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The Tobacco Auction

( Originally Published 1938 )

The sales at the opening of the markets in Virginia are extraordinarily exciting. In the tradition of three centuries of tobacco culture they more closely resemble English fairs of the Shakespearean period than any other New World gathering.

There is a market town within a day's wagon haul of nearly every farmer. Here, on the eve of the opening of the sales, the farmers meet the buyers, and both make carnival as well as business. Some of these market places are cities of considerable size; some are little more than cross roads villages, but when the first sale of the sea-son begins on a day in early Autumn, all alike are gay.

The air is laden with suspense. Farmers, who have been arriving all during the night at the great warehouses, do not know what their leaf is going to bring.

Buyers, sent by the domestic and foreign manufacturers, brokers who buy on their own account, and representatives of foreign governmental monopolies, are uncertain as to the quality and quantity to be offered, and the prices they will have to bid.

Warehousemen guess in vain at the probable volume they must handle.

Business anxieties, however, do not depress the actors in the drama. They have worked together before, and they are glad to see each other once again. Friendships are renewed, gossip exchanged. There is laughter in the busy warehouses—great airy buildings whose floor space sometimes is measured in acres. On the streets is music. Banners of welcome extend from corner to corner. The firemen's and policemen's band, mounted upon a tremendous beribboned truck, is playing "Stars and Stripes Forever." On a float loaded with pretty girls rides the Queen of the Tobacco Festival, smiling at the cheers which greet her.

Farmers still are pouring into town from every side, some in trucks, some with the back seats of their automobiles loaded with golden leaf, some in wagons drawn by mules, a few in ox carts that have been on the road for twenty hours.

They go at once to the warehouse of their choice. They let nothing distract them until their tobacco is unloaded. Here the farmer divides his load according to the color and quality of his offering, among many of the wide flat, split oak baskets furnished by the warehouse. Often a farmer will enlist the help of the ware-houseman, whose expert knowledge of market grades can be extremely valuable.

Sometimes one basket will contain only twenty pounds of tobacco, another several hundred. Quite frequently a small lot, because of a special demand or exceptionally good quality will sell for twice as much as a larger one. Each basket of tobacco, its bundles arranged in a rounded, symmetrical pile now is weighed and marked with a ticket bearing the weight and the owner's name. This data also is recorded at the scales in the warehouseman's book.

The basket loads of tobacco now are rolled on hand trucks to their allotted places on the broad floor. Hundreds of baskets are lined up in regular order until the floor is covered with long parallel rows. Between each line is a passageway wide enough for a man to walk.

All night long the rumble of the wagons is heard and men are at work unloading. The ware-housemen and their clerks and helpers get no sleep at all. Here and there a weary farmer dozes near his pile of tobacco, waiting for morning. Others, their job done, are at the hotel playing seven-up or poker or trying in vain to sleep, their heads filled with hope and figures.

The day of the sale, the farmer rises shortly before dawn and goes down to the warehouse. Trucks and wagons still are unloading within the building, but as the first gray light of the big day filters in through the eastern windows, nearly everything is ready for the sale.

Women in gay gingham dresses have brought coffee and sandwiches. More than a hundred farmers now have assembled, although the sale will not begin until 9 o'clock. Some of these men are dapper, well-dressed youngsters whose deeply sunburned faces and calloused fingers give the only hint of their vocation. Others are big-boned men in overalls and wide, felt hats. Some are Negro farmers, whose ancestors, like those of their white neighbors, have raised tobacco for generations.

The rays of the sun are slanting down upon the busy floor. The crowd has increased. Here and there a buyer is wandering, looking over the ready piles of leaf.

This buyer, too, is anxious. He has his orders from the manufacturer for whom he purchases tobacco. The requirements are listed in his note-book. He knows his quota for the day and sea-son. His rivals over there in the other lane also have their orders and their quotas. Soon they will be bidding against each other furiously. Not only competing manufacturers are represented on the floor, but brokers who buy leaf for British firms, and for foreign governments. There are dealers, also, who buy for their own account, speculating upon momentary shifts in the demand—purchasing lots one day for resale on the next, or later. These independent traders often keep the market lively, and their operations sometimes mean a higher average price.

As the hour for the opening sale approaches, the air within the warehouse is electric. Weary farmers now are wide awake. They buttonhole the warehouseman, a wise and cheerful man.

"There'll be a big break, Joe?" the farmer asks.

"At least two hundred thousand pounds is on the floor," says he, and shakes hands with his questioner, asking about his wife and family.

"The price?"

The warehouseman grins and shakes his head.

"We've got a good set of buyers—that's all I can say right now. We ought to get a better average than last year. See?" He waves his hand. "The quality is better. Some of you Roanoke river boys are learning how to make tobacco after all these years."

The farmer laughs.

"Who is the auctioneer?"

"Ned Jones."

"That's good. He'll goose 'em up. He always does. He sings a pretty song, all right."

There is a bustle at the door. More buyers have arrived. And there, towering half a head above the group is Jones, the auctioneer. Men wave to him.

"How's your voice today, Ned?"

