|Flowering tobacco in my garden - Nicotiana alata|
When you think of tobacco plantations you think of Virginia or North Carolina. You don't think of tobacco as a New England crop.
What comes to mind in New England are images of apples and pumpkins and maple syrup and colonial herb gardens, but not agri-business crops like tobacco. But in the years I was growing up in north central Connecticut, tobacco farming was a big industry.
Tobacco plantations covered a lot of land in the Connecticut River valley, and the landscape of my childhood in the 1950s and 60s was dotted with long drying sheds that had hinged siding which could be opened outward to allow the air to circulate as the harvested leaves were dried.
|Tobacco sheds have historic preservation status now in Connecticut|
The sheds on one local farm have been re-purposed and painted a lovely (?) shade of pink. Every time I drive by, I am amused. The sign says "Rose Farm" but I don't think they are raising hybrid teas. I think the farm is named for the color of its outbuildings.
|On a farm in Suffield, CT a dozen former tobacco sheds have been updated, upgraded, and painted pink|
When I was a teenager, the local summer employment was working tobacco, and it was hot, dirty, awful work, but almost the only wages available to unskilled kids. Girls and boys both, although the girls got to work in the sheds rather than in the fields.
|Copyright information The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford|
It was that kind of work that brought earlier generations up from the south to work on the Connecticut tobacco farms.
"During the summers of 1944 and 1947, Martin Luther King, Jr. spent time harvesting tobacco in Connecticut. He was one of many African American men recruited by summer work programs administered through southern colleges and high schools, which were designed to ease the dearth of labor brought about by World War II. King's recently published letters reveal the impact his time in Connecticut had on his life. For the first time, he experienced a society in which he could worship, eat, and travel in the company of whites as an equal. King later wrote that beginning in that summer, 'I felt an inescapable urge to serve society... a sense of responsibility which I could not escape.' "
--- from Cora Murray and Mary Donohue, Connecticut Historic Preservation and Museum Division
|Density of tobacco farms in 1942|
Native populations were growing tobacco - Nicotiana tabacum - when the first settlers arrived in the Connecticut River valley in the 1630s. By 1700 it was being exported to Europe, and in the 1800s the valley was growing cigar wrapper leaf to compete with Sumatran exports. By the 1900s there were huge consolidated plantations being run as petty dynasties, with migrant labor issues, competitive tensions and enough grist for a Claudette Colbert movie (see the classic "Parrish". Really, you must rent it.)
Growers discovered that the labor intensive process of growing the plant in shade, under yards and yards of cheesecloth, produced a high quality leaf that was prized for the outside wrappers of cigars. An early photo shows how the white shade netting appeared as big lakes from afar.
|Poles and netting, early in the season|
|By summer the cloth bulged with 9 foot plants straining against the cloth|
In high school my best friend's Dad was a tobacco executive for Consolidated Cigar and he was cool. We were filled with the romance and intrigue of "Parrish" (Really, you must rent this classic movie right now). What would we think of him now? You sell tobacco??
My own Dad was cool --- he was a pilot for an aircraft engine company. He came from the midwest, and told stories of being disoriented when he began flying in Connecticut, because the shade cloth that stretched over miles of fields below looked like rippling water. He thought he was flying over lakes that he could not locate on his charts. Can you imagine what google earth would have shown back then?
Those miles of shade tobacco tents are long gone. There are only 2,000 acres left in cultivation here now, just a smidgen of the tobacco plantations of 50 years ago.
For years I resisted planting flowering tobacco in my garden, because it sounded like growing soybeans. It was an agricultural crop in my experience, not an ornamental flower.
I'm glad I finally did plant it, for the delicate flowers and the heavenly sweet scent. And for the associations.
My garden plant is Nicotiana alata and not N. tabacum, and my garden is a former cow pasture, not an old tobacco farm. But the leaves of my flowering tobacco are so reminiscent of those big monster cigar wrapper plants pushing their stalks up against their cloth ceilings. I never smoked, and I certainly never smoked cigars, but the sight of a tobacco plant brings on such memories.
It is one of those garden plants that evokes associations and reminiscence. It is planted around my patio, where I can smell its fragrance up close at night, when I am most likely to be remembering things.
The sight of an aging shed falling in on itself in the distance brings on memories too.
Even the ones now spiffed up and painted pink.