When I was growing up, for some, Labor Day was the end of tobacco season. The crop was out of the field. The harvest was in. But to many of us, tobacco season was continuing, just moving in a different direction. It was now time to get the cured crop out of the barns, and to the tobacco market to be sold.
Now getting the cured tobacco out of the barns could be a job in and of itself. When you were taking the lower stalk cured tobacco out of the barn you knew why they were called “sand lugs.” You would have sand all over you when you were through. Once the tobacco was in the pack house, it was time to take it off the stick and get it ready to be sold at the market. “Taking off tobacco” off the stick was a job even us young kids could do. When I was real young, older people would grade the tobacco, tie it up in bundles and get it ready. Later, we would take it off the stick, place it in a round cylinder which was used to place tobacco in a sheet. The sheets of tobacco, when tied up, would weigh around 200 hundred pounds. Taking off tobacco was a job my sister and I would do many afternoons and evenings during the Fall until the crop was finished.
Back then, the tobacco market was a big deal. It was where the farmers were finally paid for all the hard work of the previous months. And it was not just a big deal for the farmers. The whole town would know when the market would open. Because tobacco was the cash crop, and that cash helped keep many of the local businesses open. Opening day of the tobacco market was almost like a holiday, with the tin covered buildings crowded with people, waiting to see the first piles of the crop sold. Newspapers, radio, and later TV stations would be there covering the opening, along with many politicians, there to be seen, especially during election years.
For my family, it wasn’t just getting our tobacco crop out of the barns and to the market. It was being a part of the market itself, since my father worked there for all of my childhood, and most of his adult life.
When I was real young, daddy worked at the tobacco market in Fayetteville. (It was located near where the Crown Coliseum is today.) As a kid, it was fun to hang around the market. You may have to spend hours while waiting for your crop to be unloaded. The market in Fayetteville was a great place to get on the rollers used to move the sheets of tobacco and go flying down the slopes on the asphalt floor. (Sort of like a skateboard before there were skateboards.)
Soon, daddy went to work as floor manager for Mr. Leland Lee at Lee’s Planter’s Warehouse in Dunn. (It was located where the Dunn Post office is today.) As I got older the tobacco warehouse went from being a fun place to a work place. The opening of the markets was moved up for its traditional date in August to around the middle of July. That meant that we were still barning our tobacco crop while the market was opening. It also meant I would spend more time, along with work on the farm, helping out at the market before school would start after Labor Day.
There was a lot of work at the tobacco market. And those tin buildings could get awfully hot during the summer. Unloading those sheets of tobacco and getting them on the floor was hard, hot job. But there also were many good memories from the market. The smell of the roasted peanuts from Mr. Harvey Hinson’s concession stand. Playing the
“travel game” at the Coke machine. Racing the golf carts that were used to haul the sheets of tobacco. The sounds of the auctioneer during the tobacco sale.
Years later, when I moved back to Sampson County, I would drop by the market here in Clinton, where daddy was working. But it seemed different. The excitement of the sales back in those earlier years had been replaced by a realization that those days were just about over. And they were. In a few years, the auction system would be replaced by a contract system between the farmers and the tobacco companies.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that the way tobacco was harvested and marketed back when I was young was inefficient. Machinery and innovation have increased production and profitability for the few large contract tobacco operations that still exist. But the memories are still around, even if the buildings and the sound of the auctioneer are long gone.
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at [email protected]