"Fair to middlin'."

The warehouse bell is ringing now. The time has come!

A happy milling throng surrounds the auctioneer and the corps of buyers as they proceed to the head of the line—the point where the first leaf to arrive has been placed on the sales floor. The warehouseman, in the center of the group, is jubilantly waving over his head a "hand" of tobacco which he has picked up from a basket along the way.

"Wheeeee!" someone gives a yell. The bell now is clanging furiously outside.

The auctioneer has taken his station. The buyers struggle into place beside the first basketful of tobacco. They stoop and look at it care-fully, reach down and finger it, pull bundles out from the bottom and, after a glance, toss them back on the little pile.

The warehouseman, too, is examining the basket of tobacco, for it is his job, from his ex-pert knowledge of the market grades, to set the starting price of each basket.

"Twenty-five," shouts the warehouseman.

Pow! — the auctioneer's big hands come together with a noise like a gun shot. He points to the first lot. They're off!

The man's voice begins in low register, taking the price from the warehouseman's cue.

"Twenty-five, five, five, five, six." He pauses for a fraction of a second, his voice rises. "Twenty-six, seven, seven, eight, twenty-eight, eight." He chants at more than four hundred words to the minute, his voice flowing in waves, now at a low pitch, now higher, "Twenty-nine, I hear, nine, nine, nine, thirty, I see, thirty, thirty-one, one."

One of the buyers leans over and feels another handful of the leaf.

"One, one, thirty-two, two."

All this in but a tiny fraction of a minute.

"Thirty-two it is—two, two, two. Sold." Pow! His hands have come together again, and he has moved on to the next basket.

Thirty-two cents a pound is the price upon his first lot. A clerk has picked up the ticket. A nod from the auctioneer has designated the successful bidder. The name of the company with the bid, is written on the slip.

"Twenty-one, twenty-one, one, one, one, one, two, twenty-two . . ." The auctioneer's song is now staccato.

Without a pause he has picked his opening price from the warehouseman and started to sell the second lot. The bid is up to twenty-six by the time he has gone four steps. The sale is completed. On he moves, barely pausing at the basket, his eyes busy, his voice in a high, rolling, sonorous chant.

None of the buyers say anything. They bid by signals. One man rubs his chin, another pulls an ear, others use various motions of the fingers or the eyes, a mysterious language of the auction floor that has developed during the centuries. Bids were offered in the same way many years ago when tobacco was sold only by the hogshead, but the signals of today are less conspicuous because the auctioneer, instead of standing on a high block with a hammer in his hand, is down on the floor with the buyers, within arm's length. His sharp eyes are as busy as his musical voice and his heavy hand.


The sale has progressed thirty yards down the line and more than a thousand pounds of tobacco of every grade and price has changed hands in less than five minutes.

The warehouseman is leading the auctioneer and the little group of buyers. It is his job to classify the basket mentally into one of the hundreds of different grades he must be familiar with, to estimate its probable value, and to set the opening bid for the auctioneer to take up in his strange chant. The warehouseman keeps his eyes each time not only upon the buyers, but upon the owner of the leaf, making certain that this man, his customer, understands what is happening. No one else pays any attention to the succession of farmers who, from a point as close as they can get, watch hopefully for the price that their particular lots of tobacco bring.

Generally, the farmer is satisfied. Sometimes he is not. In this event, he does not have to accept the bid offered. If he so chooses he can "tuck his ticket"—and refuse the bid upon a part or upon all of his offering. The tobacco then may be held over for the next day's sale, or hauled away to another warehouse or another market.

"Fifty, fifty-one, one, one, two, fifty-two—fifty-two, two, two, two, three, three—fifty-four

There is a shout that reminds old timers of the Rebel yell. Over near the middle of the second line, the auctioneer has reached a special basket on which a group of brokers are bidding.

Hundreds of people who now swarm around in the warehouse begin to cluster around the sale. More shouts. A girl laughs. A strong arm helps her up on a box where she can see the proceedings over the heads of the crowd. "Whee! That's some of Eddie Neal's leaf!"

"Fifty-seven, seven, seven..." The auctioneer's head is bobbing and he is pronouncing the word with a high-pitched humming sound. He is as excited as the crowd. He loves to reach a lot like that.

"Eight, eight, eight, fifty-eight . .

The crowd is cheering him on. Eddie Neal is the center of a group that is dancing about in great excitement. Neal, a gawky twenty-year-old youngster in a sweatstained blue shirt, is trying to keep a straight face. He knew that basket would come high, but—well it's going higher than he thought it would... .

"Sixty, sixty." Pow!

People will talk about Eddie Neal's tobacco for the remainder of the day, possibly for the rest of the season. Older farmers will recall World War days when almost anybody could get sixty cents a pound, and quite a few got a dollar or more. Those were the days.

On sweeps the sale, up and down the rows, up and down an amazing range of prices. Here is another lot of almost perfect orange leaf sold for fifty-two cents. Just beyond, four hundred pounds of rugged discolored lugs brings only three. It is useless for smoking—good only for "bug juice," an insecticide.

