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Tobacco’s Haywood County heyday

Ben Best (left) sits on the porch with wife Clarine, who’s holding a spike of the sort used for tobacco harvesting. Cory Vaillancourt photo. Ben Best (left) sits on the porch with wife Clarine, who’s holding a spike of the sort used for tobacco harvesting. Cory Vaillancourt photo.

Slowly meandering through Haywood County’s tranquil farmlands, the winding two-lane mountain road rises and falls as behind each bend it reveals rustic panoramas dotted with far-off homesteads. 

A torrential summer thunderstorm paused here before moving on, leaving behind pockets of mist playing below distant peaks, the sweet steamy smell of wet grass in the fields so strong it almost becomes a taste. Foals lazily graze, backdropped by disused barns engaged in sort of a slow-motion collapse. 

This is the heart of tobacco country. Or at least, it was. 

The cultivation of tobacco — here, pronounced ‘backer — was central to the existence of this rural section for generations, until market subsidies went the way of ashtrays on airplanes. 

Each day, the legacy of Haywood County’s tobacco industry fades further and further, like wisps of smoke ascending, dissipating, in the thick July air. 

Those who remember it, like Ben and Clarine Best, remember it well, and by now have lived long enough to see subsequent generations start to make memories of their own. 

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Ben Best was born into the Great Depression and has lived most of his life with his wife, Clarine, up that winding mountain road in Crabtree. 

“Well, Ben’s 92 and we had grown ‘backer all of our lives because out here in the country, you know, there were no factories or anything around,” Clarine said. “A ‘backer crop was the only income people here could depend on. Beans didn’t bring as much as ‘backer did. And we didn’t know back then that there was any harm in smoking. Everybody smoked, chewed or dipped snuff.”

A few years after Ben was born, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into office just as the United States entered the depths of the Depression. Prices for basic agricultural commodities like cotton, tobacco and wheat had dropped dramatically, so farmers compensated by producing more to make up for the loss in revenue. That led to huge surpluses, further drops in price and utter impoverishment for millions of Americans, especially farmers. 

Ben’s father, born in 1899, also grew tobacco — the flue cured variety, used mainly for cigar wrappers. 

“You could build a barn and close the barn up, hang your ‘backer in there, then build you a fire and that heated it,” said Ben. “That’s what they called flue cured. Him and some of the other fellers said you’d grow a whole crop a’ ‘backer and have to take it to Tennessee to sell it.”

Often, the sale price wouldn’t cover the cost of producing and transporting the crop. 

“That’s why flue cured never caught on here in the mountains,” Clarine said. “But then that Burley that we’d grow, that grew well here.”

Air cured Burley tobacco is primarily used in cigarettes and benefitted tremendously when Congress, in May of 1933, passed Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Act , which had the goal of restoring the purchasing power of the American farmer to prewar (1909-1914) levels. 

The Act, and subsequent amendments to it, accomplished that in the case of tobacco production through a combination of price supports and production quotas. 

When the Act was signed, tobacco went for 13 cents a pound, on average. A decade later, it had increased by 250 percent to 40 cents, and continued to climb. That made Burley more worthwhile for Western North Carolina farmers like the Bests to grow, but it was a grueling, dirty, year-round ordeal. 

“You’d start preparing the seed bed in December,” said Ben. “A lot of people would burn them.” 

Burning would help keep weeds down as the tobacco, which would be planted in February, would grow. Canvas was placed over the rows to ward off killing freezes, and then removed about the last of April or first of May. 

All summer long, it was a seemingly endless cycle of weeding and trimming; in mid-season, the top bloom was cut off, to force more of the plant’s energy into the leaves. Small shoots, called suckers, would quickly emerge and have to be pruned for the same reason. 

“It was the stickiest job you could go through,” said Clarine. “You’d have ‘backer gum all over you.”

Then, there were the pests. Black shank. Blue mold. Aphids. 

“When the ‘backer got about this high,” Ben said, raising his arm to his chest, “you’d get these hornworms.”

A tobacco hornworm ends its life as a Carolina sphinx moth, but it begins as a larva that feeds on the leaves of plants in the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, like tobacco. The larvae grow into plump, vivid green worms, with white diagonal slashes and black dots on their backs. They can reach 3 inches in length. 

“If you saw holes in the leaf, you’d look until you found all of ‘em, and then put ‘em on the ground and stomp on ‘em,” said Clarine. “It was a mess. It was so terribly labor intensive.”

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Starting in late August, the cutting and spiking would begin. First, using a long-handled knife shaped like a tomahawk, the stalks would be cut near the bottom, and then speared with a metal-tipped wooden stick. Five or six stalks would fit on each spike. 

Sometimes the spikes would be left in the field to let the leaves wilt, but eventually they ended up hanging in a barn for up to two months, or more. 

