Raised in a Family of Florida Shade Tobacco Farmers, the Author Fights To Save a Piece of That Past
Kay Davis Lay
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97
"Today, they are tearing down the old tobacco barn." Putting that down on paper in March 1984 was meant to freeze the day in my mind. And to help hold on to memories of it. It was a place where we'd all worked our hearts out every summer. I'd been just five years old in 1946, but had practiced stringing fig and hydrangea leaves so I could work with the other children and grown folks. In the summers, there were anywhere from 20 to 40 people, black and white, counting the barn crew and those out in the field we called a "shade," because it had cheesecloth to protect our unique kind of tobacco--a type that's used to wrap cigars.
As the sound of the crowbars pulling out nails and blows of the sledgehammers loosening tierpoles proceeded, a vile taste came in my mouth. I looked at my husband, Bob, in desperation and said, "We have to stop them!"
We hurried out to the barn, where two workers, Nathaniel and John McNealy, were dismantling the familiar old landmark--perhaps to use the timbers elsewhere on the farm. I never asked the purpose. Bob suggested they hold off till we could talk to my brother, Forrest Davis Jr. Convincing my brother to leave the barn was the easy part. Deciding what to do with it was the hard part, as was accepting the reality that I was to become the "caretaker" of a monstrous, 160-foot-long relic (which my father, Forrest Davis Sr., had built in 1942). A relic of a crop Gadsden County, Florida, had just as soon forgotten.
In August 1975, the International Trade Commission refused to impose a tariff on foreign-grown shade tobacco. It meant the death knell for a crop that had been grown in our county for more than a century and a half. A crop on which some 18,000 people had depended for a livelihood. Almost everything connected with tobacco became obsolete. Farmers were frantically turning to mushrooms, tomatoes, peaches, plant nurseries, even kitty litter mining.
The county was undergoing a complete transformation away from the beautiful old barns, cheesecloth shades and tenant quarters of a plantation-like past. The Gadsden town of Havana (named for the Cuban capital) was becoming an antique dealers' paradise.
Nothing exactly wrong with that. It just seemed sad that a whole generation of young people were growing up without even knowing that Quincy, Florida--some 20 miles northwest of Tallahassee--was once the "Shade Tobacco Capital."
As more and more local barns collapsed or were blown or torn down, it felt to me like old friends dying. I grieved for each one--but surely our three barns (two of which dated from the 1800s and were moved to the farm in the 1960s) were going to survive. Especially this one.
So, during the spring of 1984 I bluffed along, with just an old sun hat and a sling. Even keeping the weeds around it at bay was a battle. My husband, a 62-year-old heart patient, let me enjoy my new hobby. Forrest and his family had a peach orchard and U-Pic stand to run.
In his heart, I think my brother loved the barn. I know my then-78-year-old mother did. For in its prime, when shade tobacco was king in Gadsden County, Olean Shuler Davis had gladly taken care of firing (heating) the newly hung sticks of leaves at night, tended the mules that were vital to plowing under the cheesecloth, ran a little store where she served cold drinks and homemade sandwiches and cakes, and kept all seven of us "workers"--my parents and the five kids--in clothes and meals, as well. To all the hands, which included neighbors' children, she was a mother figure. Under hers and my dad's supervision, two sons had risen in Future Farmers of America; one, Forrest, became the 1950 Star Farmer and the other, Hal, became a National Officer the same year.
The barn had been photographed by Life magazine, Country Gentleman and any number of newspapers worldwide. Lord knows, if any barn in the county was special, this one was. Perhaps that might mean some grant monies for its preservation as a historical or significant property. The first call for help was to the Gadsden County Historical Society, but its president regretfully told me it had no resources or funds to help with such a project. He steered me to a fellow tobacco farmer, T.W. Touchton, who had opened an Indian artifacts museum. This led Bob and me on an enjoyable side track (there were to be many). His lasting gift was our first taped interview on the growing of shade tobacco.
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