Well, it’s almost that time of year again. In a few days tobacco stalks will be making their appearance once again as tobacco striping will be in full swing. Holder’s Tobacco Warehouse in Hartsville is one of the few places left in our part of the world where a large quantity of tobacco will be processed. It is a big, sprawling building, a former garment factory, and still a center of activity during tobacco season.
Across the street in the parking lot, wagons, piled high with tobacco stalks, will soon begin to appear.
The sight of them always takes me back in time.
My first job in a tobacco barn was “hauling off” tobacco stalks. A small boy could handle a small load. It seemed to me a thankless job.
Anybody can carry out tobacco stalks. From the earliest days that job fell to my brothers and me. It didn’t get any better as we got older. Later, we were promoted to stripping tips. That, too, is a thankless job … certainly not brain surgery. You don’t have to be skilled in grading tobacco to strip tips. You just strip off the last two or three leaves and that’s it. And what, may I ask, do you have left? A tobacco stalk. And what is the other responsibility of the tip stripper? Haul out the tobacco stalks. It was a job that would not go away.
After the stalks piled up on the stripping table, they had to be moved outside the tobacco barn. Sometimes we let them grow into a mountain of tobacco stalks just outside the barn. At other times they were loaded directly onto a wagon. Either way, the stalks were eventually “hauled off” and disposed of properly. Proper disposal usually meant being scattered on a tobacco patch.
I have scattered some tobacco stalks in my time. I found no easy way to do it.
One at a time is more fun if you are playing cowboys and Indians. A tobacco stalk makes for a great Indian spear. It is properly balanced and already sharp on the big end. I have thrown hundreds of Indian spears. The problem is: Tobacco stalks don’t scatter very fast when you are throwing them one at a time.
I found the best way was to grab a big armload and spin my body around like a centrifuge as I let the stalks go. That still didn’t work very well.
I usually had to walk back through the stalks I had just scattered and kick them around to get more even coverage.
Then, came the year my brother John backed the manure spreader up to the barn and suggested we load it with tobacco stalks. It seemed to be a wild idea at the time. But, my father gave it his blessing.
I shall never forget the scene when John pulled that manure spreader, loaded down with tobacco stalks, into the tobacco patch, bare of the crop just harvested. He kicked in the PTO in gear and, to my amazement, tobacco stalks began to fly in every direction. Some were being hurled 20 feet in the air … and scattered perfectly! It was a beautiful thing!
I have marveled over the years at how fast tobacco stalks decompose when scattered on the land. And over those years I heard people tell how tobacco stalks had brought a piece of worn out ground back to life. Many a gulley or ditch has been filled with tobacco stalks over time, and many a washed-out place has been saved by a load of well-placed tobacco stalks.
My appreciation of the lowly tobacco stalk runs deep. You might say we go back a long way.
Come to think of it, I’ve been whipped, or “disciplined” (I’m making an attempt at political correctness here.) with a tobacco stalk.
My father was a mild-mannered man, slow to anger. But when he thought one of his sons or daughter needed to be brought back in line he would grab the nearest instrument he could find. In the tobacco barn that was a tobacco stalk, or a tobacco stick. I’ve been whipped with both. I prefer a tobacco stalk. If you have ever been on the wrong end of either one of them, you know why.
Hartsville resident Jack McCall is a humorist and motivational speaker.