Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Day 88/365 Smoke Gets in Your Eyes...An Addendum

Smoking isn't cool. Hasn't been for a long time. Tobacco farmers are becoming a thing of the past, even Virginia has passed a no-smoking law for restaurants. Nevertheless, tobacco is part of our county history, our state history, and our national history, dating from the moment the first English settled at Jamestown Virginia.

Tobacco itself (Nicotiana tabacum named for the Portuguese Joan Nicot, who introduced the plant to France) is a pretty plant, and drying tobacco has a sweet pungent smell.

Our county still has many of the old tobacco sheds standing, although they are most often storage sheds or garages these days.

The traditional construction is of logs, fitted together and resembling nothing more than Lincoln Logs, with the chinks daubed and stuffed ("chinked") with mud and clay.

The side-hanging shelter was meant to house a horse-drawn wagon, waiting for it's load of dried tobacco sheaves to haul to market.

When the main door of the tobacco barn is opened up, what strikes the visitor is the immense darkness inside. Looking up, there are poles hung in layers, usually three to four layers deep, arranged so that each pole can be loaded with a tied bundle of fresh cut tobacco leaves (cut off the plant from the bottom up), known as a sheave. The poles will be loaded from the top down, with the fire built and tended on the dirt floor below.

The intensity of the fire, as well as the length of exposure to it, will determine the quality of the tobacco when its sold at market. The market is essentially a many-blocks long warehouse, with tobacco piled on the floor, each pile with an identifying number. The buyers (yes, from the evil cigarette companies), walk up and down the rows of piled tobacco, shouting out bids. The best tobacco goes for the highest price, usually to the largest companies.

These tobacco sales produced livelihoods for many small farmers for decades in our country, providing some small payback for what is a backbreaking way of making a living.

I myself haven't smoked since college and my grandfather only grew tobacco for personal use, rolling his own after dinner and lighting up while we sat on the back porch steps. His health never suffered until he switched to smoking commercially made cigarettes. For me, there is still some sort of deep-seated generational memory triggered when I open up that door on the tobacco barn. Those ancient logs harbor the sweet, pungent smell of history and quickly conjure up visions of my grandfather, and the tendrils of smoke drifting up in the twilight.

All these photos (and this tobacco barn) were taken at the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Franklin County VA.


No comments:

Post a Comment