Steaming tobacco beds. Photo courtesy of Arthur L. Reist
369 South Harrig Street Madisonville, Kentucky 42431
I was born at Adams, Tennesee, in Robertson County which is the heart of the tobacco growing country, both air cured and dark fired. There are large tobacco markets located at Springfield and Clarksville, Tennessee, and at Hopkinsville, Kentucky, all located within a radius of 30 miles. Tobacco plant beds were either burned or steamed. When one was to be burned, the ground was cleared off, then brush and small logs were cut and piled up several feet high and then burned to kill the weed seeds, insects and etc. There was also a device called a burner. It had a set of wheels on one end and handles on the other. It was about 8 feet long and 3 feet wide, consisting of a pan-like piece of metal with an opening on the end where the wheels were located for the smoke to come out. The fire was built under it and the loose dirt was shoveled up on the burner and cooked and then shoveled off the burner and put back on the plant bed. In steaming, a portable boiler or, most of the time, traction engines were used. A rectangular metal box usually called a pan, 9 x 12 feet and six inches deep was used. The ground was prepared by plowing or was forked up.
The pan was put on the ground. Dirt was packed all around it to make it steam tight. Then steam was piped to it from the engine, usually with a inch pipe. Of course, the higher steam pressure that was used, the better the ground was prepared with usually 150 pounds pressure being used. A fellow that I knew always bragged about the high pressure he had, 175 pounds. He was steaming with an old Keck-Gonnerman engine. I happened to see it one time when it wasn't under steam and the steam gauge hand was sitting on 50 pounds. The water in the boiler was kept as low as was consistent with safety. To make the steam hotter and drier, a pan was usually steamed from 20 to 30 minutes depending on the farmer that was having the steaming done. Some people steamed 25 minutes, allowing 5 minutes to move the pan and get set again. That would give you two pans an hour. A pan had three metal loops on each side and two on each end.
Back in the early days it had to be picked up by men and moved. Large sticks of wood, something like a wagon standard, were cut. They were stuck in the loops and it took six good men to pick it up and pack it. In later years they were put on wheels with arms, a winch and cable operated by an electric motor and battery to pick them up. Others put cables in the loops with a ring in the middle, had a boom made and picked it up with a 3-point hitch tractor. The last plant bed I steamed in 1978 took just three of us. I took care of the engine and moved the pipe and the other two took care of the tractor and pan. The farmer had to furnish all the labor and coal and water for the engine plus feeding the engineer at the noon meal.
Steaming was the best way to prepare a plant bed. It killed all the weeds, insects, and bugs and conditioned the ground. As soon as the pan was taken off and the steam cleared, the plant bed could be sown and the canvas put on to keep weed seeds from blowing in so you would have plenty of strong healthy plants to set. Chemicals are now being used as it is hard to get farm labor, and where coal used to sell for $3.00 a ton, now it's $25.00, plus the fact there are not too many steam engines left. Back in the 30s in Robertson County, doing custom steaming was Sam Duff with a 20-60 HP Case, Luster Strange who had a 19 HP and 22 HP Keck-Gonnerman, Connell McEwing who ran Mr. Q. Flynn's 26 HP Advance compound. Tobe Overby had a 16 HP Advance that he had graded roads with. The drivers were worn slick, plus a big part of the left drive wheel had been broken on a rock. The engine going across a field reminded you of a man with one leg shorter than the other.
Mr. Tobe was one of the lowest water men I've ever seen. All he wanted in the water glass was a little moisture. He guaranteed that if any weeds were in the plant bed there was no charge for the steaming. Charley Browning had a 20 HP Advance that he used for steaming in the winter and put in a saw mill in the summer. Dick Mitchell had a 14-mile run. He would go to the far end and steam back home. He had a 20 HP double cylinder Nichols and Shepard engine with a big water wagon, pan wagon and a Buick automobile tied on behind. Going down the road, that was a sight to see!
Traction engine being transported by truck to tobacco beds.
I was helping him one time and a Tennessee state trooper told him to get the engine off U.S. Highway 41 as it still had the steel cleats on the wheels. Mr. Mitchell told him that was the only way he could get to where he was going and if he couldn't run on that road they would have to build him one along side for him to run on. I knew we were going to get a free ride, but the cop left us alone.
Among the farmers who steamed for themselves were the Hollingsworth brothers, Rosson brothers, Bill Simmons, Homer Burney, John R. Fletcher, Charles Corbin, George Washington and Felix Ewing, the last two being brothers-in-law and great rivals who tried to outdo each other. They both bought steam engines unknown to each other. They were both Nichols and Shepards, one a 25 HP and the other a 35 HP. They both came in on the same railroad flat car.
The fellow that had bought the 25 HP wouldn't unload it but sent it back to the factory and exchanged it for a 35 HP which ended its last days pulling a sawmill and was scrapped in World War II. Steaming plant beds was hard work. It was hard on an engine as there was no let up.
Steaming started around November first and continued until the tenth of April. Usually the weather was cold. The engineer had to get up early to have steam by daylight and if it got too cold and wet and the engine was sitting miles away, he would have to bank the fire for several days or else drain it to keep the boiler from freezing and then fill it up with a bucket or tank pump which was slow tedious work. But after all it was fascinating work, each farmer depending on the other for help like as in wheat thrashing! While steaming, eggs, potatoes and etc. were put under the pan and cooked which tasted good on a cold winter day. Steaming plant beds went out in the 70s. It is another part of Americana that is gone; the younger folk will never be able to see.