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Generation III: William & Mary (Harrison) Penley

Tobacco and the Northern Neck

The Tobacco Life in the Northern Neck of Virginia

For the farmers of the Northern Neck in this era, life revolved around tobacco, the chief export crop of the colony, and the adopted medium of exchange since hard currency scarcely existed in the colony. The planters grew typical garden vegetables for their table, and corn for their livestock, which roamed freely in the marsh marked by unique cuts about the ears which were registered in court to each owner. Many court depositions described the various marks when ownership was contested.

The Indians cleared land for planting by killing the trees with fire, and they planted crops between the tall tree trunks and stumps. Englishmen continued the same system, but eventually brought axes and saws capable of cutting down the trunks to use for housing and barns, but the stumps most often remained in the ground until they rotted.

The tobacco and other crops were planted in between the stumps of the trees in early May. Topping the tobacco was the summer job, the blooms had to be snapped off the plant whenever they flowered to encourage the growth of larger leaves and larger profits. New sprouts, called suckers, would appear between the leaves and would stunt the growth of the established leaves if not plucked off. Big green worms would arrive and eat holes in the leaves. The summer months were consumed by “topping, suckering and worming” the tobacco.

In the fall, the tobacco plants were cut down near the root, and “stalked” for hanging. In the 1700’s they probably tied the tobacco to log rafters for drying. Later, a tobacco stick was used to pierce the stalk. When the stick was full, with just the right amount of air between the stalks for ventilation, the sticks were carried to the barn for drying. In the barn, the sticks were hung between the rafters with the tobacco plant up-side-down for drying.

Often in November, but whenever the tobacco was ready, dried and cured to perfection, each leaf was stripped off the stalk, and “handed” or gathered by the stems into a big handful and tied together at the top with another tobacco leaf. Timing was crucial at this point, the tobacco had to be well dried before removed from the stick or tie, but a good fog or heavy rain had to provide enough moisture in the air to “handle” the dried and brittle leaves for packing. If there was not enough humidity, the tobacco would crumble. If there was too much moisture, the tobacco would mildew. The hands of tobacco were packed tightly in large barrels called caskes or hogsheads, then rolled down pathways to a ferry or a port where it would be loaded and transported to England, or illegally sold to the Dutch or other Europeans who often paid higher prices than the English.

The tobacco season manipulated all other events in tobacco country. Some years the tobacco came in early, some years it came late. Planting, cutting, curing, handing and handling schedules were all based on the judgement of the farmer. Good judgement was rewarded by higher prices and a good reputation to carry over to the next year. The farmers rushed to get their tobacco to market early, as prices usually declined after the first market day. Their fortunes rose and fell with tobacco prices and quality. Excessive rain, drought, hurricanes, hail storms, shipwrecks or fraudulent agents could ruin an entire year’s labor with the next compensation a starving year away. Repeated planting of tobacco without rotation sapped the nutrients from the soil and “wore the land out”.

Helen Horne Penley, a Scott County, Virginia native who was raised on tobacco farms in the 1920’s and 1930’s blended this research with her personal experience to afford explanation here. Incredibly, except for some tools and transportation, tobacco farming changed little in the three hundred years before tractors and insecticides revolutionized agriculture. Tobacco had to be topped, suckered, wormed, cut, stalked, handed and handled in the early 1900’s much as it was in the 1600’s.