By P.D. Dickinson
The cold weather makes me think of us kids coming home from school each afternoon, changing into work clothes and going to strip tobacco in the stripping room. We’d bundle up in layers so we’d be warm enough or be able to take off layers if too warm.
The stripping room was either attached to the barn side or was simply an old, empty house or shed set aside for the work.
Wherever located, our stripping rooms all had a familiar ambience to them. They were filled with tobacco, dust, music and camaraderie between adults and children alike, all working to get the job done.
We had heat from a cast iron stove, which had been set up and a toasty fire built inside. Sometimes if the stripping room was in an old house, we’d build a fire in a fireplace grate. Although there was a fire built for warmth, it still felt cold. This was largely due to the fact that the stripping room itself was invariably uninsulated or drafty.
We’d tack up plastic sheeting over walls we could see daylight through and drafty windows to keep cold air out and more warmth inside. Whatever precautions we took, our fingers still felt cold while we worked because you can’t really wear gloves to strip tobacco.
To help take our minds off the cold and help pass the time we had entertainment.
Someone unerringly brought a radio to help whittle away the hours to the tunes of Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Flatt & Scruggs, Patsy Cline and other country radio stars of the time.
Some of us preferred to work quietly while others liked to sing along or carry on conversations with jibes and jokes at each other.
Another staple for our tobacco stripping work was a big bag of hard candy for everyone to share. It was used to help keep the tobacco dust at bay because the dust got in our throats and made us cough. Any flavored, hard candy was a great alleviant to abate coughing.
Like tobacco dust in the throat, some things remain, but other things have changed over time in the process. For instance, it was unheard of, then, to box and bail the stripped off tobacco leaves into firmly pressed bales as they do now. We had to tie the tobacco leaves into “hands,” which was a group of leaves gathered into your fist and tied together with a good-looking “tie leaf.” Starting with the tip end of the tie leaf — folded in half down the middle stem and held with your thumb — you wrapped it tightly around the stemmed ends gathered in your fist from the top to about 3 inches down. Then you pulled it through the center of the remainder, which was loose, to tie it off. When finished, a hand of tobacco crudely resembled a large, brown badminton birdie.
After tying the tobacco into hands, we “booked” it into a large stack along one wall. We, kids, crawled carefully — so as not to damage the tobacco — along the top of the stack to press it together, or book it, and then covered it up with plastic sheeting to keep it in order, which meant not too wet and not too dried out.
As with most work, tobacco farming has its own vernacular. Tobacco farmers know these terms. I merely explain some of them here to aid the inexperienced tobacco stripper.
Although they do things a bit different these days, much of the work remains the same. However, that was the way we did it then and had good times and memories of working together as a family.
By P.D. Dickinson