Monday, September 22, 2008

Day 32/ 365 Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Sunday I took the DD to our county's national park: Booker T. Washington National Monument. For those of you who do not remember your American history, Booker T. Washington was one of the most influential Black Americans in the latter 19th century, and the beginning of the 20th century. He hung with folks like W.E. Du Bois, ran Tuskegee Institute for many years, and did more for education of black children in this country than anyone else (in addition to being a guest at the White House). He was also the first Black American to appear on a postage stamp.

The reason we have the National Monument for him is because he was born here in our county, in slavery, to the Burroughs family. At the age of nine, he and his family were emancipated, and off they walked to West Virginia (a two and a half hour drive, over mountains).

The national park has recreated the farm he lived on, the slave quarters, barn, and tobacco barns of his time, all in a rural setting that is down in a small valley, so when you visit, you can block out the modern world.

We took lots of photos Sunday (and argued over the camera a bit), so different aspects of the visit will be in different entries.

Today's story is about one of Virginia's biggest crops - tobacco- sortof our gift to the nation (love it or hate it - it played a huge part in building this nation), and it was not only part of Booker T's past but part of my personal past as well.

When the English arrived here just over 400 years ago, they met Chief Powatan, who ruled over approximately 5 million Native Americans in Eastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore.
His daughter was the famous Pocahontus. Together they introduced the English to tobacco.

The English (commercial scouting being the reason for their road trip to the New World) took tobacco back to England, and hustled back, anxious for more. It quickly became a cash crop, and has remained so for the ensuing centuries.

The top photo is of a tobacco field at Booker T. Most of the leaves are not ready yet - but a few have started to yellow, and then were picked from the bottom up, tied together, and hung over a rack made of branches (in the photo below).

Once it's dry, you can roll it and smoke it, directly.

The process of getting it dry or cured, has changed over the years. In between the rough racks and the modern day drying houses with thermostats and fans, came the picturesque Virginia tobacco barns, built 2-3 stories high of logs chinked with mud and clay, with hanging poles strung across the inside. The hanging poles were loaded with the tobacco shafs, then carefully llifted up and set in place, until the entire inside was layered from top to bottom in hanging leaves. During curing season, a fire would be lit on the ground floor,of the barn and the men would take turns staying in the tobacco barn for days, making sure the fire didn't get too hot, or worse, too cool.

Most tobacco barns have an incredible aroma inside them - no matter how long they've been empty or unused. They are huge inside, all dark and cool and empty. This is the only door, and might be closed up tight during curing, or left open in different positions to control the humidity and the heat.

This is the inside view of Booker T's barn - it's only minimally loaded for an exhibit as they don't cure the tobacco here any longer. Because they aren't controlling the humidity, the tobacco gets mold on it (the whiteish streaks). These racks are hung about six feet over my head, and there's room for at least 3 more hanging levels over this one.

When we first moved here eleven years ago, there were old tobacco barns all over. Until the last couple years, most farming families here grew tobacco and sold it to the commercial companies, picking their crop over a six week period and hauling it to the warehouses, to be piled on the floor, and bid on by the tobacco buyers and auctioneers. Now the trend is towards subsidies and buying out the tobacco farmers. Many of the old tobacco barns have been renovated into guesthouses, antique shops, equipment sheds, corn cribs or workshops, or have just fallen down from age.

While tobacco is not politically correct anymore, it fed and clothed a great many families here in Virginia (including my grandparents), and provided one of the few farming incomes that was commercially viable in a very poor remote region. It's a labor-intensive, backbreaking occupation, but also a craft - curing tobacco is an artform. What they do now with chemicals, the old-time grower could do with the type of plant, the timing of the pick, the drying, and the curing, including the temperature of the fire, how long it was left to burn, and what kind of wood was used. A good tobacco buyer could tell what county a particular shaf of leaves came from, just by the aroma.

Even with all my allergies, I love the smell inside a tobacco farm - it instantly takes me back in time to my grandaddy, watching him roll up a cigarette that he grew himself, then hearing the strike of the match on his shoe, and finally watching the smoke curl up and drift away.


  1. Carole - you always have such a great history lesson. Love your photos and your oratory.

  2. Thanks Iris!

    I'm addicted to history. When I grow up I want to be a time traveller.

  3. Great post - there are many scientists and others now that say the problem with smoking/lung cancer are because of the modern processes and additives in the cigs now. . . ?

  4. Great post...felt like I had actually been there...oh yeah, I have;)

  5. Kat -

    After selling tobacco for 14 years, I can pretty much tell them
    it's the additives and chemicals.
    There are tons of people down just south of us that I met while reping that have smoked what they grow for their entire lives. No cancer, no "smokers skin", no emphysema, none of it. It's only after the coommercial companies get it that its soaked,coated and sprayed with things you don't even
    want to think about. Of course if you grow your own, no one makes any money off it.

  6. Yep, that confirms what I've been reading :)