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The tobacco setter’s “Wheel of Fortune”

web1_RickHouser.jpgBy Rick Houser –

I have written repeatedly that we raised a lot of tobacco on our farm, just like most all of the farmers around us did. When the growing season moved into late May and early June, the plants that had been growing in our tobacco beds had reached the transplant size and now it was time to transplant them into the tobacco patches or fields. I have also written before I really hated weeding a tobacco bed and looked for any way out as it was back breaking work.

There were only two steps up from the tobacco bed and that was driving the tractor that carried the tobacco setter (that job was Dad’s and his only) and the other being one of the two to ride the setter and as they called it “drop the plants” into the setter. For years this position was dominated by my sister Peg and brother Ben. Not only were they good at the job, but they were one of the fastest pairs in the neighborhood.

I waited my turn as I knew one day Peg would be moving away. I knew because at the end of every day that she rode the setter, she said how badly she hated the job and was going to get away from it one of these days. I couldn’t see at first why she would want to leave all this but then I saw that she must have been hinting to me. The day finally came and Peg moved and there was a need for someone to ride the setter and they needed it to be a left hander. Not only could I set and I wanted to learn to be fast but I was left handed! Oh Joy!

My days of pulling plants were about to decline as long as I could deliver on the setter’s job and I did. In case you are not familiar with a Trans planter or as we called it, a tobacco setter, I will try to explain. Ours fastened on to the back of our small Ford tractor and was raised and lowered by hydraulics. A 50-gallon water barrel was fastened onto the front of the tractor and the part where the two setters rode was on the back.

Between the two people was a wheel apparatus with a drive chain fastened between the centers of the wheel. On this wheels chain were fingers with rubber tips that were spaced 18 inches apart. As the tractor moved so did the wheel and the chain. As the fingers moved between the two on a downward direction the two riders alternated inserting plants into the fingers and holding them until they closed and finished by depositing the plants into the ground while the wheel packed dirt around the plants. The water barrel would eject a squirt of water on the roots of each plant to give it a good start.

The two who dropped the plants had a box-like holder in front of them where plants waited to ride the wheel. The setter was a very labor saving device but it had a few flaws. The riders sat on metal seats with no backs. The rides were seldom smooth and if you didn’t or couldn’t handle the sun beating down on you from mid-morning to sunset, this might not be the job for you.

Outside of conversation between you and your partner there was the constant and continual drone of the tractor’s engine. Seldom if ever did it change in sound. What I remember most though was when the setter gave the plant its shot of water. “Ka-Plunk” is the best way I can describe that sound, every 18 inches “Ka-Plunk.” From beginning until the end of day “Ka-Plunk! Each acre holds approximately 8200 plants and we raised 12 acres. To a tobacco farmer this might be in comparison to the Chinese water torture. Between the two monotonous sounds of the tractor and the water shot, a person could go crazy. This is where the conversations between the two riders became important. Talking broke the monotony and saved the day. As for the driver, they either didn’t talk, which was doubtful, or joined in with the conversation going on behind them.

Along with the sounds and the sun and the heat, there were the plants themselves. Plants were raised in seed beds and these beds for the most part were made by burning them with lots of wood. Therefore, when the plants were pulled they almost always had a lot of root base and it was mostly made with ash from the hot fires. This meant that the plants could be pulled easily but as the person on the setter worked with the plants, the dirt and ash would come off and land on the rider. Add that to all the sweat and water from the water barrel and the sun continuing to bake it into your sunburned skin and by the end of a day the character Pig Pen from Peanuts looked squeaky clean. At day’s end we all ran to be first for a shower. By the way, with all the sun, the shower could be a bit painful as the wash cloth rubbed against your burnt skin.

So as you can see, was it any wonder why I begged for the setter’s job and thankfully my sister was kind enough to step down and let me have the job. Sometimes we just have to wonder how lucky can we be.

There is one last thing, though. With all the hot conditions, we would get very thirsty and when we did stop for more plants or fill the barrel, we didn’t care who had drank out of the water jug or how long the water had sat ithe sunn , we just gladly grabbed that jug and rinsed and drank. Believe it or not that was one of the highlights of the day. Just one more reward for being a very good left handed rider on a tobacco setter.

Rick Houser grew up on a farm near Moscow in Clermont County and loves to share stories about his youth and other topics. He may be reached at houser734@yahoo.com.

One comment:

  1. Hey Rick-Really enjoy reading your columns -I helped my father in law plant tobacco and it was a total family affair-I really found out how my wife became such a hard worker as she grew up on the farm-A lot of kids will never experience Tobacco Planting and harvesting -Stripping and separating into hands placing on poles and hanging in the Barn-They are missing out on a great experience -I will be up to see you soon-In the meantime I will be watching for the next story!

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