Raised in a Family of Florida Shade Tobacco Farmers, the Author Fights To Save a Piece of That Past
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"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.
Should we call it quits? Even Mr. T.W. said shade tobacco was passé. He himself had shifted to developing and landscaping aesthetic subdivisions in nearby Tallahassee, with his sons.
About that time, south Florida Sunday magazines began running color spreads showing Gadsden County's ramshackle landscape--montages of rusty-roofed shacks, rakish shadeposts, weeds and kudzu taking over our county, which had once been so neat and prideful. One spread was called "Dead End on a Tobacco Road." It hurt.
Well, the mule spirit that made tobacco last so long in our area, withstanding so many assaults, from war and Reconstruction to black shank disease, took hold of me. Mr. T.W.'s "Whoa!" was like a briar under my tail. Bob's, too. It turned into a mulish obsession of ours that history 100 years hence will have recorded our story--not a revisionist fabrication.
All my life, the view of Forrest on his tractor (framed against the backdrop of the family barn that my dad built) has shaped my perception of the Southern farmer, and the American farmer as well.
Tobacco isn't all that the barn represents to me. It symbolizes a slowly vanishing "something" about this country--our rural heritage. Saving it took Bob, guiding Nathaniel and John through all the stages, pitting their carpentry skills against all kinds of obstacles (doing things I thought only a crane could do); it took my mother, then in her 80s, dishing out Saturday lunches for us (we estimate maybe 2,000 hot, buttered "Grandma Olean" biscuits went into the project). It took the reluctant, modest help of Forrest and that of his son, Jeff, in downsizing the barn to about 100 feet to make it feasible to re-roof and restore.
Before that, it had taken the skills of a master house mover to jack and lift the barn back on its foundation after Hurricane Kate, in 1985, swerved our partly restored barn off its pillars. When all was done, it took the son of an old-time Gadsden County barn painter to help with the "finishing touch," a quality stain sprayed from high ladders. To finance all that, it took (beyond our savings) my taking a night typesetting job. For me it was perhaps the hardest part of all, because working there, typing under extreme deadline pressure, I was often compelled to "sit quiet" and hear misconceptions from my much younger co-workers about the South and a way of life I revered enough to be undergoing this kind of torture for. Fortunately, Bob and our cat, Tora, waited patiently at home in Tallahassee with supper at midnight and words of comfort and cheer.
Came the day in November 1989 when all was complete. After a day of interviews with other shade tobacco farmers, building on our oral history effort, Bob and I returned to the barn at sunset. The sheet metal roof gleamed over what was left of the 40,000 original wood shingles (a standard practice used by farmers with old barns); the stain dried with warm, reddish tones. We found the setting sun poised exactly behind it--throwing sprawling shades and a sort of russet glory. We thought of the Angelus, when the church bells rang and farmers in our ancestors' fields stopped nightly and bowed their heads in the evening hush. We two stood that glorious moment and bowed our heads.
Many misty people and scenes bombarded my mind--my dad in his old khakis leaning on a pole, watching us string the tobacco leaves; a boy, Sonny Johnson, bringing in the horse-drawn barge loaded with fresh-primed leaves; his sister, Iris, "loving" every new baby the mothers brought to lay beside them on their table as they worked; my sisters, Saradee and Betty, saving the barn when it was struck by lightning on a Sunday evening as they relayed buckets of water up all those tierpoles (the rafters where the tobacco sticks hung) to Claude Ward, who'd spotted the fire when it happened; women and girls (like me and a cute, little freckled blonde friend named Nada Merle Hamilton), racing to string more sticks than anybody else, especially when we went "modern" and got electric stringing machines; and of course, my mother--the unsung hero of the whole place.
I remembered two of the workers tying up tobacco (a process we did after it was cured and brought down to be "bulked" in the center hallway). They were arguing about where California was--if only I'd had a tape recorder!
In the spring, when the new tobacco plants were just planted, they made a graceful sight, looped to overhead wires by cotton twine out under the hand-sewn billowing shades. I thought of them as angels' harp strings. I would slosh barefooted down the irrigated furrows. How any childhood could be complete without that joy, I didn't know.
