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  • March 15th, 2016


I may have posted this before, but it’s still poison and our beloved Congress still is subsidizing it.
By Joel M. Vance
Finney was born in 1884, nine years before his wife. He joined the Navy in 1906 and was on the crew of the battleship USS Virginia when Teddy Roosevelt sent the fleet around the world to demonstrate American might. “Walk softly, but carry a big stick,” said Teddy.
Finny and Sis raised six of their seven children, including Roy Joe who was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne and parachuted into Normandy on D-Day in 1944, and twins Doris and Dorothy, the youngest of the brood. The first born, William Don, born in 1911, died at four months.
Finney’s chin was stubbly; his jaw usually collapsed because he had neglected to install ill-fitting false teeth. His battered hat was cocked rakishly–he never lost the insouciance of the World War one sailor who had rolled into foreign ports, intent on exotic pleasure (almost any pleasure would be more exotic than that available on a hard rock Chariton County farm). Finney was rarely out of overalls, even on trips to town in his Model A Ford. But those trips earned a freshly-laundered set.
His only dress suit was reserved for funerals and an annual trip to sell his tobacco at auction in Weston, Missouri, or, more rarely, all the way to Lexington, Kentucky. Finney was a tobacco farmer. It was his cash crop. Everything else on his few acres went to the family good—the milk cow provided cream for wild blackberries, plus suck for her occasional calf. The chicken scavenging for food Saturday in the dust of the farmyard was Sunday’s dinner. The pig, rooting happily among the slops in its trough, would hang in pieces from a rusty hook in the smokehouse come cold weather, its hams slowly tanning from smoke and salt rub.
Baths were rare (the water had to be heated on the Warm Morning wood stove and dumped into a galvanized wash tub). Soap came from fat rendered from the slaughtered hogs, mixed with lye, leached from stove ashes, with salt added to harden the soap into cakes.
There was no lack of wood ashes, even in the hot months. All summer the kitchen was stifling with heat from the stove as Sis canned bounty from the garden and from fruit trees in the back yard. The land produced what the family needed, from squirrels deftly harvested by my grandfather, to poke greens, collected along the gravel road that ran by the farm.
This was a subsistence farm and were it not for the fleshy green leaves that Finney so carefully shepherded to brown, dried hanks of tobacco, Sis and Finney would have had virtually no spending money. Tobacco was labor-intensive, more, perhaps, than any other agricultural commodity, but it was all Finney knew to do.
Missouri is in the so-called “burley belt” of eight states, including Kentucky (which produces 80 percent of all the burley grown). The others are Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Burley is a cigarette tobacco, but Finney opted to chew his, stripping a leaf and crumbling the dried product in his seamed and callused hand before stuffing it in his mouth. His toothless jaw would work as he munched the pungent tobacco, an amber trickle runneling down a seam at the side of his mouth.
Early in the spring Finney planted tobacco seeds in flats, under cheesecloth to keep late frost at bay. The spindly seedlings, nurtured with barnyard manure, straightened and strengthened. Finally they were big enough (and the weather was warm enough) that they could be transplanted to a small field just north of Sis and Finney’s tiny farmhouse.
Finney had a quarter-acre tobacco allotment. The federal government established acreage allotments on tobacco in the 1930s, guaranteeing farmers a minimum price for their crop, but also limiting the amount they could grow. Even had Finney wanted, he couldn’t have raised much more tobacco than his small allotment permitted. It simply was too much work and there wasn’t enough help.
My aunt Sis, a large woman, was not physically able to do the bending and sheer effort involved in planting the seedlings. And I was barely helpful, scrawny and city-stupid, spending my summers on the farm so my Chicago parents could have a respite from parenting. I could help plant the seedlings–it doesn’t take much know-how to punch a hole in the ground and that was as advanced as my tobacco husbandry got.
I punched the hole with a sharpened stick (maybe a chunk of old hoe handle, called a dibble) and then stuck the plant in the hole, pressed it firmly in place with the side of the dibble and moved on to the next plant. It was backbreaking work, swinging from one plant like Quasimodo atop Notre Dame cathedral or maybe Cheetah in the jungle with Tarzan.
Planting was only the beginning of the long trip from seedling to dried leaf. At 60 days the plant produced a flower head which Finney clipped off. Then he suckered the plant. Suckers are shoots that sprout between the stalk and a major leaf and sap energy from the plant (tomato growers sucker their plants for the same reason). Suckering and topping let the plant concentrate its energy toward leaf growth.
After the little plants got over the shock of transplant they began to grow and to encounter a host of natural enemies, especially the tobacco worm, a large green caterpillar also called a tomato worm. The caterpillar, larva of a hawk moth, is large and voracious enough to do much damage to plants.
Finney’s solution, and that of other tobacco farmers of the time, was to spray his crop with Paris Green, an arsenic-based insecticide (copper arsenate and copper acetate). At the time it also was used as a base for bright green paint. It’s a wonder any child, living with lead-based and arsenic-based paints, ever grew up normally or at all.
Tobacco has been a controversial crop for decades, but the federal government still subsidizes tobacco growers (to the tune of $209 million in 2009) despite other government agency efforts to limit or eliminate tobacco use. Fifty years ago or more smokers joked about “coffin nails” and “smoker’s cough.” And Luckies said there was “not a cough in a carload.”
While athletic coaches grimly told their players, “cigarettes’ll cut your wind!” Camels bragged that “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette,” although “more scientists and educators smoke Kent.”
