Tobacco in Virginia
by Robert "Buster" Stevens of Hyco Road Community, Halifax County, VA 1997

One of the first things man found when he got off the boat at Jamestown was tobacco.

Its culture has been a blessing to many and a curse to some. As early as 1859 doctors have been saying it was causing cancer and yet its use has increased daily.

The greatest scourge to the grower was dry weather, the lack of fertilizer, early or late frost, hail storms, and the price he received at market. To grow a quality crop he had to be lucky as well as know how. As long ago as 1656 there was a law against planting after July 1st because it would not have time to mature before frost.

In history we find a grower, one Daniel Wade, fined 10,000 pounds for planting late and shipping green and poor guality tobacco to England. He was petitioning Lt. Govenor Francis Nicholson to remit his fine in Jamestown, VA.

The first tobacco grown in Virginia and shipped to England was in 1612 by John Rolfe and his band of Colonial men. By the year 1730 England was asking for more tobacco and they began making liberal land grants to encourage men to move westward to fight the Indians and clear land and grow tobacco. One such grant of 40,000 Acres was made to the Caldwell Settlement in Brunsick County (later Charlotte County) on Cub Creek and Staunton River.

This group moved in and began clearing land and building log homes and tobacco barns and they also built a little log church with a room upstairs for the preacher to live in. It became know as Cub Creek Presbyterian Church-first of its kind in Southern Virginia. This settlement lasted for 150 years. When the land became so improvished and eroded that they gave up and moved south and west to farm better land one family there was the Calhouns. John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) was Governor of South Carolina. In 1832 he was Vice-President of the United States.

The growing of tobacco, cotton and corn was hard on land so growers had to clear new ground to replace the worn out and eroded soil. This was a hard job. They did what was called flash and burn. Cut the trees and burn them and get the roots out. Oxen and mules were used. It is almost beyond mans comprehension to grasp the waste of timber in clearing land and burning of wood to cure tobacco in Virginia and other states before gas and oil was used.

After clearing land the next thing was to prepare a plant bed. He would go out in woods to get away from weed and grass seed and clear a small place and sow tobacco seeds in March and cover the bed with a cloth to prevent freeze or frost kill. He used stable manure or fish meal and cotton seed meal or marl to make plants grow. Hopefully, he got the plants in the field by late May or June.

To plant in the field he used a lightwood knot for a peg to make a hole and press soil to the roots. He cultivated one side of the row at a time with a plow pulled by an ox or mule.

He broke out the top of the plant when it bloomed. Then suckers would grow out at each leaf. These had to be pulled off so the growth would go into leaves.

When the crop was ready to harvest, hopefully by late August or September, he split the stalk 3/4 way down and cut the plant off above the ground, placing the plant on a wood stick held by another person. (Sticks were split from pine logs 5 feet long).

They would place 5 or 6 plants on a stick and take them to the barn. His log barn was made of logs 22 feet long, placed on a rock foundation and the cracks between logs were filled with red clay mud. The roof was wood shingles and fire boxes were made of rock---2 to a barn.

Prior to 1870 smoke from the fire went around inside the barn in ditches and came out between the fire boxes. These ditches were covered with flat rock or with flat sheets of metal later on when metal was available. After 1870, 12 inch diameter round metal flues were invented to carry smoke and heat around inside the barn. Then people began saying "Flue Cured" tobacco. Burley tobacco was air cured in open barns and did not have heat.

The last day and night of fire curing the heat had to be 180 or 200 degrees to dry the big stalks to keep from causing mold when tobacco was removed from the barn and packed down before going to market. To help maintain this high heat the farmer would burn hardwood logs out side the barn and carry the red hot coals inside and spread them on the ground. This was hard work and a great fire hazzard.

To get his tobacco to market he pulled the leaves off the stalk and packed them in hogheads (wood barrels) and took them down rivers to sea ports to ship to England. In 1871, after the War, tobacco was tied in small bundles and placed on baskets and sold at auction at local markets and was made into cigars, cigarettes, chewing plugs and snuff in America.

