In the 1920s, the boll weevil invaded Georgia, slashing cotton production and threatening the livelihood of most south Georgia farmers. The introduction of tobacco farming to part of the region opened a new world of economics and culture.
Tobacco was not an entirely new thing to Georgia. In earlier times, it was grown in the Augusta area and shipped down river to Savannah, thus the place name “Tobacco Road” and the Erskine Caldwell novel by the same title. Among his other ventures, Manassas Foy grew tobacco nearby, at least for a time. However, this time tobacco came to a wide expanse of territory in southern Georgia and northern Florida, involving thousands of farmers and a comprehensive marketing system.
Smoking had become fashionable, a national habit. Movie heroes and heroines smoked almost incessantly. Others followed suit. Even plain folks rolled Prince Albert tobacco in OCB folds and lit it up with kitchen matches. Established tobacco growing regions in the Carolinas and Virginia could no longer meet the demand. Selected areas in south Georgia offered suitable soil types and farmers needing to be rescued.
“Demonstrators” came from North Carolina to teach farmers how to grow, harvest, cure and market tobacco. It was not as simple as it sounds. It was a whole new crop from seed to sale, new technologies and a new marketing system.
A quick primer follows. There are two main types of tobacco — cigar tobacco excluded — flue-cured and burley. Burley, a mountain crop, is air-cured. Allowed to reach full maturity in the field, the entire plant is cut down and spiked onto a stake to wilt thoroughly. It is hung in tall curing barns with cantilevered sides to control air flow. (Think of massive Venetian blinds.) When the stalk is dried, the tobacco is sorted by grade and taken to market.
Flue-cured tobacco, the type introduced here, is dried with heat driven from a furnace through a network of metal flues. The tobacco ripens on the stalk. A few leaves at a time are harvested, tied with cotton twine onto four-foot plus long sticks, then hung in tiers in the curing barn. With carefully monitored temperature of increasing levels, the leaves are dried — typically five days — then allowed to pick up enough moisture for handling and marketing. Harvest time lasted five to six weeks with families and friends working together in labor-packed days.
It was a fortunate time to introduce this new crop. The era of railroad building to accommodate timbering, naval stores and cotton now provided ways to move tobacco from regional markets to cigarette manufacturers in North Carolina. In time, the growing highway system would replace the railroads but early market centers were located in railroad towns. My maternal grandfather accompanied boxcars loaded with his tobacco and that of his family and friends to markets many miles away.
There are many details yet to cover, but for now I want to focus on the market. In brief, here is how it worked. It was an auction conducted in a large warehouse owned and operated by an individual or group that oversaw all aspects of the sale for a fee. Every “pile” of tobacco was examined by potential buyers. The sales leader (warehouseman) called out a suggested price and the auctioneer started there and went up or down until a bid was accepted, usually very quickly, then on to the next one.
For farmers, the auction was stressful. So much of their lives and welfare hung on those seconds of decision and everything outside of their control. If a “circuit rider” (regional supervisor for one of the major buying companies) were present, the buyer would often be a timid bidder, maybe sending others into bargain hunting.
Good days and bad, the market was never dull. From the moment a farmer pulled his truck into the warehouse door, there was activity. Friends to meet. Keeping an eye on the placement of his crop on the warehouse floor. His burlap-sheeted piles of tobacco were unloaded onto strong wicker baskets on a wide, low wheelbarrow-like vehicle to be pushed onto a scale to be officially weighed and ticketed into the domain of the warehouse. He located his crop on the floor and noted when he should be back to pick up his sheets after the tobacco had been turned out of them. Vigilance was advised.
The tobacco market brought with it something special, not quite carnival, not Mardi Gras, but exciting and hopeful. It was more than the flush of money from tobacco sales, although that was the pivot point, the difference between a good crop year and a bad one. There was other stuff. The “tobacco men” came with money-expense accounts, steak and potato tastes. One high-rolling buyer traveled with a liveried chauffeur driving a big, black car. They filled hotels and motels and the best eating places in town. They hired people to work with them. Warehouse owners hired lots of people to work the floors and the sales.
When prices were good, the auction floor was alive. Young entrepreneurs walked among the tobacco sheets calling, “Fresh boiled peanuts. Ten cents a bag.” Sometimes entire families came to share the uplift. Later, the farmer would deposit his check and maybe pay off some of his run bills. Like my Daddy, maybe he would keep enough to buy a small bag of Milky Way candy bars for a special family moment.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.