Laymen who follow the sale and examine the tickets are completely bewildered by the variance in prices. One basket-load looks exactly like its next door neighbor and was produced by the same man, yet one is marked 20 and the other 34. They do not notice that the low-priced lot is made up of "primings"—the first leaves harvested, the ones closest to the ground. These are larger, thicker, coarser than those along the center of the stalk. A novice's fingers cannot detect the difference in the weight and texture; his eyes, are not even able to observe vital variations in color.

A veteran tobacco expert, however, can trace the whole story of a sale by passing along behind the auctioneer. He can spot the producer of al-most any lot by just a glance at a pile of leaf. The tickets also yield strange information. The Japanese government is buying heavily today. How does he know this? He is acquainted with the initials of the broker who makes purchases for Japan. The British are in the market, too. They like color, color, color. A big "A" appears on the ticket of many high priced lots—the mark of The American Tobacco Company. Often near the basket lies an empty Lucky Strike pack-age, for Luckies seem to be a favorite with most of these tobacco men.

Farmers now are receiving their checks and settling their accounts at the window of the main office. Out on the floor the tobacco is being moved out to the buyers' prizeries—the packing houses where it is inspected and placed in hogs-heads for shipment to the re-drying plants. Some of the leaf is on its way before the sale ends. The hogsheads hold from 800 to 1,000 pounds each.

Over by the door, a grizzled farmer chats with Ned Jones, the auctioneer. Theirs is the quaint language of the Virginia hinterland with words that date from the first King James.

"How yo' folks, Joe?" asks the auctioneer.

"Pretty peart, thank you," replies the farmer. "When y'all goin' to git down our way ag'in, Ned?"

"Christmas time, maybe. 'At was good leaf you brought in today, old timer. Made my soul fat to see you still makin' such fine tobacco. And 'at boy o' yourn's no slouch either. He's gittin' right smart gumption."

During the sale the auctioneer sometimes

chanted 460 words per minute, but here, gossiping with a former neighbor, he actually drawls.

The auctioneer remembers virtually every one of the hundreds of transactions of the day in spite of the speed with which he passed along the lines. Since he has served at sales in every part of the Bright tobacco region from Georgia to Virginia, he can give the farmers invaluable information as to market trends, changes in methods of curing, and as to the grades the various companies are buying.

The farmer asks him:

"What about those barns I heard of that's usin' oil heaters 'stead o' wood fires?"

"They're tryin' 'em out in some places where they're runnin' short o' firewood," the auctioneer replies. "You see with wood gittin' scarce as hen's teeth on some farms now, they figger oil heat can do the trick. I hear the fuel costs about $8 to cure a barn. It runs into money but it may save a mess o' trouble. You see those barns have thermostats in 'em."

"They have what?"

"Thermostats. Thermometers that cut the heat off when it rises right, and turn it on ag'in if the barn begins to cool. Just means no more sittin' up nights."

"I'll be dogged!"

The auctioneer waves a goodbye.

With money in their pockets the farmers whose tobacco has been marketed go out into the town, their weariness for a while forgotten. For many of them the cash represents the first returns from the agricultural season. There are debts to pay and numerous purchases to be made for the Autumn and Winter. Main Street looks like the midway of a Fair. On every block are friends. The motion picture theatre is crowded. A baseball game to decide the championship of four counties is an event of the after-noon, and it will be followed by a pageant at which the new Tobacco Queen will be crowned. After this will come the Board of Trade banquet and a grand ball at the school auditorium.

A visitor to these purely social festivities in the tobacco country finds the same people whom he met in the warehouse during the early sale, but he has some difficulty recognizing them.

Gone are the work clothes. Faces no longer are lined by suspense and business worries. Everyone knows everybody else, and the gayety is that of a family party. Frequently the ball, after the grand march, breaks up into two dances, one for the elders, who prefer the square dances of olden times, and one for the younger people, who like the modern steps.

The manner of these people who have been living in the same country and producing the same difficult crop for twelve generations is a delight to watch. While there is no obvious formality or stiffness, deeply rooted customs govern their behavior. Never is there the horseplay which is thought to be common at rural gatherings. All have the dignity of men and women long accustomed to the most graceful social relationships. There is no observable borderline between those who are well-to-do and those who are poor. At one time or another among the hazards of Southern agriculture, all have en-countered grim poverty, and many, now with small farms, have been rich.

Some observers doubt that there ever has been an extremely wealthy "tobacco aristocracy" in the South in spite of the romantic legends of days before the War of Secession. Owners of large plantations in the past undoubtedly cultivated tobacco, yet the nature of the crop made it most difficult, if not impossible, to handle it on an extensive scale with unskilled, or slave labor.

Great risks and a dearth of expert tenants have tended to keep down the average acreage per farmer. Experience has taught them that a few acres of superior tobacco yield more revenue than a large field of poor leaf. One patch with 4,000 pounds of 40-cent tobacco is worth forty acres and 40,000 pounds of the lowest grade product. The better informed farmers are concentrating upon a quality product and are now "making" better tobacco than ever before.

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