Tobacco Road

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Mom, busy in the kitchen

Mom, busy in the kitchen

It was harvest time on a busy tobacco farm in 1966 (or a year or so earlier or later perhaps.) All those harvest-time memories seem to have run together for me, which is only natural, as they were very similar from year to year. A mispositioned recollection in the colourful quilt of those remembrances would not make any difference to the overall end result. They all fit together into something that amazes me whenever I spend a little time considering it.

My sister Marsha and I, my brother Keith, and my sister Jeannie, being the four oldest Stephenson kids, were the first to experience tobacco work. Our new barn was built after a fire destroyed our old one with all of our livestock, except for the horses inside. This forced my Dad into a complete change over from general farming, with a little tobacco acreage as a part of  it, to full-scale tobacco farming, including renting extra land with tobacco production quota included. Otherwise, we had little hope that our farm could survive.

Jimmy, Janice, Donny and Kathy, the little helpers

Jimmy, Janice, Donny and Kathy, the little helpers

As  the next kids in the line up, Kathy and Janice also helped, but more in the capacity of Mom’s helpers as they were too young to work with the regular adult harvest crew at the time. The youngest two, Jimmy and Donny, were also expected to help whenever kid appropriate tasks arose. Keith’s main job at harvest time was to  drive the tractor (at high-speed, he believed) to haul the “boats”, sled–runnered boxes full of tobacco leaves, across the sandy fields. They were driven in full into the kiln yard, and then quickly unloaded and taken out  empty again. He he also took turns at moving the “slats”, or sticks, laden with their flattened out “hula skirts” of tobacco leaves from the end of one conveyor belt to the end of another— the tobacco elevator. When Dad purchased a tying machine for us it mechanized the tying of leaves on to slats, a process that we had previously done by hand. I remember how hard Marsha had to work to learn to make the proper tightness in her loops that held the leaves to the sticks, as I rapidly handed her bunches of three leaves, alternately with Rita, one of our neighbours and a valued farm employee for many years. Marsha wasn’t much more than twelve or thirteen at the time and I was a year younger. It was horrible hand cramping work for both of us, but it meant that after the six or more weeks of hard work as part of a “table gang” that included another threesome doing the same work, whatever things our family needed to do would be easier for Mom and Dad to accomplish.

Keith busy in front of the tying machine, unloading tobacco

Keith busy in front of the tying machine, unloading tobacco

The movement of the slats of tobacco into the kiln also had to be done by hand in our early days of farming tobacco. Each one was passed up to the “kiln hanger”. He was forced to scramble up and down the inner framework of  built in drying racks like a monkey. He would carry the heavy filled slats  up to the top of the kiln, approximately sixteen feet, and then place the tobacco in ever descending rows, all twelve hundred slats. Eventually the process was simplified by the provision of an elevator, but it was still the hardest job in the kiln yard. Marsha’s husband John did this job in later years, before they married, to help pay for his university tuition. Our work on the machine was easier but still exhausting— laying the leaves down in neat rows from piles placed in front of us, then adding the slats, and then leaves again, all at high-speed. The conveyor belt led to a big industrial sewing machine, and at the end of the conveyor the “stick handler” moved it to the elevator. Everybody in the work crew wanted speed except for the oldest of us, Jean and Rita. Now that I am older I understand how hard Marsha and I made things for the two of them by constantly turning the speed-dial to a higher setting. We just wanted to get done so that we could go for a swim in the irrigation pond to cool off!

primers picking tobacco

Primers picking tobacco

As much as we were tied up until all 1200 sticks were tied up as well, Marsha, Jeannie, Keith and I didn’t envy the youngest four all that much as they grew into potential work assistants. Not being given an assigned job for harvest season meant that they were fair game for both Mom and Dad to assign tasks to them willy nilly. Sometimes when either parent was unaware that the other had recruited one of the kids for something already, they would add more to their to do lists than the poor kids could remember. Our parents’ patience was thread bare when it came to back talk at this tense time of the year. The younger ones’ tasks  might include such things as picking up fallen tobacco leaves from inside the kilns, and returning them to the tobacco tying table, or helping Mom to unload wagons and pile the slats full of cured tobacco into long rectangular piles, in the pack barn. This happened almost daily, whenever another kiln full had been heat- cured to a beautiful golden colour and the kiln was emptied out in order to be refilled again. The little boys were also usually recruited to regularly carry water jugs from the deep freezer to their brother Keith, who would then haul them out to the field for the sweltering tobacco pickers who for some obscure reason were always called “primers.” Around the house the youngest four were our tomato pickers, corn huskers, bean pickers, potato peelers, and floor vacuumers. They were the littlest cogs in the great big harvest machine that had to keep on ticking no matter what.

