I remember when I was too short to plant tobacco. Oh, how I wanted to grow legs that would be long enough to reach the foot rests on the tobacco planter.
In early June when my dad pulled the tobacco planter out of the shed to get it ready for tobacco planting, my brother Danny and I would climb all over it. Our planter had originally been used with horses, and the seat for the person driving the horses was still on top of the water barrel. We’d scramble to see who could get to that seat first to pretend to drive the horses. The loser, usually me, wouldn’t really mind because then I would sit in one of the two planting seats near the ground. Every year I stretched my legs as far as I could to try to reach the foot rests. But I was too short.
Since I wasn’t big enough for the fun job of planting, I had the boring job of pulling plants. The way tobacco is grown, at least the way it was raised in Wisconsin back in the 1950s, is by first planting the tiny seeds in a tobacco bed. A steam engine came to the farm and steamed the garden patch where the tobacco would be started. After the soil was steamed, my dad built a frame for the bed, then he spread the seeds throughout the bed, and finally he covered the frame with a thin white canvas. Over the next few weeks he faithfully watered the bed through the canvas until the seeds sprouted and the plants began to grow. When the plants got to be six to eight inches tall, they were ready to transplant to the tobacco field.
On the mornings that we were going to plant tobacco, the whole family gathered by the tobacco bed. We carefully removed the canvas and soaked the bed using watering cans that we filled from the metal tank near the bed. The tank had previously been filled with rain water or with a long hose from the pump. We placed a plank across the tobacco bed for every two people. One person sat on each end of the plank and reached into the bed to pull out the biggest seedlings, one at a time, pulling carefully so as not to damage the roots. When we had a handful of plants, we carefully placed them in a bushel basket that was lying on its side. We tried to pull enough plants to fill as many bushel baskets as my dad thought we could plant that afternoon – sometimes a dozen or more. That job really wasn’t boring when the whole family, including some cousins sometimes, worked on it together. We raced to see who could fill up their bushel basket first – without sacrificing quality control. Mom and Dad kept an eye on that. The boring part came in the afternoon if the planters needed more plants, and I had to pull them by myself. Everyone else was busy doing the fun work, riding the tobacco planter.
Finally, when I was nine or ten, I could reach the foot rest! I was big enough for the fun job!
The way the tobacco planter worked is that two people would sit next to each other behind the water barrel, close to the ground. As the horses (or tractor in our case) pulled us, the planter dug a single trench in the field, just the right depth for planting about a six-inch tall tobacco plant. About every nine inches or so, about a cup of water was released from the barrel into the trench. One of the people sitting on the tobacco planter placed a plant in the trench just when and where the water was released. The “shoes” of the planter then closed up the trench as the planter moved along. The tobacco plant was left perfectly standing as we rolled away. There was a rhythm to follow when planting so that the plant would be placed into position just as the water was being released.
The two people sitting on the planter took turns setting the plants. The person who sat on the left side of the planter, planted with his right hand. The person on the right side, planted with her left hand. (Pronouns are intentional. Since I’m a lefty, everyone was just as anxious as I was for my legs to grow long enough for me to be the lefty planter.) After planting each row, we lifted another big bunch of a couple hundred plants out of the bushel baskets that were sitting in the shade. We laid the plants on heavy canvas mats that both of us had on our laps. These plants would be used for planting the next row.
Of all the jobs I’ve had over the past sixty-plus years, planting tobacco is my favorite. I think it’s because of how much fun it was to work together, and to appreciate each person doing their part. I won’t say that Danny and I never threw clumps of dirt at each other when we planted together, and sometimes we glared at each other. But usually we concentrated on keeping the rhythm of setting the plants just right. We worked together well. It was also fun to plant with my mom. Mom and I often talked about what a wonderful time we were having working together outside on a beautiful sunny day.
Whenever I think about those days, I can still feel the warm sun on my back and the cool water on my fingers as I placed each plant just right. I can hear the click and then the short rush of water as it was released, over the steady drone of the tractor. I feel the rhythm of planting.
I remember one day I asked my mom what tobacco was used for. I understood the other crops we grew – what they were used for. I knew that hay was for the cows to eat. I knew that we took corn and oats to the mill to be ground into feed for the cows and chickens. But I didn’t know what tobacco was used for. Somehow, she avoided answering that question.
Now that I know that the big premium quality leaves of our tobacco plants were used for wrapping cigars, I probably shouldn’t have such fond memories of planting tobacco. But I do. It’s where I learned how good it is to work together. That’s a very transferable life skill. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to learn that skill at an early age so I could use it my whole life.
And I’m really thankful that my legs finally grew long enough for me to learn that lesson.