Barning Tobacco

Raising tobacco in the post-Depression era


| September 1999



Cultivating tobacco on one of the Irwinville farms, Georgia, 1938.

Cultivating tobacco on one of the Irwinville farms, Georgia, 1938.

Barning Tobacco

Tobacco.

It’s a dirty word these days, but to agricultural historians, it’s inherent to our agrarian beginnings. Tobacco was a frequent subject of Thomas Jefferson’s writings, and was actually used as a form of currency and exchange in colonial times.

Tobacco farming is provincial to certain areas of the country. It grows best in areas having a mean temperature of at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and well-drained soil. North Carolina and Kentucky have long been leaders in tobacco production, being responsible for nearly 60 percent of all tobacco produced in the United States. Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Connecticut were also known for tobacco farming.

The tobacco plant’s leaves are cured, fermented, and aged to develop aroma and reduce any pungency that fresh leaves may produce. It may be cured by drying leaves in smoke from a fire, air-cured by hanging leaves in well-ventilated spaces, or flue-cured by hanging leaves in a flue or near the radiant heat of a furnace.

The tobacco farmer’s life and work is well documented in the Library of Congress’ collection from the Federal Writers’ Project.

Those materials, from the Library of Congress manuscript division, are part of a larger collection titled the U.S. Work Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project and Historical Records Survey. The holdings span the years 1889-1942 and cover a wide range of topics and subprojects. Altogether, the Federal Writers’ holdings number approximately 300,000 items, including correspondence, memoranda, field reports, notes, graphs, charts, essays, oral testimony, folklore and other material.

In “Barning Tobacco,” writer Omar Darrow interviewed farmer Archie Marler, Durham, N.C., in 1939. Marler described the process of curing tobacco and the plight of a Depression-era farmer as he attempted to carve out a living from the traditional cash crop:

Archie Marler plants tobacco for his means of livelihood. Archie was wearing clean khaki pants, a blue shirt, a gray hat, and was barefoot, as was his wife. “I’ve got in two barns now,” he began. “I’m always glad when I got my barns filled. Then I can come out of them clothes and feel a bit cleaner. I’ll tell you what’s so, when I come out of them clothes awhile ago, them overalls was so full of gum they stood alone ’cause they was so stiff.