Jimmy emulating his hero, John, with Janice looking on.

Jimmy emulating his hero, John, with Janice looking on.

A job that was always allotted to Janice and Kathy was to help change the bedding once a week for the five or six primers who boarded during harvest season. They had beds in the temporary bunk house inside the pack barn,  in the”stripping room”, a large room where cured tobacco was stripped from its sticks, for sorting and grading in the winter. The tobacco sales always began in November when the  piles would be dismantled for preparing the tobacco for market.  Janice and Kathy were only allowed to get to their task of remaking the primers’ beds when Mom was available, no matter how much they may  have wanted to cross it off their to do lists earlier. It wasn’t that Mom or Dad felt that there was any threat of  harm coming to them from these guys who were well trusted, it being a much more innocent time then when such things were barely on anyone’s radar. Besides that, the primers were always out in the fields then anyway. The real reason was  that “Mom the Destroyer” was on the equivalent of mine sweeping duty for her girls whenever they entered this space. She would sweep up any Playboys or other morally questionable material into the dirty linens, as inconspicuously as possible, whenever she found them. Always on the alert, she never varied from having her girls go shake out the blankets or sweep the floor while she gingerly lifted the mattress corners to remove the fitted sheets, and then pulled off the pillow cases by herself. Contraband went straight to the burn barrel— Keith’s usual duty of collecting and burning our household garbage would not need to be attended to on those nights when, for some unknown reason, his Mom chose to beat him to it! Not one of the guys ever challenged my mother about the whereabouts of there personal property, which is not at all surprising. I can not even imagine that conversation! I do wonder sometimes, if any of the occasional fights that arose among the primers ever had anything to do with the misapprehension that someone had stolen someone else’s “girlfriend’s pictures” . As well as an irrigation pond to swim in, the primers also had an outdoor shower, under a nearby tree. Mom even did their laundry weekly rather than smell any “B.O.” as she always called it, in the dining room!  Many of the ‘boys” came back year after year to work, as priming paid very well, and accommodation was well above average on our farm for that time. 

Ken Derbyshire, Ron Pullen, and our French Canadian workers Guy, and Guy

Ken Derbyshire, Ron Pullen, and our French Canadian workers Guy, and Guy

The mantel clock on the top of the dining room china cabinet chimed 12 times and within seconds the first of the boys came through the door— Guy and Guy, our two French Canadian primers, from somewhere in Quebec, in pursuit of funds to pay tuition at McGill or for a girlfriend’s engagement ring (it was in French, and confusing), Moose, who was as big and rambunctious as his name implied, Peter, who had brought his guitar and liked to sing folk songs under a tree out by the barn, (not the tree by the guy’s shower), Gary who brought his bow and arrow and  practiced archery with Keith every chance they could get, and Ronny, Gary’s brother who had a really wicked temper.

Another year, and it could be a completely different mix up of fellows with some of the same faces come back again, but one thing would always remain the same. The food was plentiful, the chatter at the lunch tables was happy—noisier than at breakfast, when everyone was still half asleep, and much louder than it was at supper time when everyone was exhausted from the grueling pace we always kept, to try to get done early. This could happen only when the 1200 wooden slats had their 90 leaves sewn onto each of  them and were hanging in the kiln.

The primers would always sit apart from us in the dining room , but eat the same delicious food that my mother, who was and still is an excellent cook, prepared for all of us. These young men may have come into our lives as total strangers, but they always left as friends. This is bound to happen when you have broken bread together (and perhaps even a few tobacco slats which  we were all just a little too tired to fill on a few of those days too. I’ll never tell… )    

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