I suppose I should have seen it coming. Maybe I was too much a part of the picture to notice.
You might say the first clue came to me when my best friend, a “town boy,” tried to convince me a “hatchet” tobacco knife was superior to a “pull” knife. After all, what did he know? His father was a doctor and wasn’t growing tobacco for a living.
His father would one day admit, “I’m not growing tobacco. I’m growing boys — teaching them how to work.” My father was a tobacco man, living off the land. I knew a heck of a lot more than my friend did.
So, I stood my ground, refusing to yield, until the day my father brought a “hatchet” knife home from the local co-op and said, “Here, boys, try this.” Pull knives were soon lost to the past, except for a few old timers who refused to yield.
Next, came chemical sucker control under the names of “MH-30” and “Royal MH-30.” Royal MH-30 is still around though some say it has lost its potency through the years. I can’t say I ever missed pulling tobacco suckers, but I sensed things were changing.
Eventually, spraying for insects and suckers was taken over mechanical contraptions that looked like giant praying mantises as they glided above growing tobacco plants. Metal hand sprayers which could hold up to two-and-a-half gallons were the first to go. No one missed those thin, but tough, nylon straps which tried to saw off your arm between shoulder and collarbone.
Every time something new came along, whether chemical or mechanical, profit margins took a hit.
Plant beds were soon to go, as farmers began to outsource transplant production. First there were “water” beds, then greenhouses. Profit margins continued to slide for most growers.
Then, tobacco patches evolved into tobacco fields. It became evident that in order to make it, you had to get bigger. In too many cases “the law of diminishing returns” was ignored or simply overlooked.
Eventually, labor demands for larger crops became too much for family labor and “swapping help” with neighbors to handle. That dilemma was solved by an influx of eager, and tough–minded migrant workers from south of the border. Profit margins took another big hit. Soon, there was no place left for “the little man.”
The “art” of stripping (called “handing” tobacco in some parts) tobacco gave way to baling tobacco, first in bales which could be easily handled by a man, to giant bales which could be moved only by tow motors.
Over the years, as the industry changed, the war against the use of tobacco products continued to mount. That, coupled with the fact that smokers became less discriminating regarding the taste of cigarettes — certain blends once required tobacco grown in Southern soils — meant tobacco could be grown in other parts of the world where labor was cheaper.
You might say, an industry that once thrived — that was once “king” — in our part of the world simply faded away and became a not-so-distant memory.
And, so, we are left with aging tobacco barns that have outlived their usefulness. Fading grey, hardwood walls and rusting tin roofs enclose skeletons of tier poles which may never again suspend tobacco sticks laden with stalks of green and yellow, slowly fading into gold.
The days of hallways, bustling with flatbeds, tractors pulling hay wagons, and trucks and trailers, unburdened one stick at a time by strong, callused hands are now behind us. And tobacco hangers, young and old, will never again perform a unique form of balancing act among the tiers as they push the fruits of 13 month’s work toward the sky.
And we are left with tobacco sticks — thousands of them, maybe millions of them, maybe a gazillion of them which are no longer needed.
I’ve been thinking a lot about tobacco sticks lately, and of how to make them useful again.
I will share a few of my ideas in next week’s column.
Jack McCall is a motivational humorist, southern storyteller and author. A native Middle Tennessean, he is recognized on the national stage as a “Certified Speaking Professional.” He can be reached at email@example.com Copyright 2020 by Jack McCall.