The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Granddad Weans A Tobacco Bum

By Mel Tharp © 1992

Issue: July-August-September, 1992

I grew up in the small western Kentucky town of Beech Grove. My grandparents (on my mother's side of the family) owned a farm about ten miles out of town. This was an ideal situation for me since it gave me an opportunity to spend a large part of my summer vacation on the farm. I enjoyed the company of my grandfather. In addition to being a pretty fair country fiddler, Granddad was a man of infinite patience. He demonstrated this boundless store of patience when he allowed Henry Howard to live on his place.

Henry's reputation for indolence was legendary. Someone once remarked that a drop of sweat off Henry's brow was worth all the gold in Fort Knox. Henry's usual strategy was to hire on with a farmer for day work including room and board. Once he got his foot in the door, he was like an incurable disease. He ate like a wolverine and had all the energy of a two-toed sloth.

Granddad was counseled about his decision to take Henry in. It was not a case of gullibility. I don't think Granddad was taken in by Henry's line of blarney. It was just that he had a policy of treating everyone with dignity and compassion until they proved that they were not worthy.

Granddad allowed Henry to take up residence in the tack room at the back of the corn crib. There was no stipulation that Henry had to work, only that he would be paid for each day of work he performed. All Grandad asked was that the tack room and the area around the barn be maintained in a neat and orderly manner. After a few days, it became evident that Henry had no intentions of applying himself at gainful employment.

It was not Henry's aversion to work, however, that brought him to loggerheads with Granddad. Their relationship deteriorated as a result of Henry's pilfering Granddad's supply of home-cured tobacco.

Granddad took great pride in his chewing tobacco. He cured it with a process which he called "prizing." This entailed taking the choicest leaf, twisting it, treating it with a blend of honey and licorice, then packing it in a box under weights.

In fairness to Henry, it should be mentioned that Granddad presented him with a twist of tobacco on the day he moved in. His initial mistake was to let Henry see where his tobacco was stored. In a matter of days, Henry had made great inroads into the cache of fire-cured leaf.

It was inevitable that the situation would soon reach the breaking point. I don't even think Granddad resented Henry taking a few pieces of tobacco for his own use. The final indignity came when he realized that Henry was taking the tobacco to sell in town.

On Saturday mornings, I usually helped Granddad work in the garden, saw wood, or perform whatever chores needed to be accomplished around the place. It was a kind of standing joke between us for him to wait for me to arrive, then chide me for being a sleepyhead. On this particular morning, however, I found him already working in the garden hacking away furiously at the crab grass and jimsonweed. He was not his usual cheerful self.

I walked along beside him for awhile trying to engaged him in conversation. "What's wrong, Granddad?" I asked at last. "Are you sick?"

"It's that blame Henry!" he said. "He's been in my tobacco again. He's dug down in the bottom to get the best twists. He left tobacco scattered around the place. But that ain"t the worst of it. He's taking my tobacco to town and selling it. Cliff Brown said he was down at his pool room yesterday peddling it for a dime a twist. That just happens to be the price of a pool game. He's gone now, and I guess he's down town peddling. I'm ready for him when he comes back. I got it laid up for him."

I didn't know what direction Granddad's vengeance would take, but I was sure it wouldn't entail violence.

By mid-morning Henry was back. We looked up to see him shuffling his way down between two rows of cabbage plants. He was fumbling and patting at his shirt pockets, a gesture which had become a familiar mannerism for him.

"Mr. Bennett." he drawled, "I reckon you wouldn't have a piece of backer I could borry." (Henry never mooched, he always "borried.") This time, he slapped at his back pants pockets as if to emphasize his point. "I swear I went to town and clear light forgot to get me any backer."

If I expected an explosion of indignation from Granddad, I was in for a surprise. Instead he reached in his pocket and brought out a fresh twist. Henry reached for the twist only to have Granddad jerk it back. "Wait a minute, Henry. I almost forgot. I ain't treated this one yet. I never give a man a twist of tobacco without treating it first. Come on. It won't take but a minute."

We followed Granddad to the barnyard where he walked around until he found a fresh new cow flop. Reaching down, he dipped the twist in the freshly-made pile and rolled it around like a master chef battering a portion of chicken. Then, he handed it to Henry who recoiled like a prim lady shrinking from a snake. "W-w-why, I don't want that."

"Why not, Henry?" Granddad demanded. "You hurt my feelings. That's the way I treat all my tobacco. Of course, this one hasn't had time to dry. You might want to leave it out in the sun for an hour or so. You must like it. You've been chewing it pretty regularly. All the boys at the pool hall have been wanting to know the secret of my tobacco. I ain't told them yet, but I reckon I'll just let you tell them what makes my tobacco so rich. You will tell them, won't you, Henry?"

Henry looked like he was going to be sick. As if that wasn't enough, the thought of what the pool room loafers might do to him if they learned the secret behind Granddad's tobacco curing technique was sobering indeed.

"I spect I just go to town and get me some backer," he said weakly.

"Just a minute, Henry," Granddad called. "I think you owe me a few hours work for all the tobacco you've taken from me. I guess you can start by helping me chop out these weeds. That is, unless you want to go down to the pool hall."

Not only did Henry spend the rest of the morning chopping weeds, he stayed on for most of the summer and continued to work for wages. I'm sure he eventually learned the truth about the tobacco curing process, but whatever reason he had for staying on, he never again helped himself to Granddad's prize leaf.

I don't think Henry experienced any great spiritual uplifting. I do believe that Granddad's firm hand, tempered with fairness and common sense, was the guidance Henry had long been seeking. Too, steady employment gave him a sense of new-found pride that he had never before enjoyed. Henry stayed on and worked for Granddad until the outbreak of World War Two when he went off to take employment in a defense plant.