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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Connecticut River Valley Tobacco Growing

This sign showing a giant green splotch on the Connecticut River Valley, illustrates the extent of commercial tobacco growing in western New England.  From about Portland, Connecticut, following the river up to lower Vermont, we see a huge swath of land that more or less replicates the gouging of the glacier that once sat here.  Maybe its peeling back layers of earth as it retreated is the reason for this area’s having some of the most fertile growing land in New England.  Certainly left behind a lot of dinosaur footprints.
The first European settlers here were quick to notice, and quick to exploit, the fertile land, and started growing tobacco as early as the 1650s.  The native tribes hereabouts, however, had grown tobacco for their own use long before that.
Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum

The colonists smoked it in clay pipes then, and some was shipped back to the mother country, but it is said that Connecticut’s Revolutionary War hero (and French and Indian War) Israel Putnam, bringing tobacco seeds back from Cuba was the start of the growing of this special tobacco for rolling into cigars.  We visted his monument in this previous post.
Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum

Commercial tobacco growing, mainly on small family farms, took off in the 1800s, when cigar smoking among men became popular.  The kind grown here was called Broadleaf, the outer wrapper of the cigar.  Competition from Sumatra later in the century inspired growers hereabouts to turn over a new leaf, so to speak, in tobacco growing.  In the early 1900s they came up with the idea of erecting enormous light cloth tents over the tobacco fields, which by cutting direct sunlight and increasing the humidity of the atmosphere underneath the tenting, replicated the growing conditions in Sumatra.  This is called Shade tobacco, and it is considered the finest cigar wrapper.
The tobacco farms, not just small family farms anymore but also large commercial plantations (part of Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts was once the site of the American Sumatra company plantation), was a huge influence on the economy of the Connecticut River Valley, and provided thousands of jobs.
Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum
Local folks, including many teens, found work here, but tobacco growing is such a labor-intensive project, with a lot of work done by hand, that workers were sought from other parts of the country to work here seasonally.  One of the first drives to bring in outside workers occurred during World War II, when of course a lot of local men were called into the service.  During these years, many young people arrived from the South. One of them a young Martin Luther King, Jr.
Religious services, Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum 
He arrived here in 1944, when he was just 15 years old.  He obtained a job on a tobacco farm in Simsbury, Connecticut that summer to earn money for college.  In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (ed. Clayborne Carson, IPM, Time Warner, 1998), Dr. King recounts that he was surprised that he could attend a “white” church, and eat in any restaurant he wanted, because there were no segregation laws in the north.  “I had never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere, but we ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford.”
He wrote home to his parents in June, 1944:
I am very sorry I am so long about writing but I have been working most of the time.  We are really having a fine time here and the work is very easy.  We have to get up every day at 6:00.  We have very good food.  And I am working kitchen so you see I get better food.
We have service here every Sunday about 8:00 and I am the religious leader we have a Boys choir here and we are going to sing on the air soon.  Sunday I went to church in Simsbury it was a white church…On our way here we saw some things I had never anticipated to see.  After we passed Washington there was no discrimination at all the white people here are very nice.  We go to any place we want to and sit any where we want to.
Tell everybody I said hello and I am still thinking of the church and reading my bible.  And I am not doing any thing I would not do in front of you…
Your Son...
The adult Dr. King continues in his autobiography, “After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation…I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, separate rest rooms, partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect.”
Obviously, not all learning experiences on the tobacco farms were quite as profound as this young man’s, and later decades came to know labor unrest, with conditions that were not always satisfactory in the larger work camps.  Waves of other newcomers came to the Valley as temporary tobacco workers and stayed to make a home here, from Jamaica, from Puerto Rico, as well as from Central America, Haiti, Mexico, and Africa.
 Choir, workers from Jamaica, Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum
The height of tobacco growing occurred in early 1920s when some 30,800 acres in Connecticut alone were devoted to this crop.  Today, there are only about 2,000 acres left.
This is due to a number of factors, in part to the value of real estate turning land over to industrial parks and shopping plazas, to the fact that cigarette smoking eclipsed the popularity of cigar smoking, and that younger generations have come to understand that smoking will kill you.

 Exhibit Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum, photo JT Lynch
Two excellent sources of information on the history of tobacco growing in the Connecticut River Valley, used for this article, are the Connecticut Public Television documentary “Connecticut’s Tobacco Valley” (produced and directed by Frank Borres,  2001), and the Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum.
Photo JT Lynch
This museum is comprised of a tobacco shed with machinery, implements, and tobacco, and a separate archives building containing many artifacts, exhibits, photos and books on this interesting aspect of western New England history.  It’s located in Windsor, Connecticut.  Have a look here at the website.
Another viewpoint of the story of tobacco farms in Connecticut will be discussed this Thursday on my Another Old Movie Blog when we take a look at “Parrish” (1961), which starred Troy Donahue, Connie Stevens, Claudette Colbert, and Karl Malden.  It’s a lavish, Hollywood version of tobacco growing, but a lot of it was filmed right here in Windsor, Connecticut.  I hope you can join us.

1 comment:

Tobias Mann said...

Amazing story. Very interesting. Keep sharing your thoughts. Thumb up

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