1900 to 1921 the acres of tobacco grown in Enfield alone peaked
at 1500 acres on 200 farms. The current acreage of shade and broadleaf
tobacco being grown here is approximately 600 acres on six farms.
Since tobacco is such an important part of our town's history
we have documented it's history here with the help of excerpts
from Ruth Bridge's book: The Challenge of Change: Three Centuries
of Enfield, Connecticut History. We would also like to acknowledge
The Connecticut Valley Tobacco Historical Society, Inc. for their
generous contribution of archival photography.
Tobacco has been an important part of Enfield agriculture since
the town was settled. The total acreage grown by individual farmers
back then was quite small, two acres being considered a large
crop until the invention of the tobacco setter in the 1900's.
The first tobacco raised by the settlers was the same as that
raised by the Indians. This variety, quite small with a bitter
taste, was later replaced by other improved strains from the West
Indies. Between 1900 and 1910 there was a new development in the
tobacco industry here. Experiments in Windsor, CT had proven that
it was possible to grow Cuban tobacco in Connecticut by reproducing
the tropical climate of Cuba and Sumatra artificially. This was
done by enclosing the tobacco field in a "tent" of very
loosely woven cloth. The resulting tobacco had a thinner leaf
which had previously been imported into the US by local cigar
manufacturers. Several of these "shade grown" plantations
were successful enough to survive until the early 1970's when
the market for this once important crop declined dramatically.
The resurgence of shade tobacco growing in this area is solely
attributable to the efforts of the Enfield Shade Tobacco Co. Enfield
Shade Tobacco grows solely for ALTADIS USA...the manufacturer
of brands such as Montecristo Don Diego. Enfield Shade plans on
increasing it's current acreage of 300 acres in 2002.
The now defunct L.B. HAAS COMPANY began it's operations in 1911
on Maple Street in the Hazardville section of Enfield. I.H. Woodworth
set up on the John McNamara farm on Raffia Road and expanded later
to land on Pound Road. William and Henry Hunting established shade
tobacco production in 1920 in the East Wallop section of town
and were later bought out by the Consolidated Tobacco Corporation
(now Altadis) who sold or closed most of it's operations.
Since Enfield Farmers began to specialize in tobacco, growers
have experienced wide fluctuations in their fortunes. Tobacco
is a high cost, high risk crop, very vulnerable to the vagaries
of the weather, easily damaged by wind or frost or ruined in a
few minutes by a summer hailstorm. Field diseases can lower quality
of the crop or ruin it altogether. No one who has raised tobacco
here will soon forget the devastating effect of the "Wildfire"
disease. Fortunately that blight has been controlled, but there
are others like the "Blue Mold" which ruined the crop
in 1997. Another problem called "Fleck" has afflicted
shade tobacco with white spots and is the result of the pollution
of the atmosphere some say. No one knows for sure it's cause.
The crop is not even safe after it's been harvested and in the
shed, for then it is subject to the rotting and molding known
as "pole sweat" which can cause much damage, particularly
in damp, muggy weather, such was the case in 1996. In 1938 a hurricane
struck while tobacco was curing in the sheds. Many of these sheds
were demolished and never rebuilt. In fact it has been reported
that at least 170 tobacco sheds were taken off the assessor's
list in that one year. Tobacco acreage here peaked around 1921
and remained high until the stock market crash in 1929. In 1931
with the depression in full swing, the price of broadleaf dropped
to fourteen cents per pound, about half of what it had brought
the previous year. In 1932 it hit an all time low of twelve cents.
Discouraged growers cut back their production as the government
came in with acreage controls. Paid by the government if they
did not grow tobacco over their allotments, most growers signed
up for the program.
From 1900 to 1921 the acres of tobacco grown in Enfield increased
tremendously - peaking at 1500 acres on 200 farms, and many tobacco
barns or sheds were built. While the number of acres currently
being grown is far less, the popularity of cigar smoking has precipitated
the need for more "shed" space in recent times. This
is often the most difficult obstacle for the start-up farmer to
overcome, as the cost to build a large five acre shed is in the
range of $45,000 to $75,000.
Tobacco shed "raisings" as they were long ago called,
were once considered a social event, looked forward to by young
and old alike. They offered men the chance to show off their strength,
with woman an opportunity to advertise what good cooks they were,
and for the kids it was an exciting occasion - with plenty of
good things to eat. The farmer having the raising, did all the
preliminary work, or had it done. The ground was graded, the piers
poured, the frame was spiked together in sections or "bents"
and laid horizontally in readiness to be raised in position. Plates,
rafters, girts, and braces were made ready and stacked nearby
to be handy when needed. When everything was arranged, the day
was set, the neighbors wives prepared the food - cakes, doughnuts,
pies, sweets of all kinds, and the drinks - cases of soda for
some, beer for other, and even some "hard stuff".
