Steaming Tobacco Beds — An Old Tradition

| January/February 1985

Sterilizing tobacco beds with the aid of a steam traction engine is an old spring time custom in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

The Amish farmer shown here is now among the relatively few who continue this method of purifying the seed. Most farmers today use chemical means to rid the beds of possible disease and insect pests.

Use of the traction engine for this purpose is credited to a Lancaster County inventor named Peter E. Shirk, who lived in the village of Blue Ball, Pennsylvania. According to a book about the area, Annals of the Conestoga Valley, a farmer came to Shirk many years ago for aid in preparing the soil so that weeds would be discouraged. He had asked a representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for aid, but was told this was not in the official’s realm. So he came to Shirk.

The inventor did not hesitate. He told the farmer to come back later in the week. At that time he had pans, pipe, hose and everything else ready to attach to the boiler. The custom grew, and until recent years many tobacco beds were sterilized in this manner, even though the name of the man who devised the system might have been forgotten. IMA


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