were so brittle that the doctor told him once “push against my hand and tell me when it hurts” – and my grandfather broke his arm.

    I often wonder if it was the tobacco, the chemicals on it, the propane, or something completely different that contributed to his cancer.

  3. […] great-grandfather was a tobacco farmer – the last in my line to pull his living from the soil for his entire life. So he planted his crop […]

  4. […] working conditions are easy, and I’ve already covered them:  the summer I spent working in the tobacco fields.  Bar none.  Slave work – and I mean that historically literally.  But I was doing it with good […]

  5. hello gentlemen in this great job
    my name is camille tannous from lebanon i work in tobacco planting harvesting and the most hard part is stringing the tobacco leaves we string them by hands it took a lot of time 4 hours to string 20 string of tobacco by 4 persons so the question is if there is a machines to string the tobacco leaves automaticaly with all my respect to you i want the answer and photos on my email policeman750@hotmail.com
    my phone number is 0096171170176

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