A young man, almost half my age, recently told me he would like to have a “hand” of tobacco.
I think he had seen that for which he was looking. I’m not sure he had experienced the making of a “hand.” Let me step back in time to explain.
In bygone days, the making of a tobacco crop was a source of great pride for farmers who grew it. After the tobacco had cured in the tiers of a tobacco barn, it was thrown down when it came “in order” (or as some said, “in case”).
Then, it found its way to a stripping table. The leaves were then carefully graded under skillful eyes. There were different names for the different grades. Leaves near the bottom of the stalk fell under the names of lugs or trash. The next leaves — long and golden, and higher up the stalk — were called bright. Next came shorter, dark leaves, which fell under the name of red, and then came tips.
Some names for the different grades varied from farm to farm and from region to region, but farm grading had an overall consistency. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grading system ensured it to be so. All that brings me to the “hand.”
In my part of the world, the process of removing tobacco leaves from the stalk, by hand, and placing the leaves in various grades was called stripping tobacco. In other places, the process was called handing tobacco.
A right-hander would hold the butt-end of the tobacco stalk in his right hand and strip the leaves from the stalk, collecting them in his left hand. When his hand was full to his liking, he would tie the hand of tobacco with a carefully-selected tie leaf.
The “hand” of tobacco was created by holding the stem ends of each leaf, and an effort was made to keep the stem ends even. Skilled tobacco strippers were always on the lookout for desirable tie leaves as they put together hands. When one was found, it was tucked under the stripper’s left arm for safe keeping. When the “hand” was full, the tie leaf would be retrieved and put to good use.
The “hand” was finished by wrapping the tie leaf around the stem ends of the collected leaves. The wrapping or tying of the hand began with the tip of the tie leaf and resulted in 2-4 inches of the “hand” being under the tie leaf. The job was finished when the “hand” of tobacco was divided under the tie and the stem end of the tie leaf was pulled through the divided “hand.” That was referred to as tying the hand.
Tie leaves were selected for their quality and color. The size of “hands” varied considerably. Some tobacco growers preferred the tied end be no bigger around than a silver dollar. The size of the tobacco stripper’s hands often determined size. In my time, I observed tobacco “hands” as big as the barrel of a baseball bat.
As the first tobacco stripper at the stripping table removed the first graded leaves, he passed the tobacco stalk down to the next man or woman. When the next grade of leaves were removed, the stalk was passed further down the table. Finally, a tobacco stalk was left with two or three tips. When the last leaves were removed, all that remained was a lowly tobacco stalk. I hauled many a tobacco stalk out of a tobacco barn in my time. It seemed to be a thankless job.
I hold many fond memories from my tobacco-stripping days. When tobacco stripping time began, my late father was relentless. He would stand at the stripping table from early morning until late afternoon, day after day, until the last leaf.
They started my brothers, my sister and me early. I still carry a scar over my right eye. They told me that when I was 4 years old, I tripped on a rock and hit the wagon tongue. After three stitches, I was as good as new.
To this day, I miss the smell of a tobacco barn.
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