Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Tobacco Stories

Having tobacco planted behind and beside our house this Summer has brought back many memories of my childhood and it occurred to me that many of the people in this world have no idea how tobacco is harvested and especially how it was done back in the day when I was young, in the 1960s and 1970s.  Of course my elders tell me about more primitive ways of harvesting tobacco that make the way we did it look modern!

There was a whole language associated with tobacco in the South during those days. When young people hear me use some of these terms, they do not understand.  Here are some that I remember.

1.  Barnin baccer:  The entire process of harvesting and putting the tobacco into the barns to be cured.

3.  Settin out baccer:  The process of pulling the plants from a bed and then sitting on a "setter" pulled behind a tractor.  You lay the plant in a little hopper thing as it turns by you and it puts the plant in the ground.  You have to be quick and ready for it every time it comes back up.

3.  Toppin and succering baccer:  The tobacco plants get flowers on top and little side shoots that have to be picked off.  You "top" the flowers and "succer" the side leaves. 

4.  Croppin baccer:  The process of picking the leaves off the stalks.  The leaves were cropped starting with the bottom leaves.  Each tobacco plant was cropped several times over the summer, going up the stalk until all the leaves were gone.

5.  Sand lugs:  The bottom leaves that start turning slightly yellow first and are cropped first.  They are full of sand because they are near the ground.  These aren't as valuable as the leaves higher up on the stalk.

6.  Tyin baccer:  The process of sitting on the harvester and tying handfuls of tobacco on a  tobacco stick.  There was an art to this and I became pretty good at it.  My tobacco leaves did not fall of the stick after I tied them on there.  On the other hand, it had to be put on there in such a way that it was easy to take off the sticks as well.

7.  The baccer harvester.  This was way more labor intensive than it sounds.  The harvester was a contraption that was pulled by a tractor, had a shelter over it and pulled a baccer trailer behind.  The tobacco was planted with 4 rows on each side of a "middle".  the workers sat on the harvester as it slowly crept down the rows.  There were 4 pairs of workers, usually 4 teenage or adult guys who sat down near the ground in a seat and as they cropped the leaves off the plant, they would hand the handfuls of leaves up to the tyers, who sat up above them and who were usually girls.

There was also a person driving the tractor.  I was doing this at 8 years old with no umbrella over me in the hot North Carolina Summer sun.  Sun screen did not exist.  I had to know what to do when they said "whoa!", "slow down", or "speed up".  I stopped when I got to the end of the row and let an adult turn the thing into the next row.

The work crew was rounded out by another guy, who took the sticks of tobacco when they were full and tied off and layed them on a trailer that was being pulled behind the tractor.  Another job that a young child would do is to walk behind the whole thing and pick up any dropped leaves.

On the harvester there was usually a water cooler which was filled with a big chunk of ice and water each morning.  It was very important to have this water for the workers so that they could keep hydrated during the hot weather. 

Humid and hot does not even begin to describe what it felt like down there in the middle of those rows where no air could get to you.

8.  Baccer gum:  This is a nasty thick black coating that would get all over your hands by the end of the day.  Most of us didn't wear gloves because it was too hot.  At the end of the day it was nearly impossible to get this gum off your hands.  The only thing that would take it off easily was bleach!  I am assuming that this is what a smoker's lungs look like from smoking!

9.  Handing up the sticks.:  At the end of the day all those sticks of baccer loaded on the trailers had to be put into the barns.  The barns were very tall and had what were called tier poles in the top to hang the sticks on.  On the dirt floor were gas burners that would be lit to cure the leaves.  An assembly line was set up that ran from the trailers parked outside the barn, all the way to the top of the barns.  The teenage guys were usually up in the top of the barns, since they were usually strong and agile and could stand the heat.  and I mean HEAT!  Not to mention snakes....

This is an old tobacco barn.  There are many of these old relics all over the countryside in rural areas of the South.  Most are falling down and are covered with vines.  Some have been fixed up into nice storage buildings or even apartment type homes.

10.  Taking out baccer:  After the leaves had cured out enough they had to be taken out of the barn.  The assembly line was then done in reverse order.  The barns had to be emptied regularly to make room for more green tobacco.  This was often done before day on the same day that more tobbacco was to be harvested.  This means that many days started at 4:00 A.M. so that the barns would be ready.  The cured sticks of leaves were piled on trailers and taken to another barn or old deserted house called pack houses. 

11.  Taking off baccer:  This usually took place on rainy days when harvesting could not take place or in the fall. The leaves had to be taken off the sticks, sorted and put into baccer sheets, which are made of burlap.  These big sheets full of tobacco were taken to a tobacco warehouse where they were auctioned off. 

Taking off baccer was a much more pleasant job than barnin baccer!

12.  Getting the baccer in order:  Sometimes the tobacco leaves would get too dry in the barns and would be brittle and crumbly.  I have seen my Daddy have us lay all the sticks of tobacco all over the yard over night so that the dew would moisten them some and get them into "order".    That was a sight to see.

This only scratches the surface of the whole Southern Tobacco Society.  These days there are machines that crop the tobacco and they are put into bulk barns.  Its way less labor intensive, as far as I can tell.  I left those days behind over 35 years ago and don't really know the details of how it is done anymore.

13.  Choppin baccer and standin up baccer:  Chopping the grass and weeds.  Standing it back up after a storm.  These jobs took several workers all taking a row at the time.

Tobacco Barn in Winter

Here are a couple of interesting memories from my baccer barnin days:

1.  My Daddy would catch snakes and chase some of the workers with them.  I. am. not. kidding.....  They were not poisonous, and he was just playing around.    He never did that to me.  I remember at least one teenage guy who never came back after one of those episodes.

2.  One of the tractors had to be cranked with a hand crank.  Daddy tried to crank it one day and didn't have the tractor out of gear.  It nearly ran over him and did in fact run into a barn and did some serious damage.

3.  Tobacco harvesting was so dependent upon the local children and teenagers, that the first day of school was often delayed by 2 or 3 weeks to allow the last of the tobacco to be harvested, without interfering with school.  I think this may be where my love of Fall comes from.  I was so glad that summer and tobacco harvesting was over each year.


A lot of people had good memories of their baccer barnin days and had good times.  Most of mine were not good.  But, it was part of my life and I learned a lot from it.  It taught me how to work and how to persevere.   To this day I have a good work ethic and know how blessed I am to have an office job with A/C!


Meggie said...

Oh Debbie...what a story. And to think it was part of your childhood. I knew it was work, but I had no idea how hard it was. I do understand heat and humidity. We have it here in Texas. Thanks so much for your story.

ancient one said...

Sounds like the way my children helped put in tobacco... my story is different... trucks brought to the barn.. handing and looping under a shelter.. it was hot, dirty, sticky work.. thanks for the reminders..

Susannah said...

Very interesting, Debbie. I grew up here on a farm in New York. My dad raised wheat, oats, corn and we milked cows and had sheep and horses. I knew nothing about tobacco and have enjoyed reading this. I know my hubby will want to read your post tonight. Thank you.


Little Penpen said...

And tobacco worms! yuk! those older guys used to throw them on the girls! You have one pic. that looks like a little creature is on the leaf. That's not a worm , is it? I saw where my mama mentioned that we helped put in tobacco. My brothers worked much harder than I did, but I did help a few times. I was on the harvester one year, and pulling it from trucks to put into the bulk barn racks other years. I hated getting wet and gummy!

Alexandra S said...

Thanks for sharing!

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