Tobacco Barn Thanksgiving
By Shelia Stovall
My childhood was spent on our family farm near South Union, Kentucky. Most farm families in our community had the tradition of spending Thanksgiving Day stripping tobacco. Today, small family farms are disappearing and the labor intensive, traditional techniques of growing tobacco have almost vanished. Hydroponic greenhouses and baling tobacco have replaced the plant beds and stripping rooms. I spent many long days working in tobacco and I am thankful those hard days of work are behind me. But I wouldn’t trade those early years of laboring with my family for a life of leisure.
You might think that stripping tobacco was a terrible way to spend a holiday that was created to encourage us to reflect on our blessings. However, we did count our blessings, in our own way. Daddy would remind us to be grateful that we had a cash crop almost ready for the market as he annually retold the story of the year when a violent hail storm destroyed Grandpa’s crop. My father was just a boy then, but he remembered the devastation and the fear that they might lose everything.
His stories entertained us but they also helped us realize the significance of tobacco. A good harvest meant extra gifts under the Christmas tree as well as new winter coats and shoes. Without the cash crop of tobacco, we would not have been able to pay the mortgage on our farm and it would have been impossible for me and my siblings to attend college.
Our year’s activities revolved around tobacco. We started the new year by burning plant beds in January or February, seeding them in March, pulling and setting the plants in May, hoeing weeds through the summer, pulling and topping tobacco suckers in July, cutting and hanging tobacco in the barn in August, taking down the sticks of tobacco, stripping the leaves in November, and finally, selling it in December. Later in life, when I attended a time management seminar, I had to smile when I saw coworkers shell out cash for expensive planners and organizers. Anyone who works on a farm understands the value of planning. I didn’t need an expensive binder to help me accomplish this task.
Work was always filled with play as we made a game of trying to outsmart each other. My big brother loved to pick on his younger sisters. But the joke was on him when the youngest girl found a dried snake skin and dropped it across his shoulders. He jumped down from the barn rafters screaming and fell in a sprawl on top of the stacked tobacco. My memories are full of such shenanigans.
My father would entertain us with tales from his recollections of growing up in rural Kentucky. Most stories emphasized how poor everyone had been during the Great Depression. My older relatives remembered it painfully well. We’d hear of the Christmas when all that was in a stocking was an orange and a few nuts. We were made to appreciate having a pantry full of food and a field of healthy livestock, some that would end up in the freezer!
The old stripping room had many reminders of the past. A crumbling chimney in the corner was a remnant from when my grandparents were forced to live in the stripping room with their thirteen children because their home had burned to the ground. The barn was new then, and with nowhere else to go, Grandpa had to move his family into the stripping room. Granny cooked three meals a day on a wood stove. That same stove was also the only heat source for the long narrow room. Daddy said “We were thankful that we escaped the burning house alive. Even though the stripping room was small, our new barn was better than some of the shacks where our neighbors lived. At least the stripping room had a wooden floor instead of dirt.”
For years I would study the faded red rose pattern of the old linoleum floor appreciating how Granny had done her best to make it look nice. I couldn’t imagine how so many people were able to fit into such a small space. When I asked her about those days, she said “It was a hard time but what else could we do? I placed two beds in the corner and stored feather mattresses under them. The three girls piled on one bed and I spread the feather mattresses across the floor. As I counted their little heads, I was also counting my blessings!” Granny was a humble woman but on the day they returned to live in a house with indoor plumbing and a gas stove, she admitted that she was proud.
I remember the radio playing in the background on the days we worked. Hank Williams, Charlie Pride, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn kept us entertained. Mama would sing along and encourage us to join in. Music helped pass the long days.
After spending Thanksgiving Day working in the barn, we would almost be too tired to scrub the tobacco gum from our hands. However, our weariness disappeared when we walked into the house and smelled the turkey and dressing. It was like walking into the waiting room of heaven! The table was dressed with a white table cloth and Mama’s blue floral china. We’d clean up and change into our better clothes. It was hard to believe the transformation of the grubby work crew after a scrubbing. We had shining faces with bright eyes as we took in the table heavy with food. There were green beans canned from last summer’s garden, corn that we had grown, sweet potatoes which had been dug in the fall, oyster casserole – an extravagant treat – and, finally, store-bought cranberries. Mama would always prepare dumplings as well as the turkey and dressing. Then, for dessert, we’d have pumpkin pie and a coconut cake. My mother’s many trips back and forth between the house and the barn had resulted in a culinary miracle. I’ll never know how she was able to prepare a feast like this.
When we prayed, we were thankful, for so many things that we couldn’t begin to mention them all. After the blessing, Daddy would tease us about how much food was piled on our plates, but there was little time for conversation as we were all too busy moving the food from our plates to our mouths. Food never tastes better than when you’re hungry, especially after a long day’s work. And we were hungry – very hungry!
Our family might have missed the parades and the football games, but we gained so much more. Working together bonded our family. As a child, I’ll admit that I often wished we could celebrate Thanksgiving like ‘normal’ people. But as an adult, I now appreciate what we were able to accomplish. I learned that any big job can be made smaller when you work together, and that I could have fun while working. But most of all, I learned that I was blessed, considering the hardships my grandparents and Daddy had faced during the Depression. I am thankful to have been part of a family who taught me the value and dignity of work and to have parents who worked so hard to create a better life for me.
Today I spend Thanksgiving watching parades and preparing the traditional dishes, using my mother’s recipes. I am grateful those long days of labor are behind me. But as small farms disappear, replaced by corporations, I recognize that we’ve lost something. Times have changed and life is much easier for most. But I’ll always cherish the memories of my tobacco barn Thanksgivings and I appreciate the life lessons learned that will stay with me forever.