Tag Archive | tobacco

Learning to Work Together

Danny and me looking down from the hay barn - when I was still too short to plant tobacco.

Danny and me – when I was too short to plant tobacco.

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.

tobacco planter w horses

The only significant differences between this tobacco planter and ours is that ours was pulled by a tractor instead of horses, and my dad sat on the tractor instead of on top of the water barrel.

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.

Mom and Dad pulling tobacco plants

Mom and Dad pulling tobacco plants

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!

tobacco plant singleThe 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.

A freshly planted tobacco field.

A freshly planted tobacco field.

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.

tobacco cigar patchNow 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.

Danny and I had to work together a lot. Here we are spending most of a summer day husking sweet corn for Mom to freeze.

Danny and I had to work together a lot. Here we are spending most of a “summer vacation” day husking sweet corn for Mom to freeze.

The Worst Sin of All according to Floey

Floey sittingMy new dog Floey and I are still getting to know each other. Christmas Day will mark the one month anniversary of Floey’s adoption date. Mim and I and all of our 93-year-olds are so happy that she joined our family. Floey loves all of us, but it’s clear that I am her favorite. She follows me everywhere. Right now, I’m sitting at my desk, and she’s sitting close beside me.

One day last week as I was reading my daily devotional book, A Book of Wonders, by Edward Hays, I decided to ask Floey what she thought about what he said. The title of the reading was “The Absolutely Worst of All Sins.” He said that in our culture, we tend to think of sexual sins as the worst sins of all. Then he added, “Yet among preliterate hunting and gathering cultures, like the Native Americans, children were taught that the worst of vices was stinginess. Not sex, but greed in all forms, was abhorred.”

I knew that Floey had been born on an Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. I wondered if any of their early Native American moral code had rubbed off on her. I asked Floey what she thought was the worst sin of all.

“That’s easy,” she replied. “Stinginess.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. “You didn’t hesitate at all with your answer. Why is stinginess worse than murder, or rape, or anything else?”

“Just think about it, Mom. You know that love is the greatest gift anyone can give, right?”

“Yes,” I replied, and she continued, “What is the opposite of being loving? It’s being stingy, right?”

“Floey, you’re really smart for a pup who’s not even a year old yet.”

Floey sitting - profile“Tomorrow, December 24, I’ll be 11 months old, but I’ve lived and learned an awful lot in those 11 months, and I’ve done a lot of thinking about what’s good and what’s bad in life. When people, and all other creatures, as well, are kind and loving and generous, the world is a better place for everyone.  But whenever someone is stingy, they’re looking out only for themselves, and the world is a little less good for everyone – including the stingy one. They start worrying about getting and protecting their fair share rather than contributing to the good of everyone.”

“Wow, Floey. You’ve really done a lot of serious thinking for a pup so young! Since we’re having such a good conversation, let’s change subjects and talk about something I’ve been thinking about lately – the commercialization of Christmas. What do you think about that?”

“You’re not really changing subjects with that, Mom. The commercialization of Christmas is the best thing to happen to temper the sin of stinginess.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“What do you think about when you go Christmas shopping?”

“I guess I think about what each person on my list would like to get, and where I might find that gift for them.”

“That’s all about being generous, not being stingy, right?”

“I guess so…”

“Think back to your earliest memories of Christmas shopping. Tell me about them.”

“Those are good memories. Let me start with some background. It seems that every year in December we get some foggy days. Farmers call it ‘case weather.’ We just had some foggy days last week. Remember?”

“Yeah. I remember. But what does that have to do with Christmas shopping?” Floey asked.

“I’m getting to it. I grew up on a small farm. We had about 20 cows and between 300 and 400 chickens. My dad supplemented the milk and egg income with a cash crop – tobacco. Raising tobacco was somewhat controversial because my parents were opposed to smoking, but tobacco was the most lucrative crop we could raise. Essentially, tobacco is what paid for all the “extras” in our lives, like new clothes, piano and organ lessons, and when we were older, college tuition.”

My family history with raising tobacco goes way back. This picture shows my great uncle Fletcher (2nd from right) taking a break from stripping tobacco with his buddies.

My family history with raising tobacco goes way back. This photo from 1898 shows my great uncle Fletcher (the handsome one – 2nd from right) taking a break from stripping tobacco with his buddies.

“Raising tobacco was a lot of work, from planting it in the spring to harvesting it in the fall to stripping it in the winter. That’s where ‘case weather’ came into the picture. When tobacco was harvested in September, six to eight stalks were strung onto a lath. A lath is like a thick yard stick that’s about five feet long instead of three feet. The laths were then hung in a tobacco shed, the tobacco plants hanging upside down, to dry out. In December when we got several days of foggy weather (case weather), the dried tobacco was moistened from the fog. My dad took the laths of tobacco down from the shed and brought them into the barn. The barn was warm and humid from all the cows living in it. My brother and I had the job of stripping the tobacco leaves off the stalk, leaf by leaf, and laying the tobacco leaves into a press that bundled the leaves into bales of about 40 pounds. Every evening and every Saturday during case weather Danny and I spent many hours in the barn stripping tobacco for two cents a lath. That’s how I earned money for Christmas shopping.”

“Okay, Mom, now I see you’re getting to the point.”

“I worked really hard stripping tobacco the couple weeks before Christmas every year, and I usually earned between five and ten dollars. I felt rich! When I knew how much money I’d earned, I made out my shopping list. Usually, it included Old Spice After Shave for my dad, pretty candles for  my mom, stationery for my sister, and a model car for my brother. If I’d earned enough money, I might get everyone some candy or nuts, too. I always spent all my money on presents for them. It never occurred to me to be stingy and keep anything for myself.”

My family - everyone I bought Christmas presents for when I was a kid.

My family – everyone I bought Christmas presents for when I was a kid.

“That’s exactly what I mean, Mom. The commercialization of Christmas isn’t all bad. It reminds us to be generous to the people we love.”

“I guess you’re right, Floey. I’ll try to think of that when I see all those commercials on TV telling us to shop, just like I think of stripping tobacco for Christmas shopping money whenever I see fog in December. In both cases, I can remember that God wants us be loving and generous – and not be stingy.”

“You’ve got it, Mom. See why I’m proud of my Native American heritage. I see I have a lot to teach you. But that’s enough for today. I think it’s time for another walk. Can we run around the pond again? That’s so much fun!”

Floey standing