Other crops and livestock were necessary to balance out the typical tobacco farm. A one-armed man named Tom made my mother a milking stool that she and I treasure today. The tobacco formed a way of life for the handicapped, children, the elderly--and it created a community close in which little crime or "devilment" was known about, let alone tolerated.
Naming the barn had been the easiest part. In fact, that first hopeless day in 1984, when I had soaked up the memories it brought back to me, I knew! One of the most revered women at the farm was a black worker, Hester Williams, whom many looked up to as a mother figure. It was Hester's voice I could hear the most distinctly the day the barn was finished, along with the laughter of her "grands" (as she always called her grandchildren). Most of all, it was her own soft heartfelt rendition of the early American song, "I'll Fly Away."
It was the "I Hear Hester Singing Barn" from that moment on.
While researching family genealogy, I came upon an 1860 agricultural census that showed that tobacco was grown on the farm we live on by our great-great-grandfather, Henry Edwards. Though it would not have been shade tobacco (that was developed around 1900 and won Quincy recognition at the Paris World Exposition of that year), it most probably was cigar wrapper tobacco of an earlier sort.
That had been established at the very beginnings of Gadsden County, when John "Virginia" Smith brought the Jamestown, Virginia-style tobacco down with him, circa 1829. It was hybridized with Cuban tobacco and, after extensive effort, produced a leaf and a smoke the European markets went wild over. By the 1840s, Florida wrapper tobacco was world famous. On its reputation grew the wealth of Tampa, Quincy and some neighboring counties, including Madison in Florida and Decatur and Grady in Georgia.The war that split the nation two decades later all but destroyed the valuable crop. Then Northern shippers quietly sought a rebirth in the 1880s, when large tracts of land were secretly bought and pre-Civil War seed was hunted like gold. Legend has it that two men on horseback found a farmer named Griffin with some seed in a coffee can on his farm near Bainbridge, Georgia. Other sources say Quincy seed had been smuggled to the Dutch East Indies, where it was being grown successfully. That variety was brought back in the early 1900s with the new technology of the shades (first, wooden lathes, and later, airy cloth). So many Quincy folk went into tobacco farming, it created a glut that almost wiped out the industry again. This eventually led to the formation of the American Sumatra Tobacco Co. in 1910, or what local folk called "The Merger." The firm had a voice on Wall Street, and was able to stabilize the growing, buying and marketing of the crop. There was sometimes fierce enmity between independent and Merger growers, but American Sumatra was, overall, a beneficial and buoying enterprise for Gadsden County.
Still, the powerful company could not ward off the effects of black shank disease, a root fungus that causes the tobacco stalk to wither and the leaves to droop; the disease almost wiped the crop out by 1926. In response, the U.S. government created the North Florida Tobacco Experiment Station. For all intents and purposes, tobacco, and Gadsden County, rose once more.
Today, even with the spotlight on Evil Tobacco, there is a resurgence of the romance of the cigar. At least one Gadsden County grower and one grower in Georgia's Grady County are experimenting with a new style of growing an old, familiar crop.
But reviving the industry was not my husband's or my goal. Documenting the time-honored way of growing tobacco and how that mellowed and graced our community (with obsolete tools and patterns of sowing and harvest) was our aim. As such, we always planned to plant a small patch of demonstration shade tobacco. However, Bob and Hester died before that dream became a reality.
But this year, thanks to Forrest and his son, Gary, the shade patch was built and shade tobacco plants have been on display the traditional way. Several events featuring this addition were held in June. I named it the Star Shade (for my Star Farmer brother!). We are preserving the seed and hope to make the tobacco a permanent feature of our museum.
Growing tobacco was not what we had in mind when we decided to save the barn. More than anything, it was to keep the memory of shade tobacco farming from being lost. Or worse, resurrected by scholars who never experienced it.
Some of the reward has been the thrill of welcoming children on school field trips--and visitors from as far away as Switzerland. They tell us something we always believed--that old farms (and barns) can give people so much that even computers cannot. *
Kay Davis Lay is a native of Gadsden County, Florida.The author welcomes visitors to the barn, which is near Exit 25 on I-10 between Pensacola and Tallahassee. For more information, write to: Kay Davis Lay, 923 Hawthorne Street, Tallahassee, Florida 32308.