( Originally Published 1938 )
To cure tobacco means to dry it for the market. Throughout the years this process, always performed near the fields where the leaf is grown, has developed along with methods of cultivation. The ultimate quality of every crop depends largely upon the care with which it is cured.
The earliest method employed in Virginia was to hang the cut plants along the rafters of the kitchen or in the smoke house. Tobacco of the dark-fired type still is prepared by this method in special barns wherein direct, smoky heat is applied. Another way is to suspend the leaves in well ventilated sheds exposed to the air. Burley and Maryland, two types in the Lucky Strike blend, are air-cured. Still another is to hang the tobacco in the sun. Turkish is dried in this fashion.
Bright tobacco, however, the type of leaf whose cultivation we have described, is prepared for the market by that complicated process known as flue-curing.
Specially constructed log barns eighteen to twenty-five feet square by twenty-five feet tall are built near the fields. On one side is a lean-to shed and in the side of the structure beneath this shed are two brick or stone "kilns," or fire-places which extend into the barn. To these kilns, inside, are attached long sheet-iron flues which pass through the barn and carry heat to every cranny of it when the fires are lighted. The flues serve as radiators just as do the long pipes on stoves in rural homes. No smoke can enter the barn, but virtually all of the heat from the kiln fires can be imprisoned within the tight building. Beneath the eaves are small windows called ventilators, and there is a square door.
For days before the first tobacco is ripe for harvest, the farmer has worked part time at his barn. He has sealed up the chinks between the logs, checked the joints of his flues, overhauled the shingle roof, and repaired his kilns. Beside each of his barns he has stacked wigwam fashion a great pile of hardwood and pine poles for use as firewood. At the door are his tobacco sticks—riven pine rods as thick as his thumb and about five feet long.
He is ready now to "prime" his tobacco—to pull the first ripening leaves from each stalk in his fields. At one time whole stalks were cut, but this method no longer is popular. Producers have learned that to strip leaf by leaf as the foliage reaches the proper stage means a better quality product. The plant grows as the harvest continues from day to day, so that nearly every leaf is permitted to reach full maturity before it is hauled away to the barn for curing.
Even on the finest plants, however, there are leaves of varying degrees of quality. Though the plants have been "topped" earlier in the sea-son, leaves now near the top, farthest from the nourishment of the soil, are thinly flavored and somewhat anemic. Those near the bottom tend to be coarse, earthy and fibrous. The center leaves of the plant are the most tender and are richest in flavor. They bring the farmer the highest prices when he takes his tobacco to market.
The stripped leaves are strung evenly upon tobacco sticks as they arrive at the barn, and as each stick is loaded, it is placed across the poles inside the barn. The women help in this important task. Soon the interior is festooned with the leaves, each loaded stick carefully spaced so that its burden will receive its share of heat when the fires are lighted. Care is taken not to overcrowd the barn. As it is filled the word is passed to pull no more tobacco for the day.
Now comes the curing. Thermometers are placed so that the heat within the barn can be measured and regulated. A slow fire is started in the kilns. As the flues warm up, the farmer watches the fire carefully because during this early phase the heat within the barn must not be more than twenty degrees above the average temperature outside.
For thirty to forty-eight hours the moderate heat is maintained, depending upon the appearance of the leaf inside. The idea is to bring the tobacco to a bright orange-yellow shade.
As the leaf reaches its proper color the temperature within the barn is slowly raised. The tobacco soon begins to curl and dry. The ventilators are opened so that the damp, sap-laden air will pass out, and the fires are built up to compensate for the loss of heat. Despite the high temperature sixteen to eighteen hours are required in normal weather for all the leaves to dry.
At the end of this period one more vital task lies ahead. The man who is tending the barn is weary now. Day and night he has been feeding the fires and watching the cure. But like a runner at the end of a tiresome race, he must sprint at the finish.
The thick, fibrous stems are not yet entirely dry. Unless they, along with the much thinner membrane of the leaves, are completely cured, the leaf tissue will "scald" or become discolored from a back flow of the sap.
So up goes the fire again. The temperature must be held high until every molecule of dampness is drawn from every stem. Often this takes at least sixteen more hours of firing.
This is no time for the barn tender to go to sleep. He may be operating two or three barns at once. He may be so tired he hardly can keep his eyes open, but without this final spurt, all his work may be useless.
