January 1994

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Tobacco Barns

Still Remind Us


John Rezelman

Index of articles by John Rezelman

Here and there a tobacco barn still stands, one of the many that used to be a part of the southeastern Steuben County landscape. Even more rarely, there are still a few in more unusual locations, like the town of Wheeler. They are the chief reminders of what was once a substantial and thriving branch of farming, dating from the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Mostly these barns have long since gone to ruin. A tobacco barn on a farm that doesn't grow tobacco is singularly useless. The peculiar proportions, framing and lay out of our local style of tobacco barns made them ideally suited to the air-curing of tobacco hung from poles, but miserably ill-suited to other uses. They had features that resisted economical conversion to cattle or poultry housing, machinery storage or similar uses; they wouldn't adapt. So, except where someone decided to put up with them anyway and gave them needed maintenance, they have disappeared over the years.

The Steuben tobacco area was part of a larger tobacco section that extended eastward into the miles-wide valleys of Chemung County, as at Big Hats and Horse-heads, and south into northern Pennsylvania. The farms of the Tioga Valley were representative and highly typical of Steuben tobacco farms. Here the common farm layout was in long, narrow strips running from the river to the distant hilltop. This gave each farm a chunk-say thirty acres, more or less-of deep, river-bottom silt loam that tobacco likes. At the next higher level, hoped to be out of reach of flood waters, were the buildings, followed as one climbed the hill by hayland, pasture and finally woods.

A calendar year on such a farm would start with watching, poised for action, for a "January thaw," the foggier and damper the better. Damp air made it possible to safely take down the cured tobacco, otherwise brittle and easily broken in handling, from where it hung in the barns. All hands available, at home and for hire, would be assembled to push this process to completion while the weather lasted. A fire in the "stripping room" stove would heat that tightly built addition to one of the tobacco barns. In it the tobacco leaves would be removed- "stripped"-from the stalks and baled in a box under lever pressure. The bales would come out wrapped in heavy paper, the stem ends exposed, and tied by hand with twine. The main product of the farm was now ready for delivery to market and receipt of the money proceeds. The crop cycle begun early the year before had at last come to an end.

Weather being what it is, "stripping" might extend into February. In any case, it wouldn't be long before it would be time to start work on the next crop. Part of the specialized equipment of a tobacco farm was the stacks and stacks of coldframe sash. Each acre of tobacco as spaced here in Steuben required close to 10,000 plants (yes, 5 acres, 50,000!). The necessary area of plant beds would be prepared with fine mellow soil. Where available the neighborhood steam engine that powered the threshing machine might make an early spring tour sterilizing the beds with steam through a hose to kill weed seeds and fungi. Tobacco seed is extremely small—not microscopic, but close enough. It would be mixed with a dust of rotten wood to give it bulk and retain moisture. The warm farmhouse kitchen served as the sprouting room. Then at the crucial stage of sprouting, about early or mid-April, it would be sown in the beds. These beds were sash-covered cold frames heated by the sun. The tobacco still required careful watching though. The frames had to be ventilated promptly in a hot spell to prevent their precious contents from being cooked, and covered adequately when frost threatened. To bring a bit of minute tobacco seed to an adequate supply of robust plants by the proper time was an exercise in skill, judgment and diligence. It didn't just happen.

Meanwhile the tobacco land would be plowed and fitted and the other crops grown on the farm would be planted. These included corn for the livestock, oats and whatever else might be grown.

Tobacco-setting time came when danger of frost was judged to be safely past. In Steuben this was from very late May up to mid-June. A transplanter was a relatively simple and not particularly recently invented device; it had been in use for decades. Essentially it was a furrow opener and furrow-closer on wheels for one row, with a source of water from a mounted tank, all drawn by two horses. Two men (or boys, or girls) sat at the rear, close to the ground. They alternated picking plants from a box before them and setting them in the furrow between the openers and closers while the machine fed water into the furrow. Though the horses trudged slowly, the setters had to concentrate constantly on this monotonous task and move swiftly-real assembly-line work, the newly-set plants wilted and looked distressed for awhile, but substantial losses in this operation were not common and could be replaced by a spot hand-replanting effort where needed. Mostly the plants revived in due time and settled down to grow.

Anyone who has seen the rate at which a tobacco plant grows will have no trouble understanding why it must have the best of soil well supplied with nutrients. It grows fast. This kind of soil usually also supports an abundance of weeds, and where it was true river bottom, periodic floods would keep it supplied with fresh sources of weed seed. From planting until the tobacco filled the rows and shaded the ground there was work for everyone, in those pre-herbicide days, controlling weeds. Some hand hoeing would be needed besides horse-powered cultivation.

