In 1994 I helped my 91-year-old Grandpa Reese hang his last patch of tobacco. I am sort of proud of that today as my family lived by farming for generations. My Grandpa’s farm was in Watauga County right on the edge of the N.C. and Tennessee line. Like most of the farmers in the area Grandpa had a farm of about 25 acres on which he grew tobacco, put out a garden, and kept cattle and horses. For years tobacco and green beans were about the only cash crop farmers in that area people could grow and sell. My Dad and Mom can remember picking beans and putting them in sacks they dragged behind them. Beans at that time brought .50 cents a bushel, but by ’94 the bean market had dried up and tobacco was the only crop farmers had left to sell.
My Grandpa set out a patch of tobacco that covered nine-tenths of an acre which was all he was allowed under the Federal subsidy allotment program. Around the first of February my Grandpa would sew tobacco seeds to grow his plants in a bed (basically a small patch of ground shaped like a bed and covered with a thin white cheese cloth.) In May the plants, now 6 to 10 inches high, would be pulled from the ground and planted in the field about 12 inches apart and 3 to 4 inches deep. After pouring water around the plant you raked dirt up around the plant with a hoe.
As a little boy I carried water in wire handled metal buckets to my parents when they set the plants.
I dreaded it. The water buckets were probably not that heavy, but I thought I was carrying gallons at a time. I can remember how the wire handle would leave a mark across my palms. The dirt clods in the field were my enemy. They seemed huge and made me stumble spilling water all over my shoes while my Dad hollered for more water. In August the plants would be big enough to bud or flower at the top. We would go through and cut the tops off so the tobacco leaves would grow out more. In mid-September the plants were grown and ready to be cut. We would cut the tobacco plant off at the bottom of the stalk and hang them on wooden stakes by running the stake through the stalk with a metal spike. You could get about four to six plants hung on a stake.
I was grown in 1994 when I arrived early in the morning to hang Grandpa’s tobacco. My Dad Burl, his brothers Johnny and Arvil, and my brother-in-law Michael were there to help. Now understand this. I was working in a library at the time, my Dad and Uncle Johnny had done hard work but were now retired and in their 60’s, while Arvil had been a store manager and hadn’t worked in years. I remember him looking at me as we got started and saying “I don’t know why a 91-year-old man would want to put out a patch of tobacco anyway.” The tobacco was already cut and on the stake. We backed a pickup up to the edge of the field and one person got up in the bed to pack the plants while the rest handed them up. Once the pickup bed was full we backed it up to the barn and one person handed the plants down while the others carried it into the barn.
My job was to hang the tobacco in the loft of the barn. I was standing high in the air (did I mention I am afraid of heights) with each foot on a round wooden pole about five inches thick that ran from one side of the barn to the other. I would position the stakes about 8 to 10-inches apart between two wooden poles from which the tobacco could hang down and dry or cure. It was hard work and down below I heard my Uncle Arvil saying to my Dad “I don’t know why a 91-year-old man would want to put out a patch of tobacco anyway.” I worked my way across the loft in the barn hanging the tobacco until the truck was empty then we went back to the field to load some more. In a couple of hours we were all worn out.
After I finished hanging the tobacco across the top of the barn I dropped down halfway to hang the rest under the top row. It was then that we realized we had a problem. You see the tobacco was still dripping water from a recent rain and now the top row of tobacco was dripping down on top of us. Imagine running water though tobacco and then into your eyes and you get the idea. My Grandpa came in and saw what was happening and said, “You should have hung the tobacco in sections with the lower section first and then the top and work your way across. That way it wouldn’t be dripping on you.” Since I was the one hanging the tobacco and the one with the Masters Degree it was up to me to speak on behalf of the men by saying, “Uh, yeah, well.”
Grandpa shook his head and went back out and Uncle Arvil who looked like he was about to drop said in a shaky voice, “I don’t know why a 91-year-old man would want to put out a patch of tobacco anyway.” We finally got it all in as we were about to drop. In November the tobacco was taken down and the leaves pulled off the stalk. The leaves were graded or separated in baskets by the location of the leaf on the stalk. There were five grades of leaves. The leaves at the bottom were called lugs, the next up was the “bright,” then the “long red,” followed by the “short red,” and finally the tips at the top. You tied the leaves together at the bottom by twisting another leaf around them. Each small bundle of leaves was called a “hand.” Once all the leaves were pulled off and put in baskets they were taken to a tobacco warehouse in Boone where they were weighed, tagged, and sold to buyers. The lugs and brights were used to make cigarettes while the long reds, short reds, and tips were used to make cigars, chewing tobacco, and snuff. I think Grandpa’s last patch brought about $2,500 in 1994.
My Grandpa Edd Reese died three years later at the age of 94 in June of 1997. A year later in June 1998 my Grandma Sarah Reese died at 93. With them died a whole way of life. My Grandpa’s farm had two barns, a cellar, a sawmill, a garage with a welder and the tools needed to pull a car motor, a shed with carpentry tools to build a house or bridge, a garden, fields for crops, a hog lot, and fields to raise cattle and keep horses. Their farm was a world unto itself and the farm and their own skills and hard work gave them all they needed in life. I would give anything to go back there and find it as it was then.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Recalling Grandpa’s tobacco farm” on Jan. 13, 2016