“When your tobacco had hung in the barn until it had cured, then you found a foggy morning or a rainy day, so it would be pliable and not break when you touched it,” Clarine said. “That’s when we’d grade it.”

As the plants grew, they would produce leaves from bottom to top, all with different properties and qualities. 

“Down the stalk of ‘backer there, you had five different grades,” said Ben. “You had lugs on the bottom, which was ragged. Then the next up was smokers, which they used for cigarettes. That section of the stalk would have a good leaf on it for cigar wrappin’, but not all tobacco would have it. ‘Wrappers,’ they called it. And then you had a bright red, and then a dark red, and they got darker as you went up.”

With the leaves all separated out, they’d then be put on the back of a truck bound for Asheville, some 30 miles distant. It was a mad rush. 

Farmers from across the region all crowded into the market at the same time, eager to present their wares to buyers from Big Tobacco, who would browse the offerings and buy what they wanted, sometimes for cash on the spot. 

“When you went to the market, they had the baskets packed in long rows, as far as you can see,” Clarine said. “My daddy took me and my brother when we were small to the market one time. People would take their children and set them up on a basket of ‘backer hoping that the buyer would see that the man had children.”

The lugs, at the bottom, went for the lowest price. The smokers, the next level up, garnered the highest price — except for wrappers. Above that, the leaves declined in price, but thanks to the price supports in the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the entire endeavor became somewhat lucrative. 

Price supports, however, weren’t solely responsible for the economic sustainability of tobacco production. The Act also introduced restrictions on supply. 

“When they first started, you could grow all you wanted at one time,” Ben said. “But after a while, you got an allotment.”

Here, allotments were doled out in 1-acre increments which could be traded or sold to others to form larger tracts. 

“And that’s all you could grow,” he said. “When they set that acre, they had to stop.” 

That doesn’t mean some people didn’t try tucking a few more rows up in one of the area’s many hidden hollers, where moonshine stills (and later, marijuana) could sometimes be found. 

For a time as a teenager, Ben’s job was to police the allotments to ensure nobody was growing more than they were supposed to grow. Through it all, he said no one ever attempted to bribe him or threaten him into looking the other way. 

“You’d have to go to every farm and measure how much acreage he had. And a lot of them would overseed it, they’d get maybe another tenth of an acre. I’d draw a map with measurements on it and I’d go turn it in and they would come out and make the man cut it down,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Now I can turn it in like this, or I’ll just sit here and watch you pull your plants up.’”

According to a 1959 N.C. Department of Agriculture  publication, Haywood County ranked third in the state — behind Madison and Buncombe counties, respectively — in Burley tobacco acreage under cultivation, with more than 1,100. 

That supply was largely powered by domestic demand for cigarettes that peaked in the mid-1960s at more than 4,100 cigarettes a year for every man, woman and child in the country. 

Since then, it’s dropped in each decade, largely due to the increased availability of reliable health information about the dangers of smoking as well as prohibitions on smoking in places where it used to be acceptable — classrooms, elevators, hospitals, restaurants, even television. 

Ben and Clarine agreed that even with the help of their boys, growing tobacco was a lot of work and one acre of tobacco was about all one family could handle, anyway — a testament to the small-scale nature of tobacco farming in Western North Carolina. 

“When we built our house here in 1957, we had $3,000 saved and in order to complete the house, we had to borrow $10,000, which scared us to death because it looked like a million in this day in time,” said Clarine. “And back then, people just did not go in debt. So he got a job at Champion [paper mill, in nearby Canton] and we grew tobacco on his days off and in the evenings.”

Ben started off at $1.25 an hour at the mill, and Clarine remembers his weekly paychecks in the $40 to $60 range, which works out to a yearly take-home of about $3,000. Around that time, Ben’s dad took their crop to market because Ben was working the afternoon shift at the mill. Ben’s dad returned home with a check for $1,800. Clarine signed it, and took it right down to Clyde Savings and Loan to put on their mortgage. 

“Ben came home that night,” Clarine remembers, “and he said, ‘Well, where’s the check?’ and I said, ‘Well here’s the stub, I’ve already taken and turned it in at the savings and loan.’ He said, ‘I declare, a man works as hard as I have all year and he don’t even get to see his check!’”

The bank wasn’t as enthusiastic about the rapid progress the Bests were making on their loan, but there wasn’t much that could be done about it. 

“We paid the loan off with our tobacco in five years, and we’ve never owed any more money ever since,” she said. 

For decades, life pretty much went on in the same seasonal way up that winding road, until the federal policies that gave stability to the tobacco industry and millions of rural farmers like Ben and Clarine Best went up in smoke. 

Once the landmark Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement was reached in November 1998, it became apparent that America’s relationship with tobacco — dating to colonial times — was about to change. 