As tobacco plants grew they would be "topped"—cut back-at about waist height. Then the suckers that followed had to be removed, to concentrate the growth into the original plant. There would be walking trips through the acreage to handpick the giant green hornworms, some of them bigger than a man's finger, that could so rapidly devour a tobacco leaf. Buyers would visit the farms in August to inspect the growing crop. Sales were often made right then, even though the baled leaf would not be delivered until 5 or 6 months later.

Almost suddenly, it seemed to the casual observer, the crop was ready for harvest. It certainly could not have seemed sudden to those who had plodded trip after trip up and down the rows in the blazing sun.

Every tobacco growing section has its own unique methods and practices in harvest. In this locality transferring the crop from standing in the field to hanging in the barn was done by a standardized, methodical procedure that called for skill, coordination and teamwork to move it along smoothly and swiftly. First, workers cut the plants off near the ground with special long-handled shears, skillfully tipping the plants so they fell neatly aligned to rows, butts all one way. After a few hours wilting to toughen them, they were loaded just-so on flatbed farm wagons for the ride to the barn. There a precisely timed, rapid-fire maneuver of unloading, tossing, catching and tying resulted in the plants ending up hung with special twine from ranks of poles laid in tiers across beams spaced for that purpose, until the barn was full or the field empty. It was intense work, but tempered with joy, satisfaction and relief. For once under roof, the crop was safe from its greatest hazards—frost and hail. Either of these could make tobacco instantly worthless—limp and blackened from frost, or scarred and shredded by hail.

The barn needed a little attention after that, chiefly adjustment of the ventilators according to the weather as curing progressed and closing the doors in high winds to keep the leaf from being whipped about on the poles. Mostly now the tobacco hung, cured gradually and waited for its trip to the "stripping room."

Five or ten acres of a crop with such exacting and laborious requirements made plenty of work for a typical farm family to handle along with the other work of the farm. They might be aided by a year-around hired man if there were a shortage of stalwart sons, and always by non-farming neighbors who, in a tobacco area, could once be counted on to have the skills to help by the day as peak labor loads demanded. The gaps of time between the do-it-immediately needs of the tobacco crop were available for other kinds of farming on the rest of the acreage. These might consist of various combinations of a dairy herd, poultry, sheep or hogs, heifers, steers, subsistence crops like potatoes for home use and local sale, or whatever. Tobacco land was good land; it was fortunate that other crops grown on it usually averaged out reasonably well, for these secondary enterprises sometimes had to be the balance wheel that kept the business going in the years when tobacco was frosted, hailed out or otherwise damaged.

A typical tobacco yield of, say, 1200 pounds per acre sold at maybe 150 a pound, or $180.00 per acre. This made tobacco farms among the top income producers in the area for those old times. But not when there was no tobacco to sell—and that could happen.

It was not production problems that brought about the end of tobacco growing in Steuben. It was a combination of declining markets and increasing labor costs. The local tobacco was cigar leaf, filler, that was its use. As cigarette consumption increased, cigar use went down. Gradually the little cigar factories that existed in cities like Corning and Elmira closed down, one by one. The number of buyers dealing in tobacco slowly shrank.

Meanwhile, alternative off-farm employment opportunities increased. It became harder and harder to find people who could and would work in tobacco farming as needed. The tobacco farms could not afford to compete with industrial wages and steady employment.

On farm after farm through the decades of the 1920s, 1930's and 1940's the last crop of tobacco was hung for the last time. A war-time ceiling price on tobacco combined with acute labor shortage in World War II dealt just about the final blow. By the time the very last tobacco crops were grown around the end of the 1940's, it had become difficult to find any place to sell tobacco, in an area that had once afforded a choice of markets.

Today, it you see an unusual long narrow old barn with tiers of horizontal vent openings closed by hinged boards (the distinctive local style) you may know that tobacco was once grown there. When these are all gone there will be only dim memories, fading recollections and photos, and such written records as may be preserved.

My gratitude to George T. S Termer of Lindley and William McCarthy of Addison for their help with this article. Thank you, George and Bill.
© 1985, John Rezelman
Index to articles by John Rezelman
Reprinted by permission from Volume I, Issue 1, Steuben Roots and Branches, Foot Hills Publishing, Bath, New York
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