As I was riding around the Shelton Laurel Community in northern Madison County today, I was taken back to a more simple and straightforward time.
Most folks didn’t live to work there is absolutely no doubt that most worked to live. The biggest clue to that fact was the number of tobacco fields dotting the landscape of Southern Appalachia.
The cooling nights, foggy mornings and lengthening evening shadows signal the approaching Fall season. It also signals the time to harvest tobacco, better known as “cutting time”.
My mind drifts back to my youth and I remember how I dreaded getting out of bed on these mornings. I didn’t dread the work. Nope. I loved cutting tobacco…..It was the wetness of the tobacco in the damp mornings I hated.
We would get to the field and I knew the overnight dew and occasional left behind raindrops were waiting on me.
If we were lucky, the grower of the tobacco would have already spread tobacco sticks through the rows the previous evening. If not, it meant we had to do it. When we did, the moisture would drench your arms and drizzle down your back, leaving you with a chill as you tried to acclimate to the cool moisture contrasting the warm bed from which you had just climbed from.
Now, when tobacco is harvested it is done in teams; You have a “Cutter” and a “Spudder”.
There were two basic tools of the trade: A Tobacco “Knife” and a “Spud”.
A Tobacco Knife resembles a handmade hatchet of sorts and is used by thee cutter.
A spud looks like a metal ice cream cone, hollow on one end while pointed and sharp at the other.
A cutting team would start, taking two rows as they went and putting either five or six stalks of tobacco on a stick depending on the size of the tobacco.
The cutter would reach forward, bend a stalk of tobacco slightly forward and then strike the base of the stalk with the tobacco knife separating the stalk of tobacco from the root system, much like cutting a tree.
He would then reach the tobacco back to his spudder, thrusting it up on completion which would help keep the spudder from tiring and making the process more time efficient.
The spudder would then let the tobacco stalk fall, impaling it across the sharp end of the spud while the hollow end of the spud was on top of the tobacco stick. A good spudder can spud the tobacco without even looking.
When the tobacco goes over the spud onto the stick, it will make a pronounced “PING!” which sounds sort of like someone flipping a piece of lead crystal with their fingernail.
After the quota of stalks per stick was met, the spudder would say “stick”. The cutter would reach the spudder a new stick and the whole process started over again.
A good cutting team should be able to cut at least 100 sticks of tobacco per hour.
That’s where the fun comes in.
At the end of each row, a cutting team would stop to sharpen their knife and spud, get some water and usually smoke a cigarette.
This is where horseplay was conducted, jokes & stories were told and bets were made….. “You guys can’t cut. Why, me and my partner can cut rings around you guys”…….. and it was on.
It was usually mid-morning by this time and everyone was in high gear. With the exception of an upcoming lunch break, it was going to be wide open the rest of the day.
Personally, the fastest individuals I have ever seen were my late father, Tracy Tweed, my cousin Rayboy and a fella named J.C. Gentry. I’ve seen dad and J.C. cut 150+ sticks in an hour. As much as I hate to admit it, I was not quite that fast (I was a cutter).
It was a thing of both camaraderie and pride between all of us. Work ethic, staying power and determination were everything.
As the evening approached, tobacco would become “brickle”. This means that when the cutter struck the tobacco stalk with his knife the bottom leaves would fall off of the stalk.
This signaled the end of the day, meaning it was time to get a shower and go shoot some pool.
Today, there are a grand total of 17 farmers growing tobacco in Madison County.
As I stared at the cut tobacco field in front of me, I couldn’t help but smile at bittersweet memories racing through my head.
Do I miss the work? Yes, but at 51 years of age and a bad back, I miss being able to actually do the work.
However, it isn’t the work I miss most or even the times. Those are just smokescreens to an extent.
It’s the camaraderie, jokes, stories and laughs shared with friends & loved ones which I miss most.
A lot of them are gone now, dwindling like the number of tobacco farms adorning the Appalachian landscape and culture; another piece of our past gone.
I wouldn’t trade those days for anything.
Y’all have a great week!