Now is the occasion for one of the all night barn parties for which the tobacco country is noted.
The family and guests assemble to help the barn tender and to celebrate the final curing. There is fried chicken, hoe cake and cool butter-milk. Sweet potatoes and apples are roasted in the embers beneath the kilns. Cider flows. Uncle Joe has brought his banjo and the Walker boys have their fiddles ready. Stories are told; news exchanged.
Light from the glowing kilns shines now upon bright faces. Old hymns are sung. The barn man's drowsiness no longer bothers him. There are friends to help at the fires and share the long night hours. But he must watch the temperature.
Also he has another care. Some of the flues within the barn have become red hot. A faulty pipe, a crack in the kiln, a bit of falling tobacco may set afire the contents of the barn and bring his work to nothing. Carefully he lowers the heat to cool the pipes a bit—but not too much or he will cool the barn. The temperature must stay just as high as he can keep it—safely. Most of the tobacco now is as dry as tinder.
Someone shouts. On the southern horizon there is a glare in the sky. A distant neighbor's barn is burning. There is a groan of sympathy, and some nervous laughter. The barn tender looks at his flues again, and thinks about the time two years ago when one of his own barns flared up almost like a flash of gunpowder when a defective flue gave way.
The fiddlers are playing "Money Musk" and a banjo player is strumming melodiously. The girls are laughing. Over the trees the harvest moon has risen like a giant pumpkin... .
As the merrymakers stroll home through the gray dawn light, the barn tender ducks into the superheated structure to test the stems again, to sniff the hot air. Sometimes he must wait until noon or later before he is satisfied that every leaf from tip to stem is tinder dry. When this happy time comes, he can permit his fires to go down.
Carefully he watches lest a spark find its way into his precious tobacco.
As the barn cools, the outside air flows in and the dry leaves begin to absorb some of the atmospheric moisture. The tobacco becomes soft and pliable again. The barn tender takes a last look to be sure his fire is out, and goes home for a badly needed rest.
Later the loaded sticks are taken down and the tobacco sorted for temporary storage and for sale.
The farmer may have produced a crop of fine quality, thanks to good land, good weather, good luck and hard work. He may have brought out the most beautiful color during his curing. But inevitably in every barn there is some good tobacco and some better tobacco. He must be sure that all of his best center leaf tobacco is in one lot, all of his average leaf in another, and that none of the poor quality creeps into either lot.
Even the most competent farmers frequently have trouble sorting their lots properly and seek the advice of expert professional graders. Few of the farmers have much opportunity to learn the market and its constantly shifting demands. Often, too, in a hurry to finish a long, trying season, they are careless and permit more than one grade to creep into the same pile. This inevitably depresses the value.
Sorting, then, with the greatest possible care, he ties each lot up into little bundles or "hands" of from twelve to twenty-five leaves each, which he places in his storage barn, ready to be hauled to market.
The farmer can relax now. I found him one afternoon sitting on the sill of his last barn, a good-humored, sun-burned giant of a man. He chewed a fragrant leaf reflectively:
"Guess I've had good luck," said he. "The weather wasn't any worse than usual."
"What will the prices be?"
He did not look up.
"I make good tobacco. It's the boys who make the common stuff that have to worry so much about the prices."
He smoothed a beautiful yellow leaf between his hands, as a woman might fondle a bit of fine satin.
"Of course everybody has some mean tobacco. All of it just can't turn out right, but with three thousand pounds of this good leaf, I'm going to have some money to spend, and I'm going to be able to lay something by."
I offered him a cigarette.
"I guess the manufacturers have their troubles too," he said philosophically as he examined it. "They don't get a cigarette like this by accident any more than I make tobacco like this by accident." He waved his yellow leaf. "They don't have weather to bother them much but some years I bet they have the dickens of a time getting enough decent tobacco for their needs. I've known wet seasons when my leaf wasn't fit for bug juice and I could hardly give the stuff away. A man who'd put that leaf in cigarettes would have been a fool. But then again there have been years when I cleared twenty cents a pound or more above all expenses and counting labor, too. But the manufacturers can't let their cigarettes have ups and downs. They've got to keep them up to standard every year. I've often wondered how they do it."