On the day of the raising, neighbors and friends converged on
the site from all directions and, after much friendly banter and
kidding, the men gathered around the frame of the new shed. Each
man armed himself with a pike pole, usually supplied by the carpenter,
and the gang got in position to raise the first section of the
frame. The sharpened ends of the pikes bit into the frame and
members... and at the command of "heave" everyone lifted
and the heavy frame section began to rise into place. After many
heaves the section was finally lifted into a vertical position
and braced in place. The whole process was then repeated with
section after section until the whole frame was up, connected
by the plates and braced. Next the rafters were put on and at
that point the raising was over with the carpenter left to finish
Raisings could be dangerous. The frame could and sometimes did
slip, or a sudden gust of wind could topple it before it was secured,
so it was mighty important that every man do his job, and do it
well. Sometimes there were hitches - as on one occasion when the
carpenter had made a mistake in the height of a concrete pier,
and frame did not fit on it. One of the men promptly solved the
problem by grabbing an ax that was handy and chopping off the
top of the pier - a rather back door approach.
When each raising was completed everyone headed for the refreshments,
which in amazingly short time disappeared, but still not before
many exciting moments of the event had been relived and the status
of the crops, the weather, or the chances of the next political
candidate had been discussed. Finally, one by one the neighbors
left for their own farms. This event was repeated many times during
the boom years in Enfield. No one section of the town has a monopoly
of the type of soil which will grow tobacco well, so it's production
was spread pretty much over the whole area.
As many of you may already know, the tobacco crop grown in Connecticut
and in other parts of the country; e.g. Florida, Pennsylvania
get hit pretty hard by disease and natural calamity on a regular
basis. It is estimated that approximately 25% of all shade and
broadleaf tobacco grown in the Connecticut Valley will be severely
damaged or destroyed in any given year when blue mold strikes.
In many instances, farmers are forced to bring their crops in
early. Many others who do not react quick enough, are often forced
to destroy or "harrow" under some... if not their entire
crop. All farmers are effected, to various degrees, by his disease
when it strikes. It travels in the air, so no crop is immune.
Unfortunately, spraying of the fungicide "Acrobat" is
not always effective.
Major cigar manufacturers such as General Cigar and ALTADIS will
only buy premium wrapper leaf. They won't buy damaged leaves at
a lower price and use them for binder or filler. They use other
tobaccos from Central America in their blends. Market prices for
"clean" tobacco rise appreciably and ultimately higher
cigar prices result.
Not unlike today's farmer, the farmer of old faced the same blights
and unpredictable weather pattern that are all too common in New
England. While there have been some improvements in the harvesting
of tobacco, much hand labor is still required. Most of the tobacco
raised is placed on hook lath before being hung in the sheds;
however, it was not always so, for back in 1890 or thereabouts
it was done a little differently. First the plants were cut down
and wilted well, then loaded into carts and taken to the shed.
The carts were driven into the shed and the plants were tied directly
to the poles one at a time by the "hanger," a man who
took a string and as each plant came to him placed the plant against
the pole, took a turn around it with the string, then crossed
the string to the other side of the pole ready for the next plant,
which was placed diagonally opposite the first. While this could
be done much faster than it could be described, it was slower
than later methods of "spearing" or "hooking".
One method, which was never used to any great extent, was called
"spearing on the ground," so-called because the spearer
thrust one end of the lath into the ground until it supported
itself, placed the spear on top, picked up a plant from the ground
and speared it into the lath, continuing until the lath was full.
It was a dangerous method (you could get the spear in the neck.)
Although most attempts to mechanize tobacco growing have failed,
shade tobacco growers do have a machine to sew the leaves in the
sheds. Broadleaf growers also have used a machine to pull the
plants off the spear laths; however most growers now use hook
lath so these machines are used very little any more.
For more information about the history and artifacts of growing
cigar tobacco in the Connecticut River Valley we encourage you
to visit the THE CONNECTICUT VALLEY TOBACCO HISTORICAL SOCIETY,
INC. located at Northwest Park, 135 Lang Road, Windsor, CT 06095
(phone 860-285-1888) or click here
to visit their website.