Monday, August 8, 2016

Fires in Pitt County Tobacco 'Barns Are Smouldering as Families Toil All Day Tying Leaves for Curing, 1945

By F.H. Jeter, Extension Editor, N.C. State College, Raleigh, as published in the Wilmington Star Aug. 1, 1945, and the Charlotte Observer on Aug. 7, 1945

Smouldering fires are flickering in the bricked up-furnaces of eastern Carolina’s tobacco curing barns these August nights. There is the pungent odor of the burning wood mingled with the perfume of the tortured tobacco leaves as they are changed by heat from the brownish green of the ripening plant to the deep yellow of the cured leaf.

Shadowy figures tend the fires by the light of conveniently hung lanterns as night falls after busy days in the fields. Under the leafy bowers erected at the curing barns, eastern Carolina growers and their families toil all day to tie the leaves in preparation for other curing.

It’s a picturesque job, although a hard one and the “tar” of the freshly primed leaves clings with intense persistence to the hands and clothes of those who work the tobacco. The growers believe, however, that the labor will have its reward for not only does the entire family co-operate, night and day, but extra labor is being hired where possible at exorbitant rates to “barn” the tobacco.

There is an excellent crop in Pitt County this season. The rains of early June came just in time to save it and later showers throughout the month assured that the growth would be continued until a fine quality of leaf had been produced. Pitt’s tobacco is of especial importance right now because the whole county has become something of an agricultural laboratory in which tests and demonstrations are being conducted with almost all kinds of improvements in growing and handling the tobacco. Floyd Hendrix, the enterprising county agent, says that, while the old wood burning furnaces may be somewhat picturesque, many growers are turning to oil burners for the reason that wood is becoming harder to get as the farm forests shrink from constant cutting. There are not over 1,500 oil burners in the county and the number is increasing as this new type heater can be secured.

But the Pitt tobacco grower has his problems, as do farmers everywhere. The dreaded Granville Wilt has invaded that county, along with black shank, root rot, and root knot. Scientists of the North Carolina Experiment Station working at the Oxford Tobacco Station have been fighting these troubles and have developed strains of new tobacco which apparently will be resistant to them. Of course, resistance to the diseases is not the sole answer as the crop must be rotated and otherwise handled and managed for best results.

But T.E. Smith says that the Oxford Station has in sight now a strain of tobacco that should be ready for distribution in a limited way by 1945. This strain is resistant to Granville Wilt, and, at the same time, will produce a quality comparable with other established varieties. A few field tests are not being conducted in Pitt County and elsewhere over the flue-cured area with some of these resistant strains. There are about 12 of them at present but two are said to be exceptionally good. I saw some of these strains standing up almost 100 per cent in a wilt-infected field while the named variety being grown alongside, as a check, showed at least 75 per cent damage.

I also saw some of Eugene Moss’ famed 400 strains that seem to be of extra fine quality. The new 402 strain, as I saw it grown on the seed farm of Brantley Speight near Winterville, was as fine a tobacco as I have ever seen in North Carolina. It also has certain resistant qualities, I believe, to the root rot disease. Then there are the Blackshank-resistant strains which are being field tested and are proving to be suited for growth where this trouble is present. For the time being, these Blackshank-resistant strains are being used almost altogether in the piedmont but with some further perfecting will be adapted to the coastal plains.

Great pressure is being exerted on some of the county agents to permit co-operating farmers to save seeds from the resistant tobaccos now under test. However, it will not be known until October 15 whether or not these new strains meet all the storage, manufacturing, and chemical requirements for a good quality of flue-cured smoking tobacco. Mr. Moss is working in co-operation with the tobacco companies to run manufacturing and storage tests, and if his new resistant strains produce tobacco on wilt-infested land, and, at the same time, will provide a quality of leaf that is usable for cigarette manufacture, then a great victory will have been won over this Granville Wilt.

But Pitt farmers are winning other victories over the pests and production troubles which have beset them. They used Dinitro dust this spring to save the early corn crop from the nymphs of the chinch bug which crawled from the ripening small grain onto the immature green corn and threatened, for a time, to destroy it.

Progress also is being recorded in the production of a high-yielding hybrid corn. Out in a Pitt County field the other day, I saw a strong man trying to pull up a stalk of hybrid corn and unable to do so until he had twisted it sidewise and had otherwise worked with the stalk until the great bunch of fibrous roots had been torn loose from the sandy soil. Hybrid corn is drought resistant, an important factor in North Carolina at this time.

Bradley Speight is doing an excellent job in developing certified seed of some of the better hybrids bred by the North Carolina Experiment Station. County Agent Hendrix makes the point, however, that not all hybrids are suited to Pitt County or to any other county. This work is still in its infancy but it shows that science is helping the North Carolina farmer to march towards a better day.
If you're interested in the tobacco barns themselves, Susan Stafford Kelly wrote an interesting article on them in 2013 for Our State magazine. You can read it online at

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