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Shade Tobacco Days

By Keith J. Foxe

In the summer of 1980, at the ripe age of 15 (going on 16), I worked for Consolidated Cigar company in East Windsor, Connecticut. This was in the waning days of the cigar business, hard to believe given the cigarís current status, but in the days of disco and decadence, cigars had gone the way of ladies' hats and jazz trios.

The Consolidated Cigar Company in East Windsor specialized in shade grown tobacco. Consolidatedís shade grown was then used as wrappers on cigar filler tobacco from Honduras and the Dominican Republic. The cultivation of shade grown tobacco was and is a labor and capital intensive proposition.

The Connecticut River Valley is noted for its shade grown tobacco and if you ever travel along Interstate 91 from Hartford to Springfield in the summer, chances are youíll see enormous fields, white with gauze netting, undulating in the breeze.

Large fields are covered with gauze or cheese-cloth nets, shielding the tobacco plants from direct sunlight. Unlike its less cultivated cousins, which have to bear the direct pounding rays of the summer sun, shade grown plants can reach a height of seven feet, and have leaves over two feet in length.

The tobacco business in Connecticut has colonial roots, but large scale cultivation did not occur until the 19th century. Small dynasties of tobacco families ruled the area with a combination of Yankee frugality and petty tyranny. The workers were a mix of local help, Southerners and Caribbean islanders who lived in Spartan workerís camps. The novel and movie Parrish tried to portray this tobacco culture at its zenith in the 1940ís, but like most Hollywood portrayals, it was far off the mark.

My job that summer, after working the two previous summers as a picker, was straw boss, which meant that I didnít have to pick, but had to watch over a group of 10 to 20 pickers, and had to supervise the picking and hauling of the crop from the field to the sheds where it would be stitched, hung and dried.

The picking of shade tobacco is unlike the harvest of regular tobacco. A shade tobacco plant was picked three leaves at a time, and with tender care each plant could yield 4 or 5 picks in a season. The early season picks were the toughest. This required slogging through the mud and dirt on your ass and suckering the plant, which entailed removing the small sprouting leaves in between the larger lower leaves.

The work would start at 7:30 am, while the air and ground were still cold and the plants wet with morning dew that was just slightly warmer than ice water. Within minutes your arms, your t-shirt, blue jeans, sneakers, hat, hair, arms, and shoulders were soaking wet. You would go for two and a half hours straight in a morass of mud and wetness until coffee break at 10:00 am.

After coffee break, you were back in the field at 10:15 am. The dew was gone, but the tobacco juice from the leaves began to flow as the plants warmed up. The sticky tobacco juice covered the hairs on your arms (by the end of the season, most pickers had little hair left, as it would be plucked clean, natures own version of Nair).

By first pick, the plants stood about three feet tall and the three lowest leaves were harvested in the same method as the suckering, on your ass in the dirt. There were two different methods of picking, one was called the windmill method, where the leaves were snapped off in an upward motion, the other, the traditional method which involved snapping downward quickly, starting with the top of the three leaves.

The good news about picking was that it got easier as the season progressed. Your posture became more erect (like the evolution of humans) with each successive pick. Second and third picks were done on the knees; fourth, fifth and sixth standing.

A picker's progress was measured in the number of bents picked. A bent was the distance between one net pole to the next (about 20 feet). A really good picker could do 90 bents in a day. I remember a field boss named David Acres who was the Michael Jordan of shade tobacco pickers. It was said that in his prime he picked over 150 bents a day. Occasionally he would challenge the fastest pickers in the field to a contest, and inevitably he always left them in the dust. It was like watching a Bruce Lee movie set in a surreal agricultural landscape.

For those that might romanticize the outdoor life on a tobacco farm it was no picnic. After the wet morning, there would usually be about an hour between 10:30 and 11:00 am that could be classified as pleasant -- then the sun and the humidity would bare down. Temperatures under the nets could reach 110 degrees and the sweat would mix with raw tobacco juice and start to sting the eyes like jalapenos. All this for the whopping wage of $2.25 per hour.

After each field was picked the entire picking crew would hop on a bus and move to another field. The bus smelled worse than the monkey cage at the zoo and the dirt and dust from the fields could choke a rhino.

The dynamics between the workers was a drama in itself. The camp workers vs. the local workers was a conflict that needed to continually be kept in check by the straw bosses. Add to this mix Puerto Rican immigrants living in the North end of Hartford, foreign workers from the Caribbean and prison workers on day furloughs and youíve got a miniature Bosnia under the hot sun.

Fist fights were a daily occurrence. I used my public relations skills to keep my friends and myself from becoming knuckle bait on a regular basis. Occasionally a heated conflict could turn into a full scale conflagration and the field and straw bosses were forced to separate the warring camps, pack them in their respective buses and ship them to separate fields.

Thankfully, these events would usually blow over and the groups would find some common ground as the straw bosses served as diplomats and negotiators.

On one occasion I found myself trying to evade one of the furlough workers who drove a tractor on the farm. As a gag, I had dug a Burmese tiger trap in one of the fields, which was a pit covered with wooden lathes and cloths and camouflaged with dirt. The pit was four feet deep and well hidden, until his tractor wheel fell in the hole, throwing him from the seat. He came into work the next day waving a Saturday Night Special, leaving everyone to wonder how it was that a prisoner had such easy access to guns. The police were called in and he was brought back to prison, no longer a beneficiary of the day furlough program.

Every day on the tobacco farm was a new adventure. As we dragged the tobacco out of the fields to be loaded on trucks, which would take them to the barns to be hung and dried, we never much thought about the end product. It was hard work, monotonous and dirty.

The days were long and the pay was lousy, but in 1980, at fifteen years old, making $90 a week, it seemed like a golden opportunity. One small fringe benefit came on the last pay-day of the month. The farm boss named Sugar Minor handed out a bag full of the Consolidated cigars to all the workers over the age of 16. The older kids would pass out cigars to all the younger kids and weíd ride the bus back to Enfield, swearing, singing, and smoking those dark brown cigars.

Today, that bag of cigars would probably be worth more than our paycheck! Oh, how things have changed.

Keith J. Foxe is the Director of Communications and Promotions for Internet Shopping Network and First Auction. His newest project is fiftythings which features important cultural, environmental, musical, and ordinary things that make the Earth a rich and diverse place to spend our days.


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Copyright © 1998 Keith J. Foxe. Used with permission.
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