The raising of tobacco and other crops was greatly hampered in Virginia and other states for more than 350 years because of fertilizer. Early the Indians were using fish. Fish were easily had and they would place a fish or two under each corn, squash, or tobacco hill. Lightning and fog were sources of nitrogen.Then when animals were raised they had stable manure along with chickens and geese, etc. But that was a drop in an ocean compared to the need. North Carolina once had many marl pits where the ocean had receded and left marine life in low places and they hauled it to farms and drilled it in tobacco rows, but it gave out in time.

Then commercial fertilizer came along in this century. A 100 pound bag was equal to a ton of manure and that changed the farmers plight. The pounds of tobacco per Acre trippled and quality improved when irigation came along. Today we catch nitrogen from the air we breathe and store it in 100 pound bags.
How Great!

The above article had never been published until now - 3/5/03. Mrs. Julia Carrington had asked the author, her friend, to write it. He is 91 years old and has worked in tobacco most of his life. My dear wife, Phyllis C. Shaw, transcribed the seven page, handwritten history.

Tobacco & South Boston
from the files of Kenneth Cook

The history of South Boston has from the beginning been closely associated with tobacco, and for good reason. Halifax County, of which the city is and has been an integral part, has always ranked near the top of tobacco-producing counties in Virginia and the United States. During many years prior to the Civil War, Halifax was the largest tobacco-producing county of all, as well as being the largest slave-holding county.

In 1828, Dr. Davis Green Tuck, of the Love Shop area, received the first U. S. patent issued for a flue curing design. On October 1, 1830, he received a patent on his system which involved a thermometer in the systematic regulation of heat in the barn.

Upton Thomas Bowden, an itenerant tinner, stopped in Halifax County in 1868 and made flues for William T. Ballou Jr. of Brook Farm, who used them in drying fruit and curing tobacco. He set up a shop on Main Street in South Boston to make and sell his "Bowden Flues." He left South Boston ca. 1870 for North Carolina, and on August 20, 1872, while living in Oxford, received a patent for an elaborate system of flues in which dampers were used to control heat and pans for inducing steam into the system for making the leaf pliable.

Ca. 1870, John L. Wade, a farmer at Harmony, manufactured the first bagged, granulated smoking tobacco in a small building on the corner of Main Street and Wilborn Avenue (later the site of Reeves' Drug Store). The product, named "Bull Doze", was favorably received by the public and caught the attention of tobacco interests in Durham, N. C, Mr. Wade later sold the business, which was closed in South Boston and moved to Durham, where the tobacco was then manufactured under the now-world famous name "Bull Durham."

The Slate Seed Company, founded in 1867 by Maj. Robert L. Ragland at his Hyco farm, was for many years the largest producer of tobacco seed in the world. Operated by his son-in-law, William C. Slate, and his sons after the Major's death in 1893, the company moved to South Boston after the turn of the century. By 1916 the Slates were supplying 90 percent of the world's tobacco seed, grown at Hyco Farm, In 1926 the company was able to fill a single order, rumored to have come from China, for 5000 pounds of seed! The Slates operated the company in South Boston until 1962, when it closed.

In 1870, W. B. Ellison of Milton, N. C., erected the first tobacco warehouse in the fledgling town and began buying leaf at private sales. N. L. Wrade built a second warehouse in 1871 and commenced sales by public auction, much as we know the system today.

In 1872, others who thought there was big money to be made in tobacco built warehouses in town. E. M. Moon was first, later selling to R. H. Owen and W. H. Shepherd, who in turn built the larger "Flag." Prince & Morton built the "Bell," while H. A. Edmondson and J. M. Carrington built the "South Boston Warehouse."

By 1907 South Boston had become the second largest bright leaf tobacco market, with over 13 million pounds sold. Sales passed 20 million pounds in 1927, and the town retained its No. 2 market status until the Depression.

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