Growing up in Southern Ohio, few who farmed didn’t know that this was the time of year when most of the work was done inside. For approximately three months a year, farmers work inside away from the cold winter weather, but are still working in conditions that were far from ideal. Southern Ohio is burley growing country and when a year edges near its end, it is also tobacco stripping time. This is the final push to deliver your crops to the warehouse to sell and at long last cash in on a long hard year of back breaking labor.
Tobacco starts in a seed bed and as the plants reach size they are transplanted to a field where a tobacco stalk will hopefully grow tall and develop large, heavy leaves. At this point the stalk is cut and placed in what is appropriately called a tobacco barn. where the stalks hang so the air will circulate around, allowing the leaves to dry out or as farmers say “cure out.” When the climate is humid enough to allow the leaves to be pliable enough to be handled, then the final process takes place. At least the final process as it used to be took place. I’m pretty sure the process has changed drastically since the time when our family raised tobacco for a living.
I was involved in raising tobacco in the 1950’s and 1960’s in a time period that I like to call the “golden era of burley farming” in this area. Today a farmer has a good idea of what he will be paid before he invests in raising any crop. That wasn’t the case when I farmed. The farmer wasn’t certain as to what he would get for his crop until the auctioneer yelled “Sold!” Farmers took every precaution and tried their hardest to strip their tobacco, grade it by color and texture, and make certain the leaves were as uniform and presentable as possibly could be done.
Once the tobacco is removed from the barns, it is moved to a building on the farm solely set up for the purpose of stripping tobacco and prepping it before it went to the warehouse to be sold. This sounds easy enough, but this is where easy stops and long, tiring monotonous days of pulling leaves from stalks over and over and over. Most stripping rooms were heated with either a wood burning or coal burning stove so there was the comfort of the heat but that was right about where the comfort ended. Tobacco plants contain much more dust than would ever be expected and therefore the room would get very dusty and was rough on the sinuses and throat causing what seemed like continual laryngitis.
To reduce the dust, the room would routinely be sprayed with water and this meant that you stood in wet shoes most of the day. As the leaves are removed, the stalks would be tied up in a bundle and taken outside and staked to go to the field. Also, as the tobacco was processed, more would be brought in and the processed tobacco was moved to another building to wait for the last trip. As there was a lot of in and out going on during a day, a stripping room was always drafty.
The farmers got to labor inside a building in cold weather and it was anything but cozy and comfy, but farmers are accustomed to seldom if ever getting to work in a perfect setting. With all that said, I must admit the stripping room became the hub of a farm until the tobacco was done. Maybe it was the smoke from the chimney that gave away our location. but it seemed that anyone looking for my Dad knew he was in the stripping room.
Rare was the time that visitors didn’t stop by throughout the day. My Great Uncle Roy was a regular and a man of interest to listen to. So were Joe Bolender, Ed Maus, and even my Aunt Margaret and her six children would stop in to see how we were doing or leave something for Mom. I must say that the kids broke up the monotony.
Dad was also a township trustee and sometimes a person would stop in to talk about his road or a fence line. Dad decided to have a phone installed in the stripping room as he did get a lot of calls and it was only a dollar a month to have an extension. I really thought we were pretty important to need a phone. (I wonder how many cell phones would be in that room today.)
There was one more luxury. Since we were pretty much cut off from the rest of the world, Dad nailed a small shelf high above the bench and on it he placed our Philco AM radio. Dad allowed my brother Ben and sister Peg and myself to listen to the rock and roll station (if we kept the volume low). When the time came up on the hour, we had to turn it to the news. Dad never wanted to be without the news even when we were stripping tobacco. At noon the news station would give the cattle and hog prices and knowing them was a part of business if you raised them like we did.
All in all it was dirty, hard on the legs and back, and it seemed that it went on for months. But in that time period a lot could be learned if only you were a good listener. Conversation helped many a farmer or helper to endure indoor farming.
Rick Houser grew up on a farm near Moscow in Clermont County and likes to share stories about his youth and other topics. He can be reached at email@example.com.