Tobacco Story

From 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 the shed.

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.

Harvest Story
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)