Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tobacco Farm Remembered

Preservation Virginia began the Tobacco Barns Protection Project in 2012. From the beginning, the project has received a lot of great support. Currently Preservation Virginia staff, with the assistance of volunteers, have been surveying tobacco barns in Pittsylvania County. One of the volunteers, Hal Cauthen, wrote the below article about his memories of his uncle's tobacco farm. For more information on the project, contact Sonja Ingram at


       My uncle had a tobacco allotment, as was done in those days. If you didn't have an allotment, you weren't allowed to grow tobacco to sell. Tobacco was the cash crop, though he grew corn, and vegetables, and raised hogs and cattle. But tobacco was how they made their money.
When it came time to pick and string and hang up the sticks, I used to love to go out there and stay for a few days. I was probably 10 years old or so, and there are several things I remember vividly. One was driving the sled!
A mule was hitched to what was literally a sled; it slid on runners -- 2 X 4's, as I recall. And had a frame which was lined with burlap, and came up a little more than waist high on a man. It looked more or less like this:

The job was to drive the sled up and down the rows, so the cropers (more on them later) could put the leaves they'd picked into the sled. That way, they'd empty their arms, and could keep on cropping. Away I'd go -- actually sort of just holding on to the reins, because - truth be known - the mules knew better than I did where to go and what to do.
When I'd collected a load, I'd tug the rein, turn the mules, and go back to the barn, where the stringers and hanger were working.
The stringers were women, mostly African-Americans. They almost all wore what I thought of as an odd costume. Overall's usually, sometimes jeans or other work pants, but over them they wore a dress or a skirt. Their hair was usually braided into tight cornrows, but hidden under a bandana, over which they often wore a big brimmed straw hat.
"Why the skirt?", I asked.
"So you can tells we are women" was the answer. Which when you thought about it made sense.

 When the sticks were full they'd be handed into the barn, then up into the rafters where the men aloft took them and placed them, just so, such that they were not too close and not too far apart --

... just enough distance so that night, when the fires were lit, the hot dry air from the smoking fires could waft up and thru them, and dry them to a rich golden patina.

Early on the curing process was done by hand stoken fires, one on each corner of the barn. And another fond memory was being allowed to stay up with the men, who sat around telling stories all through the night, occasionally go into the barn to check the temperture, and feel the leaves to judge the degree of dryness.
So my visit to the barns in southern Virginia was, in a sense, a visit to my childhood.

by Hal Cauthen

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