I was wrong. Last week I said that dry land was as scarce to find as a tobacco plant in Vernon Country. I was led to believe that no one was raising tobacco anymore in this part of the state.
Imagine my surprise over the weekend as we were driving around on the country roads. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. There it was, slowly moving across a large field, a two-row tobacco planter. Thousands of small plants stood in long rows in the field. I didn't think anyone still had a tobacco allotment. I guess I was wrong again. I didn't trust my eyes, so I had to stop and take pictures, and get a close-up look at the plants. They were tobacco plants. I've seen enough tobacco plants in my time to know one when I see one.
Seeing a large field of tobacco soon had memories of tobacco planting bubbling to the surface. The first week of July is quite late to be planting tobacco, just like a lot of the corn crop was just planted. I know we usually planted tobacco the first part of June. Lets hope we don't have an early frost this year or this tobacco crop will be in trouble. I'll be keeping an eye on this field as it grows and see what happens.
Tobacco was the major cash crop on farms in Vernon County for many years and paid the taxes and many other bills. It goes all the way back to the 1800s when my great grandfathers raised a lot of tobacco. It was, and still is, a very labor-intensive crop. It started in the spring when the tobacco beds were steamed and seeded and didn't end until the tobacco had been stripped and sold, which usually occurred in January.
The area where the tobacco beds would be located was steamed to sterilize the soil and help control diseases, weeds, and insects. To steam the soil, a rectangular pan on wheels, around 4'x16', was dropped down where the tobacco beds would be located. A hose running from the steamer to the pan provided the steam. After about 30 minutes the pan was moved and the process repeated. After the soil had been steamed, the tobacco seeds were sown in wood-framed beds and covered with a white, muslin-type cover for protection. The beds were watered every day and the plants soon filled the beds. When they were 6"-8" tall they were ready to be picked and transplanted in the field.
Even before we were old enough to plant, we helped water the beds each day and picked plants, placing them carefully in boxes and bushel baskets. These were then carried to the field where the plants were removed from the boxes and placed on the planter.
When I was nine years old, I learned to "drop" tobacco. I was left handed, so my mother didn't have to change sides and continued to drop right-handed. My father drove the John Deere B tractor that pulled the planter.
The Ellis tobacco planter consisted of a large barrel filled with water, mounted on two large iron wheels. The two "droppers" sat on low iron seats, just inches off the ground behind the barrel, with their feet stretched out in front of them and resting on foot pegs under the barrel. It was not very comfortable. A board rested on our laps and the tobacco plants that had been removed from the boxes were piled on the boards. As the planter went slowly across the field, the shovel or "shoe," as it was called, located between the two droppers, made a small furrow in the soil. With each click, water filled the hole, and the dropper inserted a plant. The furrow then closed around the plant and the process was repeated for the other dropper. If you inserted the plant too deep, the stem would break, if planted too shallow, it would also die. There was an "art" to dropping tobacco! The droppers would get into the rhythm of the clicks, with never a moment to even scratch an itchy nose for fear of missing a plant. This went on for row after row, hour after hour, day after day, until all ten acres of our tobacco had been planted.
It was hot, dirty work with little time to talk, especially when learning to drop. Ma often took my turn also, when I became confused and was about to miss. Dad didn't look kindly on missing plants and would stop when he saw a blank space in another row. He'd make me get off and plant it by hand and give me "H" if too many plants were missing.
When my brother, David, became old enough to drop, my mother went back to pulling plants, along with my grandmother, Inga. David and I planted many acres together over the next years. We were quite a team and hardly ever missed a plant. I think we could still plant tobacco if we had to! My sister, Janet, took my place when I left for college.
I thought tobacco planting was just a distant memory for most of us. Now I know a drive down some country roads can still catch us a glimpse of what was once a big part of our lives.