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Friday, December 14, 2007

Tobacco Shed

Imagine a typical New England farm and usually one might not place a tobacco shed there. Currier and Ives probably never thought so. However, it is as New England as that big red barn.

For thousands of years, native people gathered leaves from wild tobacco plants that grew along the banks of the Connecticut River in what would become Connecticut and Massachusetts. Today, tobacco farming is still an important industry. The shade tobacco variety typically grown here is used for the outer wrappers of cigars.

To a great extent, the story of tobacco agriculture is the story of America. The southern settlements in Virginia and the Carolinas in the colonial era were driven by tobacco production, which put the new European planters in conflict with the native people, and which relied on African slave labor.

Early New England colonists got the habit of smoking tobacco in pipes following the example of the native people, and began cultivating the plant. The Puritans, seeing evil in the plant, outlawed tobacco in Connecticut in 1650, but in the 19th century cigar smoking became popular, and tobacco farming became a major industry and a major employer. Many western New England teens of the 20th century and today may recall their first jobs in the tobacco fields.

There is less demand for the product now, and more demand by real estate developers for the land on which tobacco sheds like this one in western Massachusetts stand. But the industry, like most agriculture, continues at the mercy of the weather, the competition of foreign markets, and the whim of the consumer.

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