Tobacco Farmers Keep Family Tradition Alive

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Two chewing tobacco plug cutters. At front, Schwabacher Bros. & Co., Seattle, Wash.; at back, a STAR cutter (with "Save the Tags" cast into the handle.) The STAR was patented by Enterprise Mfg. Co. Jan. 1, 1885, in Philadelphia.
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A cigar mold from the collection of Jesse and Mary Pepper, Weston, Mo. Weston is the only tobacco market west of the Mississippi.
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Promotional pieces and packaging for various tobacco products.
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Early snuff cans.
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A display in the Peppers' museum of tobacco collectibles. Displayed against a tobacco basket are various tools used in planting and harvest, a "hand" of tobacco and a doll made of tobacco. One of the tools in the Peppers' collection, a tobacco knife, dates to the 1840s and features a horn handle.

Large collections of old farming items often center on tools, equipment, paper and advertising items used by operators and owners. For instance, dairymen like cream separators and signs for feed and equipment, while grain farmers favor antique tractors and wrenches.

The same is true of collectors who’ve raised crops in unexpected ways. Take tobacco crops, for instance.

Jesse and Mary Pepper come from a long line of tobacco farmers who grow burley tobacco. Mary’s family farmed a Virginia land grant in the mid-1600s. Later generations of that family farmed tobacco and cotton in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Jesse’s forebears were tobacco farmers in Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri. The Peppers have continued that family tradition … on the western border of Missouri.

“Tobacco is defined by Webster as an American herb,” Mary says. “With so many of our ancestors proven to be tobacco people, we feel that tobacco truly is our heritage.”

Jesse has been involved in the tobacco industry in Weston, Mo., since 1939. In the 1950s, he bought into the Weston Burley House, and later became full owner. Today, he and his son-in-law, Kenneth Kisker, own the warehouse. The Peppers’ grandchildren represent the ninth generation to raise the tobacco crop in Platte County, Mo.

The two warehouses are also burley tobacco auction houses, hosting large annual sales attended by major tobacco companies. Although it is one of the smallest markets in the country, Weston’s tobacco market – the only one west of the Mississippi – generates millions of dollars for the local economy. The longtime family business forms a backdrop for Mary Pepper’s collection of tobacco-related items.

She recalls saving the little red tin mules stuck on plugs of Red Mule chewing tobacco her father bought. Mary well remembers her father’s pipes, humidors, pouches and cigar boxes. But tobacco wasn’t just a man’s proclivity.

“My little Mississippi grandmother dipped snuff,” Mary recalls. “I was always fascinated by her dainty little snuff boxes and dippers.”

The Peppers’ collection includes items pertaining to production of burley tobacco in Weston. Collectibles also come from the auction house.

“Tobacco auction house collectibles include scales to weigh the tobacco, and baskets, mostly used prior to pallets, to place tobacco in for sales,” Mary says. “I have a burlap square used to ship tobacco down the river to market before Weston had a market. It has tobacco leaf prints on it.”

Flat burlap pieces with burlap handles on each end were used on the farm, she says, to fold around plants before carrying them to the tobacco setter. Farm tools also include tobacco sticks, spears, and knives. In the Weston harvest, farmers cut the plant’s stalk with a knife or tomahawk, then slid the stalk onto a stake. Bundled stalks were then hung from barn rafters to cure naturally.

The Peppers’ collection is a tribute to another era.

“I have a cigar mold, tobacco cutters for chewing tobacco, many cigar boxes, an old snuff box used in stores long ago, smaller snuff boxes, cigarette rollers, tins and all kinds of packages, many with foreign brands,” Mary says. “I collect large advertising signs for tobacco products, and also have pipes, pipe cleaners, advertising lighters, a brass bull, the original advertisement for Bull Durham, clocks, and many other advertising gimmicks.”

Store signs and posters are very collectible. These include cigar, cigarette and snuff posters, not only illustrating products but also period styles in clothing and decor. Among Mary’s favorites: A sign featuring the first Chesterfield Girl, and another with the Marlboro Man. She has a huge Camel Cigarette box, a small American Indian statue promoting “Red Man” chewing tobacco, and hand-carved meerschaum pipes. Her varied collection preserves a unique heritage.

“A lot of people collect old tobacco baskets which were used to hold ‘hands’ of tobacco to be sold at the annual auctions,” she says. “Until recently, tobacco was tied into beautiful ‘hands,’ artfully arranged by grade on the baskets. Now it is pressed and put on pallets instead. A lot of people use the old baskets for decorative purposes in their homes and shops.”

Mary hopes to keep the history of traditional tobacco production alive: She’s working to create a permanent local display illustrating the impact of tobacco production and marketing on the historic town of Weston.

“My museum, small as it is, is the only one in this locality,” Mary says. FC

Gary Van Hoozer is a Missouri writer specializing in vintage agriculture and farm history.
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