That year, four major tobacco companies reached a settlement with 46 attorneys general suing for Medicaid costs incurred treating tobacco-related illnesses. The result was $206 billion over 25 years and perpetual payments to states that spawned organizations like North Carolina’s Golden Leaf Foundation

Health advocacy groups then set to work changing the political landscape of the product, just as cigarette manufacturers looked to cheaper offshore tobaccos sourced in far-off places like Malawi and Brazil. 

The price supports remained in place through the first few years of the 21st century until President George W. Bush signed the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act of 2004 , which also abolished the quota system. 

Prices immediately crashed, from $1.99 a pound to $1.64 in 2005. Many small-scale family farmers like the Bests got out of tobacco production at that point, and as domestic cigarette consumption simultaneously plummeted, they stayed out. 

“Without those supports, you might grow a whole crop of ‘backer, take it to market, and not get anything for it,” Ben said, echoing his father’s experience in Tennessee a century earlier. 

As outlined in a 2005 Congressional Research Service report , more than 12.6 billion pounds of tobacco were produced globally in 2004 — the last year U.S. crops had price support — with China alone accounting for about 4.4 billion pounds. 

Brazil and India both produced well over a billion pounds, with the United States weighing in at 788 million pounds, 94 percent of which was for cigarettes. 

In total, approximately 57,000 U.S. farms utilized 408,000 acres for tobacco production — an area almost 20 percent larger than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The estimated value of the 2004 domestic crop was $1.7 billion — about $4,100 an acre, or $1.99 a pound.

 

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Tobacco farming was once crucial to rural Haywood County’s economy. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

Kentucky and North Carolina produced a full two-thirds of all domestic tobaccos, with Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Virginia accounting for another 25 percent. In North Carolina, tobacco accounted for a staggering 7.9 percent of all farm commodities. 

Today, per capita cigarette consumption is less than 1,100 and only 13.7 percent of Americans over the age of 18 are currently smokers, down from a high of 43 percent in 1965. Last year, U.S. domestic tobacco production was less than half of what it was in 2004. 

While some tobacco farmers let their land go to cattle grazing, others sought substitute crops like sorghum, sugar cane or tomatoes to fill the void. Some are even producing hemp for the state’s burgeoning CBD market. 

A recent boom in cigar consumption, however, is forcing farmers to rethink that; a new research project at the  Mountain Research Station in Waynesville is even exploring the possibility of again growing tobacco suitable for wrappers. 

The days of the small-scale Western North Carolina family ‘backer farmer may be over, at least for now, but they’re by no means forgotten. 

 

fr backer2

Photos from the Bests’ farm hang in the Valley Cigar & Wine Co.

 

Haywood County businessman Travis Bramlett, who’s married to Ben and Clarine’s granddaughter, Maggie, is keeping the legacy alive inside his Valley Cigar and Wine Co ., located on Soco Road. 

Bramlett’s lined the walls with large, colorful reproductions of old photographs from the Bests’ farm, and their children working on it. Spindles on the wooden stairway leading to the upstairs wine bar and Burt-Reynolds-themed bathroom are made from those same spikes used by Ben and Clarine to clear the fields. 

The store offers a walk-in humidor and wide variety of fine cigars as well as a selection of beer and wines, all of which can be enjoyed out on the front porch, not far from that winding two-lane mountain road that leads not only to Ben and Clarine Best’s farm, but also back to a different era — tobacco’s Haywood County heyday. 

“They’re the last of the family that’s still left that was doing that kind of farming. Those tobacco barns are falling down,” Bramlett said. “It kind of ended with them, and no one else is doing it now. They were the greatest generation, and I don’t want anyone to forget them.” 

Leave a comment

3 comments

  • My grandfather grew "backer" in Haywood county. I remember when I was a youngin watching them throughout the summer and fall grow it, top it, prune it, cut it, spike it, hang it, cure it, and then class it in the "classing house" which had a wood stove in it for heat. One old timer didn't have any teeth and a little brown stream of "backer" juice ran out and down the corner of his mouth as he classed the bright Virginia leaves.

    Several local farmers would come and help him get it in to send to market. Everybody helped each other with their crop.

    If you had more plants than you were supposed to have, it seemed the inspector would make you pull up the biggest best plants to make it right.

    He worked for the Champion in Canton too and grew tobacco to suppliment the family income. It helped put my momma through college.

    Those days are gone.

    posted by Jim Lee

    Sunday, 08/01/2021

  • Enjoyed this article. Having grown up on a flu-cured tobacco farm in Jones County in eastern NC, I related to the work and worries of tobacco farmers. Brought back great memories

    posted by Peggy Melville

    Friday, 07/30/2021

  • Thanks for this wonderful story shedding light on the history of Western North Carolina and reminding us of how hard these folks worked to make a better life for their families.

    posted by Tammy Jimenez

    Wednesday, 07/28/2021

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