The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

John Hayes Hollow - Tobacco Time

By Hazel P. Hedrick © 1986

Issue: November, 1986

Today I was reminded of tobacco priming time in the John Hayes Hollow, and what a dreaded time that was. Even though that was many years ago, I can see that small tobacco field on the hillside, the leaves next to the ground turning a bright yellow. That's how we knew it was priming time. All those leaves turning yellow had to be pulled off the stalk and piled in neat little bunches on the mule drawn sleds, hauled to the tobacco curing barn, strung on sticks and hung in the barn for curing. And this had to be done in one day.

Why in the one day? Well it didn't make sense to me either until I asked my Daddy and he explained that if we didn't get all the tobacco in the barn at the same time it would not cure properly and if it didn't cure just right the buyers down there in Winston Salem would not want his tobacco. I asked, "Why wouldn't it cure right?" Daddy said, "If we put part in and let it hang there over night without starting the fire it would get all wilty and some stick together, and it would never come out looking nice and golden like the buyers wanted it, and if we did go ahead and start the fire, what we put in the next day would not catch up with the other." That made sense to me.

One family never tried to prime and fill a tobacco barn all by themselves. Three or four neighboring families would help each other. Daddy, my brother Johnny and I spent some time earlier sawing and hauling wood, piling it in huge heaps near the tobacco barn getting ready for this time. It would take a lot of wood to cure one barn of tobacco and there would be at least four maybe five barns to cure.

A day or two before he was ready to start priming, Daddy would send Johnny and me to tell those he was counting on to help so they would not have something else planned. When that day came if the weather was nice, just after sunrise here would come three or four neighbors, the more the merrier. We kids liked that part, having the neighbors come that is, but that is all we liked about filling the tobacco barn.

If you haven't helped fill a tobacco barn, you haven't lived. You put on old clothes, long sleeves if possible and a well fitting straw hat to keep that sticky tobacco gum out of your hair and off your skin as much as possible. The black green sticky stuff was next to impossible to get off your hands. Lye soap wouldn't even faze it. It took course ground cornmeal or sand to get it off and the stain stayed until it wore off.

Soon as the sun had dried off the dew, all the adults and any kids that were large enough to hold a dozen leaves of green yellow tobacco without crushing them, started priming. It was very important that the stuff was not bruised, so the children were constantly cautioned to handle it with care. They couldn't even use wooden sideboards on the sled. The sides were made of hemp sacks.

When the sleds were loaded they would haul the tobacco to the barn and there it was unloaded on benches. Along side those benches were the stands that held the sticks that the tobacco was to be strung on. Those stands were called horses, at the starting end was a tin cup or lard bucket which held the ball of thread or twine to tie the tobacco onto the sticks.

At our place there were just two stringers, Mama and our Uncle Flate, Daddy's brother. They were considered the two fastest stringers around, I would hand the tobacco leaves to my uncle and my two younger sisters, Hessie and Agnes would hand to Mama, some times there would be other kids around to help. It could have been fun if it hadn't been such a dirty, sticky, nasty job.

The job was not done when the tobacco was all on sticks and in the barn, not by a long shot. Once that fire was started it had to be continued at an even keel. Not hot one hour and cool the next. It had to be steady heat twenty four hours a day. Daddy did his own sitting up nights, he didn't trust any of those young fellows who came around to offer their help. He made it a fun time, and he almost always had one, two, or more to keep him company. He would play all kinds of games, checkers, fox and geese and others and he would roast peanuts, corn and potatoes, always something cooking and some game going when my Daddy sat up with his tobacco.