by Elaine Jones
Also, read Elaine’s article: “We Were Soldiers’ Wives Once… and Young“
When I was young in North Carolina during the 1950s, August and September were busy times for us younger children. The local farmers would hire us to help them put in a barn of tobacco. The ages ranged from 11 to the teens. The farmer would pick several of us up from the neighborhood just as the sun began to turn the sky pink in the mornings. Girls were used as handers and boys were primers.
The day began with the boys taking the mule, which was hitched to a sled, to the tobacco field and began pulling the light green leaves from the tobacco stalks. Only the lighter color leaves were collected. As their hands became too full to hold any more leaves, they would tuck the handful under their opposite arm until they could hold no more, then the leaves were laid into the sled. They worked as fast as they could trying to gather as many leaves as possible before the hot, scorching sun took their energy.
Once the sled was packed, it was driven to the barn or wherever the tying process took place. There the leaves were placed in a certain direction onto a long table of boards across a sawhorse. Having the leaves in one direction made picking them up easier. Sometimes they were piled so high it was difficult for me to reach the top of them. As soon as the sled was emptied, it was taken back to the field to be filled again.
Sometimes calamity struck. For an unknown reason the mule pulling the sled would bolt off, turning the sled over and flinging tobacco leaves everywhere. After the mule had been brought under control, all the leaves had to be picked up and put back into the sled. This made a tangled mess making it slower to pick up the leaves to make a bundle. No one wanted to hear of a run-away mule.
Girl in a tobacco field (Image Credit: NFB Blog)
The stringer placed a stick onto what was called a “string horse” to which twine was attached. The “handers” had to work fast to pick up enough leaves to make an appropriate size bundle which was handed to the stringer who tied it onto the stick. Not everyone was qualified to be a stringer. There was a process to tying that not many people could do correctly. They had to work quickly and efficiently. If the bundles were not tied properly, they could become undone during the drying process and if the leaves fell onto the hot flue, it could cause a barn to burn down.
Early in the morning, the leaves were wet from the dew, and we’d get wet from our chest to our knees. By midmorning, we would be dry then the gum from the tobacco began to stick to us. It was a black sticky substance that often got so thick on our hands, we’d have to rub them in sand to remove it.
We handers tried to get all of the leaves tied up before the sled returned with another load because that gave us a chance to sit down. Otherwise, we stood and worked continuously without a break.
When a stick was full of bundles, a person had to remove it from the “string horse” and lay it in a pile. Each stick was laid facing the same direction, overlapping about half of the leaves from the previous stick. This continued until many sticks had been put down then another layer was begun on top of the first layer. Layering continued until quitting time. If the field was a distance from the barn, the sticks were laid onto a large, flat trailer to be transported.
We would stop around noon for lunch (which we called dinner). If we were working away from the farmer’s house, he would go to the local country store and buy food for us. Most of the time, we ate bologna-tomato sandwiches, a pack of peanuts, and drank a Pepsi Cola. When near the house, the wife would cook several vegetables from her garden, biscuits, or cornbread. A glass of iced tea or cold sweet milk finished off the meal. After about an hour, it was back to work.
At the end of the day, the young, strong, boys climbed the rafters inside of the barn where they straddled the poles. The rest of us passed the sticks to each other relay style to a person inside of the barn who passed them up to the boys. Beginning at the top poles, the sticks were placed side by side until there was no more room, and the boys moved down to the lower row of poles. This continued until all the sticks had been hung in the barn.
What a relief when that last stick disappeared into the barn, usually the sun had long set by then. Home, food, and a bath made a beautiful picture in the minds of bone-tired bodies.
I happily tucked my five dollars away and looked forward to going to town to buy pencils, paper, and a notebook for the new school year.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.