Tobacco Memories

Over lunch with my dad this week, I asked him what he would be doing this time of year if he were still farming tobacco. The first part of March would have been the end of a short two-month lull between when the last of the previous crop was auctioned and  the next crop would be started. It would be a little too early for planting. But, I’m sure that tiny box of seed, a cube of less than two square inches containing the summer’s entire crop would be waiting.  What my dad related was much the same as I remembered and wrote, first as a Toastmasters speech and then a blog post. In the spirit of Throwback Thursday, here’s my rather lengthy memoir of those days.


I recently ran across this Youtube video of Stompin’ Tom Connors singing ‘Tillsonburg’ and even though I was too young to really experience working on a tobacco farm, it did remind me of the early years of my childhood and provides a tiny look at what a hard way of life tobacco farming was.


My father grew up around the tobacco farms of Tillsonburg, Ontario. At a very young age, he was working in the fields of his family farm, and quit school at thirteen to work at it full time. Eventually, the family–the whole family, including aunts, uncles, and cousins moved north, to where tobacco was being grown just south of Nottawasaga Bay. He began farming on the farm my parents still live on in 1958. They grew their last crop and sold the ‘rights’ in the early seventies. The growing season in this more northerly clime is too short for tobacco and the industry died out. For a while, tobacco farming supported many area businesses and our small village had two variety stores, a hardware store and a grocery store as well as a branch of the Toronto Dominion Bank, and several garages. While the size of the village has actually increased since, the number of business has dwindled to a pizza joint, variety store and garage. The bank is being lovingly ‘restored’, and the other stores have been converted into ‘apartment’ buildings.

I was probably about nine when my father stopped growing. Farm hands were brought in, often from the First Nations reserve on Christian Island. Other workers were hired from the community, and of course family members also pitched in. Spring planting started with the steaming of the seed beds in the green house. Large flat metal enclosed ‘pans’ would be filled with steam generated by a modified steam powered tractor. This sanitized the soil and prevented the spreading of soil borne disease. The plants were started indoors, and as they grew they went into the green house soil.The transplanting was done by hand, one plant at a time. Boards would be set to span from the center aisle of the greenhouse, to the outer wall. On this, the planters would sit, taking each plant out of  the soil When they could no longer reach plants, the board was moved until the whole green house was full. As the plants grew it took constant monitoring to ventilate the greenhouse–too hot and it could cook the plants, too cold would chill them. An overhead watering system kept the soil hydrated.

When the plants were sufficiently grown, they would be transplanted into the fields. Timing was critical, especially in an area where late frosts can destroy a tender crop. The planter would have seats, a water barrel, fertilizer hopper and plant boxes. A person would place each plant in the rubber ‘fingers’ of the planter, to be carried down and set in the soil along with a spray of water and helping of fertilizer. Any gaps left by the machine would be planted by hand with a jack planter. Like any crop. sun and rain in sufficient amounts were essential. When mother nature did not cooperate, irrigation would be put in place and it’s still common to find irrigation ponds in odd corners of fields. The 3 or 4 inch pipe was taken out to the fields on wagons and set out by hand. Moving the pipes and sprinklers from field  to field was laborious. Hail could cause serious damage.

Pests of the plant and legged variety needed to be kept in check. Hand hoeing each field was common as a tiller only pulled up the weeds in between the rows. One year (maybe more?) we had our crops sprayed by airplane. A very common pesticide was DDT, a white-blue powder I still remember the smell of.

If during the growing season, the plants grew flower heads, they were removed in a process called ‘topping’. If they grew secondary leaves beneath the main ones, ‘suckering’ would be done. All was done by hand, one plant at a time.

When the plants were close to maturation harvest began with the picking or ‘priming’ of the ‘sand leaves’ ,the bottom-most leaves that were the first to mature. The priming continued up the plant stalk until all the leaves were removed. This meant each plant would be picked over several times in the course of the harvest. A draft horse pulled the ‘boat’ up and down the rows as the primers filled it with leaves. When the boat was full, it was left at the end of the row, where the tractor would hook onto it, and pull it to the kiln yard. The boats were narrow, so care had to be taken not to tip the load.

Once in the kiln yard, after the tiers, usually women, sewed the leaves to the tobacco slates–using a ‘tying machine’ which was like a large sewing machine with a conveyor. One person would lay the leaves in a line on the belt, the next would make sure the slat was placed along the top of the stems, and another layered leaves on top of that. The whole thing would then feed under the sewing machine. I can remember the consternation that occurred when the tying machine broke down. Pervious to the existence of tying machines, the leaves would have been hand tied to the slats. Every step of the tobacco growing process back then was labour intensive with back breaking days in hot sun.

From the tying machine, the tobacco attached to the slats would be put on a conveyor up to the top of the kiln. Large doors about eight feet in the air opened up to allow the passage of the tobacco to the kiln hanger. A good kiln hanger was a valuable asset, as the kiln had to be packed properly so the tobacco cured evenly. The kiln was filled from the top down, each slat being hung on rafters, allowing air flow. When it was filled all the doors were closed and the curing began. Beneath were several propane burners covered in wire baskets to prevent leaves falling on the open ring of flame. I can remember the muffled hiss of the burners, and the lovely golden smell of the curing tobacco–a far cry from the foul stink of cigarette smoke. Picking up falling leaves before the kiln was closed and taking them back to the tying table was kid’s work.

With the tobacco in the kiln and the burners going day and night, fire was a real danger. I remember talk of kilns going up and apparently one of ours did. They had to be monitored day and night, with someone sleeping in the bunk house so they could check several times a night.

Once the tobacco was cured it was moved into racks in the barn where it was stored until it ‘stripping time’. This happened when the weather turned cold. We had a strip room and steam room. The tobacco, still attached to the slats were hung in a steam room to soften the leaves and prevent them from shattering while being handled. The softened tobaccos was carried from the steam room by a conveyor and women who stood at the conveyor pulled the chain stitching out that held the tobacco to the slat and packed it in bale boxes. The bale box compacted the tobacco into a tight bale which was wrapped in thick brown paper tied with string.Each bale was marked to identify which leaves–sand leaves I remember being amazed at the efficient way my father folded the paper around the bale and tightly tied the string–the sound of the string as he pulled it taught. The bales were then stored until they were sold at auction. There would be a brief lull until the whole cycle began with the ordering of new seed in the spring.

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