Technology Had Little Impact on Tobacco Farming

Still done by hand

This hand-powered horizontal "prize" is approximately 30 feet long.

This hand-powered horizontal "prize" is approximately 30 feet long. It was used to pack bundles of tobacco into wooden hogsheads.

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John Parlett wants future generations to know the story of farm life in the United States so they can appreciate their heritage.

With that goal in mind, he has established the John K. Parlett Farm-Life Museum on the family farm at Charlotte Hall, Md., close to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

“I wanted to put together a museum that tells a story and I set out to do that,” he said. “We open up to school kids in May and October, and we open to the general public once a year.”

His collection, which touches on every aspect of life on the farm during the past four centuries, features a tobacco museum. Tobacco farming has been an important part of southern Maryland agriculture since the first settlers arrived in the early 17th century.

“Indians were growing tobacco and smoking it when Maryland was founded in 1634,” Parlett said. “Growing tobacco is the most labor-intensive farming, the hardest work. Little has changed over hundreds of years.”

At the annual Southern Maryland Farm-Life Festival held at the museum last October, James “Junior” Hall and his wife, Irvanette, served as museum guides in the tobacco barn. They have lived in the area all their lives and were once tobacco farmers, as were their parents and many other relatives living in Charles, St. Mary’s and Calvert counties. Growers still live and work in the area, but since the 1970s, tobacco has become a second occupation for many, as people have sought other employment to supplement their incomes.

Tobacco farming is a 12-month affair, which even today is mostly done by hand. It is a small acreage crop, perhaps seven to 10 acres, with a yield of about 1,000 pounds per acre. Seeds are planted in February or March, with an August harvest. When the harvest is complete, wheat or rye is planted in the fields as a cover crop, to be plowed under before planting the following spring.

“Tobacco seed beds are tucked away in the warmest part of the property,” Irvanette said. “The beds are 100 yards long and three to four feet wide. About two to three tablespoons of seed are planted per 100 yards, then the beds are covered with a cotton cover, which is taken off when the seedlings grow. When they are about four to five inches high and have three to four leaves, they are referred to as plants. They are transplanted in late April or early May, depending on the weather.”

Before the spring planting, the soil must be prepared and fertilized. In the early part of the 20th century, hand-operated lister fertilizers were used. In the 1950s, an Allis-Chalmers D cultivator and fertilizer, known locally as a “tater bug,” was introduced.

“With the lister, the front wheel guides the discs,” Junior said. “The wheel makes a furrow, the 3-9-15 fertilizer goes in and the discs cover it over. Then they bring a board along to flatten the hill, and the planter comes along after that.”

Transplanting was done by hand. Many years ago, a metal hand-held device consisting of two open-ended funnels was used. The plant was put in one funnel, which made a hole in the ground to receive the root. Water was released from the adjoining funnel by a lever and each plant was stamped in place by the funnel-bearer.

“Planting is still done by hand,” Junior said. “A machine is used, but it’s fed by hand. The plants are put in every 16 inches, with rows 36 inches apart. When they get to full growth, they put out a flower and this has to be picked off by hand. Harvesting starts about 15 days later.”

Irvanette spoke of spending many hours riding on the back of a horse-drawn planting machine that required her to put each tobacco plant in the ground by hand.

“Two people sat in the back facing forward,” she said. “You have the plants on your lap in burlap bags. You put the plant down in the hole [made by the machine] and the water goes in after it. You did four-hour shifts.”

If the planting sounds like serious hard work, it’s nothing compared to the labor involved in the harvesting and packing. Each individual stalk was cut with a heavy knife and impaled on a four-foot, squared-off slabwood stick equipped with a sharp metal point at one end. The sticks were then hauled to the barn by horse and wagon.

“The stalks are very solid but very pliable,” Junior said. “One stalk can weigh 15 to 20 pounds when green, and there are five stalks to a stick. You have to be in pretty good health to hang it up in the barn.”

The tobacco barn is a large, airy building open at both ends, with an aisle down the center to facilitate unloading the green stalks and loading the dried tobacco for dispatch to market warehouses. The cavernous roof area is filled with strong wooden rafters, about five feet apart in each direction, to house the tobacco during its three-month drying period. The stalks are spaced eight inches apart on their sticks to facilitate the drying process, with the sticks equally spaced along the rafters.

Lawrence Pilkerton of Callaway, Md., grew up next door to Junior Hall and remembered the days of working on his parents’ tobacco farm.

“I remember packing the hogsheads on the vertical prize,” he said. “I did all that stuff. Working on the tobacco beds, packing the hogsheads, working in the fields all day and climbing to the top of the barn at night. You needed balance, height and coordination to do that job.”

Hogsheads are huge wooden barrels. They were used until the late 1930s and were packed using vertical or horizontal prizes, which are large, hand-operated machines also made primarily of wood. Each tobacco stalk has “tips” at the top of the plant, and “seconds,” which are the first two rows of leaves nearest the ground. The rest of the leaves on the five-foot stalk form the main crop. These were usually made into “bundles” of 20 to 25 leaves ready for packing.

“There would be someone inside the [vertical] hogshead,” Lawrence said. “The bundles were packed with stalks to the outside. There was a definite pattern to the packing. You walked around on it and you could knee it.”

The hogsheads and prizes were later replaced with hinged wooden frame-like structures about four feet high and four feet wide that stood on a flat wooden woven basket-type structure. When the frame was full, a second basket was placed on the top, the frame was removed and the two baskets tied together, making a bale weighing about 250 pounds. Both the frames and the baskets were hand-made. The bales were then shipped to local warehouses for auction while preparation for the next crop was already underway.

Hand-stripping of tobacco stalks was a community event that involved family and friends getting together in the winter months to work and visit. The Farm-Life Museum tobacco barn features a typical setting for this event. Simple furnishings include low handmade wooden chairs, a wood stove and a small stove with an oven to keep up a supply of hot coffee and meal time goodies.

“The tobacco stripping room was usually part of the barn,” Irvanette said. “Some people built a separate place. It was done like this until quite recently — it was a family affair.” FC