Barnin’ tobacco is a tough, sweaty, exhausting job but the some of the most fun I’ve ever had. Of course, I speak from the point of view of a barn worker. Whatever tobacco farmers have to say on the subject I humbly acknowledge and totally respect. And I’m also talking about how tobacco was cropped in the 1960’s. It’s managed differently these days.
I grew up in tobacco country. My grandfather, one of my uncles, and my daddy were all tobacco farmers – although my daddy only farmed on his own for a couple of years. Most of the men at the church where I was raised were tobacco farmers. And helping “barn tobacco” was what I did in the summers to make money to buy my school clothes. The first summers I spent at the barn I was too little to work but I learned to help out and how to stay out of the way.
For those of you who haven’t a clue let me briefly explain the process (at least part of it) – as it was when I knew it. After setting out tobacco seedlings in the spring tobacco plants grow to a height of about 5 feet. The leaves of the plant are harvested during July and August. “Primers” also known as “croppers” or field hands picked the ripe leaves from the plants about 3 times (sometimes more) during a season beginning at the bottom and moving upward as the leaves ripened. The picked leaves were placed in a “sled” or “slide truck” and hauled by mule or tractor to the curing barns. There under an attached shelter the leaves were tied onto sticks. At the end of the day the prepared sticks were hung inside the barn to be dried and cured. Typically the field hands were men and those working at the barn shelter were women. As a side note, for those of you not raised in the South, this process is often pronounced “barnin’ bacca”.
My first summer job “barnin’ tobacco” I was a “hander” – which meant I gathered leaves of tobacco by the stalk, bundled them together, and handed them to the person who was tying the leaves to a stick. The sticks were held by a wooden cradle called a “horse” as the worker (called a “stringer”) tied each bundle to first one side of the stick and then another until the stick was full of leaves. The stringer would holler “Stick!” and another worker – usually a young boy not old enough to work in the field – would take the full stick of tied leaves to racks where they hung until the end of the day. When the field hands returned to the barn at the end of the day the sticks would be hung into the barn.
At the beginning of the season farmers assembled workers that could be counted on to help in the fields and at the barn shelter. Once you had given your word to a farmer that you would be a primer, hander, or stringer you were obliged to that particular farmer for the season. Wages were based on how hard and/or skilled the labor. Primers would be in the fields from sun up to sun down. They had to know which leaves to pick and be able to keep up with the crew. Barn workers were fortunately in the shade but stringers needed to be swift and sure. Handers had the easiest job – if you could call any of the jobs easy.
Let me tell you something about tobacco that you’d only know from an intimate meeting with those broad leaves: they are soaking wet with dew early in the morning – and I mean soaking!! And so are you. By midmorning they are completely dry. And so are you.
Barnin’ tobacco starts early – by first light. My ride usually picked me up when it was still dark. Primers were in the field as soon as it was light enough to tell the green leaves from the ripe ones. At the barn shelter tobacco sticks were gathered and put in easy access for the stringers to grab as they finished each stick. Sheets of plastic were tied with twine around the barn workers like aprons to keep clothes at least partially dry from the wet morning leaves. Many stringers protected their hands from the constant friction of the string (which could cause blisters) by wrapping their fingers with adhesive tape. When that first slide truck arrived it was on! Within minutes arms, hands, cold tobacco juice, and morning dew were flying and the day was set in motion. And let me tell you another thing about tobacco: if the “juice” from the leaves gets in your eyes it burns like fire; and if it gets in your mouth the taste is acrid and awful. And let me tell you one more thing: there is no stopping for anything other than a dire emergency – which better be that you have just dropped dead. You can whine. You can complain. But you can’t stop until the farmer says its “break time”.
“Break time” was like a little breath of heaven. By midmorning the tobacco had dried and your hands were full of tobacco gum. The morning chill was long gone and the day was heating up enough that the wet you now felt was your own sweat. You could order up whatever soda you wanted – RC Cola, Sundrop, Grape or Orange Nehi soda, Coke or Pepsi. And you could also have a snack to go with it – round or square nabs, a moon pie, a honeybun, or the like. There was nothing so delicious – ever!
Break usually happened after we had finished a truckload because the tobacco could not be allowed to lie in a truck bed. It had to be taken care of immediately. Break was officially over when the next truckload arrived. To be sure the primers had taken a break also but they were often out in a field that might be quite a ways from the barn and we usually didn’t see them until Noon when everyone took a break to have lunch – only it wasn’t called lunch. The midday meal was dinner – and certainly it was a hearty meal. Most times farmers’ wives cooked a good ole country meal: meat, potatoes, and steaming fresh vegetables, with something tasty on the side like homemade sweet pickles or sliced tomatoes or cucumbers in vinegar. And always a delectable homemade pie, cake, or cobbler for dessert. Afterwards we relaxed while our food digested and we’d gather a “second wind”. By the afternoon the wet tobacco was long forgotten for the heat had set in like an unwelcome guest come to stay.
Field hands tended to be high school age boys and young men – strong and energetic. I’ve seen them come in after sweating all day in the blazing hot sun, hang tobacco in a sweltering, airless barn, and rush off to play baseball that evening. Most every season the field crew would hide at least one dead snake among the truck of tobacco for their delight and the horror of at least one hander. What happened to the guys after that shocker usually depended on the dynamics of the group – laughter, a good natured scolding or someone getting chased by a barn worker with a tobacco stick (all in good fun, of course).
Barn workers could vary in age from school age to older women who might not have been all that old but seemed old to me as a teenager. Handers could be young but they had to keep up with the stringer. Most stringers were older and experienced. I rose to the rank of stringer the last couple of years I worked in tobacco. The first year I didn’t make as much as the older more experienced stringers but by the end of the season I was more accomplished and earned a raise. I was mighty proud of myself.
Working with a crowd of young folks was always fun. There was a lot of laughing, talking, occasional gossip, joking around, and flirting. Some time during the summer season I usually had a crush on at least one boy – which was pretty typical from what my friends from other farms reported. And if there was a ballgame in the evenings I usually went – tobacco gum and sweat scrubbed away and thoughts of heat and hard work long forgotten. Oh! The endless energy of youth!
Like any other section of the population, farmers vary in their perspectives. Some are cheerful, optimistic, and fun loving. Some are crusty curmudgeons. And others are anywhere else on the possibility of personalities. There were some old coots so sour I wondered how they could get anybody to work for them – their workers had to be some desperate souls is all I could reckon. I was lucky. I had the opportunity to spend the summer with some delightful folks and work with some fine men – all hard working, to be sure, but easy going in their nature, respectful of others, and with a good sense of humor. And Lord knows! Sometimes you might as well laugh as cry if you’re gonna barn tobacco!