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
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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.
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