Man, my back hurts. I’ve been picking cucumbers and squash every morning for three weeks. It kinda hurts down low like it did when I was a young teenager working in tobacco every day. Back then, when I would complain about my back hurting, old folks would say, “Boy, you’re too young to have a back.”
For those of you folks who still remember working in the tobacco field, you know it was those same type of hot days of summer (like we are experiencing now) that you would have had to prime and put in a barn of tobacco. For those of you that were lucky enough not to have worked in tobacco, this story just might be a little history lesson.
Farming tobacco is a thirteen-month-a-year job. The cool days of spring, when you planted your seed bed, have gradually turned into sweltering 100-degree days by July and August.
As the sun warms the ground, your tobacco stalks have grown over 5 feet high and the bottom leaves (lugs) are starting to ripen.
All the topping and suckering of the tobacco has done been taken care of and it’s time to start priming (cropping) your cash crop.
The burners at the tobacco barn have been checked and cleaned, the kerosene or propane tanks have been topped off — all in preparation for the curing of your tobacco. That is, unless you are growing Burley, which is air-cured.
You have lined up your harvest help, who mostly live in your neighborhood. There will be primers in the field, sled boys driving the mules and sleds, and of course, your barn help — like handers and loopers. Most of your help are experienced and know the routine of putting in tobacco, as they call it. Every now and then, a green-hand tries his hand at it, but some don’t even last half a day.
On a blazing hot day in July, the process of putting in a barn of tobacco begins. The sun is no more than an hour high and the loopers (stringers) and handers are at the tobacco barn. They are placing new balls of tobacco twine in tin cans that have been nailed to the homemade wooden looping horses that will be used to string the tobacco on. Empty tobacco sticks are neatly stacked against the outside of the barn so they can be readily available.
The young boys, that are to be the sled drivers, are hooking the mules up to empty sleds and headed to the fields, while primers prepare for a long, hot day of filling the tobacco sleds, one after another. Soon the tobacco field will be filled with sounds like Chinese firecrackers going off as the primers crop the tobacco.
Usually there is a pleasant excitement in the air about putting in the first crop of the season. For one thing, it means that soon there will be beautiful golden tobacco leaves cured out, ready to be graded and taken to the market to be sold. It is understood by everyone that money will soon be coming in after a long, lean winter.
To ease the oppressive heat and hard work, the workers talk, laugh, play a joke on someone and every now and then a song can be heard floating through the air. Salt tablets and plenty of water are available to help fight off the summer heat.
In the fields, as primers finish cropping a row of tobacco, they might throw a horn worm on one another’s back or splash each other with a dipper of water from the water bucket. But about the only thing waiting at the end of a row for a primer is another row that’s got to be primed.
If they are lucky, the field help will find a shade tree or watermelon patch nearby. Even a garden with ripe tomatoes or cucumbers makes for a good late breakfast.
Along about 10 in the morning, cold drinks and packs of nabs are passed out to the help. Why, a cold Pepsi Cola never tastes so good as when you are hot and sweaty while putting in a barn of tobacco.
When dinner time (midday) comes, the tobacco workers try their best to get the tobacco gum off their hands and arms by washing them in a bucket of water and using lye soap (homemade being the best). Lye soap is about the only thing that will remove that old sticky gum.
At dinner, most farmers take their help to a local store where they can buy their own dinner. A lot of pork-n-beans, potted meat, crackers and Moon Pies are consumed, along with R.C. Colas. On rare occasions, the farmer’s wife will have cooked a large pot of pinto beans, ham hocks and cornbread for the workers’ dinner.
As the workers come back from dinner and start back to work in the fields, they are warned that the monkey has been spotted out in the tobacco field. The monkey being the heat. Why, if’en you have drank a lot of ice water at dinner or during the day, that monkey will jump right on your back, giving you cramps all over your body. Won’t nothing to do then but load you up in an empty sled and carry you back to the barn to cool down.
Mid-evening, the primers will come back to the barn to hang the heavy green tobacco sticks high up in the barn. The looped tobacco is neatly stacked and each stick is passed up till the barn is full.
As the late evening sun is going down behind the tree tops, the farmhands wash the gum off their hands and head home, resting up for the next day of putting in tobacco.
The farmer lights his barn burners to start the curing process and then goes to the house to get his supper.
Long, hot days and several dark nights are still to be had by the farmer and his workers before the tobacco is ready to go to market. “A farmer’s work is never done” is a very true statement. Even though today’s tobacco farming is a bit more high-tech and takes less workers, it’s still a hard, hot job.
In my way of thinking, those were the “good old days” — but mostly good when you are looking back and not having to live through them again.
J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Anson County Writer’s Club, Anson and Richmond County Historical Societies and author of his new book, “Just Passing Time.”