Perhaps the most eerie cigarette ad featured a baby and the infantile quote, “Gee, Mommy, you sure enjoy your Marlboro.” The pervasive image of the Marlboro Man was that of a rugged smoking outdoor type, by implication the healthiest guy in the Old West. With bitter irony the original Marlboro Man died of lung cancer.
His fellow Westerner, a real person, singer Tex Williams laid it out in a popular song: “Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette/Until you smoke yourself to death.”
While Madison Avenue was encouraging the world to enjoy cigarettes, Finney was busy on the Missouri farm producing the raw materials. Mid-September was time to cut the plants at their base, another long session of bending over. Finney then spiked the stalks onto tobacco sticks, poles about the diameter of hoe handles, sharpened on one end, a half-dozen or so plants to each stick. The sticked tobacco ripened in the field for several days, then Finney hauled it to his unpainted old barn to air dry.
This was the part of the tobacco farmer’s job that was no place for an acrophobic. Finney racked the sticks starting at the top of the barn. Usually neighbors or whoever Finney could corral into helping would hand the sticks up to him, at the topmost level, where he perched on the rafters like a monkey. He’d rest a stick across adjacent rafters, each far enough from the preceding stick to allow air circulation. When a row filled, he’d move down a level and start again. When the crop was in the barn Finney could turn to the rest of his farm while the leaves dried for about two months.
Missouri tobacco is air cured and the barns are specialized, with louvers to control air flow (Finney’s barn was so old and filled with cracks that it didn’t need louvers). By contrast some tobacco, called latakia is “fire-cured” by drying it in closed barns with heat from fires that gives it a smoky flavor.
By the time the tobacco was cured the weather was cold, often bitterly so, and Finney would move the tobacco stick by stick to his stripping shed, a small building where he worked under the light of, in the early days, a coal oil (kerosene) lantern, later a dim electric bulb. The dust was thick enough to chew by itself. Finney would strip the leaves into hanks ranked by their position on the stalk. He’d wrap a final leaf as a tie to hold the gathered stems of each hank. When the tobacco crop was in hanks it was ready to go to an auction warehouse for sale.
There was drama in the annual tobacco auction, held just before Thanksgiving each year. Growers took their leaf to one of several cities where buyers bid on it, depending on the quality. Finney almost always took his tobacco to Weston. It was make-or-break time for his annual income, but never was there a bonanza, no matter how good the crop or how high the quality. The auction was a buyer’s game and the farmer, his back still aching from the long summer and fall of incessant labor, generally got the short end of the tobacco stick.
Weston is a backwater town on the Missouri River, historically a launching pad for wagon trains to the West. In addition to tobacco, it is the home of the McCormick Distillery, the oldest whisky factory west of the Mississippi River, which made it a place of respect among thirsty Plainsmen.
Its two tobacco warehouses today are the only ones west of the Mississippi River. Nearly all Missouri’s tobacco today is grown in Platte County, where Weston is located (at its peak, tobacco was grown in all but one of Missouri’s 114 counties). But Weston now is more of a tourist town than it is a tobacco center. McCormick’s now is owned by a foreign corporation and no longer allows tours. One tobacco warehouse doubles as a flea market auction center.
Change has come to the old home place as well. Sis and Finney are buried in the Asbury Cemetery, joining a century’s-worth of relatives. The cemetery is adjacent to a small white Methodist Church, almost visible from the former tobacco patch and less than half a mile from their abandoned home.
Finney’s tobacco patch today is in corn or, more often, weeds and the barn is a shambles, barely standing on one end. Sis and Finney’s house is vacant and almost collapsed and the floor under my grandfather’s small addition to the main house has fallen into what once was the cistern. The bedroom where my grandfather died is inaccessible across the hole where the floor caved in. When I was eight or nine years old I sat on that floor and read adventure stories in True and Argosy and Bluebook magazines while he rocked and read a book—his taste ran to Jack London.
Finney chewed his home-grown for half a century, no doubt accumulating a dose of arsenic, increasingly hazardous as time passed. He developed stomach cancer and died in the 1970s. Sis lived on for 15 years but there was no more tobacco grown on the home place and none of the children came home to live.
In 1990 the six surviving children, now grown old and stooped, gathered to watch an auctioneer knock the place down to a stranger. The fellow wanted it for deer hunting with his buddies and today there is a trailer permanently parked near where the outhouse once stood, just about on the site of the smokehouse. The once-lush garden is a weed jungle and what once was open now is a tangle of rank vegetation.
Only memories remain and they are as ephemeral as mayflies. Nothing I knew seems the same, save the huge pair of maple trees on the front lawn that once shaded the Finnells as they cooled of a summer evening and ate fresh-picked watermelon and listened to the drone of grasshoppers while the tobacco leaves wilted just up the road.
Joel Vance is the author of Grandma and the Buck Deer (softcover $15); Tails I Lose (hardcover $25); Down Home Missouri (hardcover $25); and Autumn Shadows (limited edition $65). Available from Cedar Glade Press, Box 1664, Jefferson City MO 65102. Add $2/book for S/H. Other titles are available for the Nook and Kindle e-readers at www.joelvance.com.

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  1. Sumner Wilson

    April 3rd, 2016 at 1:09 pm


    Enjoyed your tobacco article. Didn’t realize tobacco was as big as this beforehand.

    When I was young there was an old man originally from East Tennessee, who grew tobacco he called “Long Green.” I often wondered since then if this was an honest name for a type tobacco or if it was a nickname he gave to it.

    Sumner Wilson

    • joelvance

      April 4th, 2016 at 4:42 am


      According to Google “long green” is the green tobacco leaf and working with it can poison tobacco workers. Bad stuff even before it gets cured and smoked.

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