Tobacco. There can be no doubt this botanical entity has reeked havoc on the Cooke and Johnson clans who trace their lineage to the tobacco producing regions of the South Carolina lowlands. Our father died a young man, courtesy of small cell lung cancer and mom followed soon enough, leaving her earthly bounds at the hands of emphysema, a nasty exit. They were heavy tobacco users, and our homes often reflected the blue haze of tobacco smoke that permeated your very being. Despite the dark side of this nasty herb, a scourge that I will always loathe, I have pleasant memories of the farm where my grandfather raised the stuff from beds to barn with the expertise of generations of English gentilemen behind him.
There was plenty of tobacco in Marion County, South Carolina. The family farm, a patch by today’s standards produced a beautiful, full leafed plant which was rotated with king cotton. I vividly remember walking behind a mule towed “drag”, a 2×4 framed conveyance lined with burlap sacking that cropped leaves were placed in by the field hands that rotated from field to field earning a few dollars a day in the South Carolina sun. They were, more often than not, barefoot as they worked the rows, cropping the velvety leaves from each plant and arranging them in the drag. The mules were gentle critters, and knew their job. They would plod along at just the right pace and make perfect turns at rows end, as if on cue.
Tobacco has a distinctive odor, pleasant enough, and absolutely wonderful when it is cured and ready to come off the sticks for sorting, grading and hand tying in bats by our family. In this day, we had three wooden barns, each two stories high, with a network of wooden racks, in which the sticks, which were about 40 inches long, and adorned with the tobacco leaves, were hung. The tobacco was then dried over coal oil fired burners. The barns had a shed like overhang on two or more sides, where the field hands threaded the tobacco onto the rough sticks using string referred to as tobacco twine.
These hands seldom looked up and were the hardest working people that I will ever be associated with. At days end, they gathered around grandfathers back porch and were carefully paid out of a cigar box of cash, with a notation being made in a small journal by E. C. Cooke, the patriarch of the clan. I was paid one dollar for my efforts, usually guiding a mule driven drag with kettle of cool water with a ladle, to the hands when they sang out “water boy”. In this day of automation, it is worth noting that our entire year’s effort, in the form of perfectly tied bats of tobacco, would fit in the back of a half ton pickup for its delivery to one of the auction houses close by. These were wonderful times. The cooperation among the producers and the harvest crews was unbelievable……you simply did not have time for angst and such. There was too much to do, and just enough time to do it. It would certainly be an eye opening experience for the entitled society we have become today to spend a summer in the Carolina sun hand cropping tobacco…..
So, it is with an edge born out of the extreme disdain that I have for tobacco that I acknowledge the beautiful memories of working in the tobacco fields when I was a young boy in South Carolina. Warm memories of an efficient killer……..