Tobacco Farming in Anne Arundel County

A Father’s Day Tribute to my Dad — Dr. John A. Schillinger, Jr.

Seventy-eight years ago this month, my father was born into a farming family that raised tobacco and vegetables.  The barn in this painting is one of the distinctive, bright blue tobacco barns on the Schillinger farm in Anne Arundel County in Maryland, just south of Baltimore.  I could see it out the window of my Uncle Jimmy’s old bedroom where I slept, whenever we stayed at the farm.  

What was once a mainstay of the Schillinger farm, tobacco farming is quickly slipping into distant memory.  There was a time when the farm’s livelihood depended on this cash crop curing inside the hinged shutters of the tobacco barn.  But now the flurry of seasonal activity has long ceased.

By the time the federal government bought out the growing and marketing tobacco in the 1990s, tobacco farming was already on the decline.  Smoking had already fallen out of popularity, and with it, 300 years of specialized skill in tobacco farming, refined over multiple generations, began to fade into obscurity.

I don’t smoke, and I’m not a fan of smoking.  But I can’t deny the art of tobacco growing has a place in my history.  It has shaped my father’s personality, his work ethic, and his values.  Indirectly, it has shaped mine as well.  I need to tell the story of my father and his experience growing up on a tobacco farm.

When my father was in high school, the farm was only 25 acres, and in order to feed two families and my Great Grandma Catherine, they rented another 10 or so acres.  His father (whom I always knew as “Pop Pop”) and Uncle Calvin worked together until Calvin was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates.  Pop Pop assumed the growing responsibilities with hired help from neighbors, Raymond and Marvin, and free help from his son–my dad, and his younger brother, Wilbur. 

Vegetable farming is straightforward:  plant, pick and take to market—all in a summer’s season.  With tobacco, it’s different:  from seed sowing to delivery of the harvested bales could take 15-17 months.  The cycle began in February, when seed was sown in a secluded, wind-protected acre within a woodlot.  The plot was fumigated each year to assure  disease- and insect-free tobacco “beds.”  Seeds saved from the best and healthiest plants of the previous summer were usually planted in March, two weeks after fumigation and “airing” of the beds.  The beds were covered with a muslin cloth to provide protection from the daytime sun and nighttime temperatures.  If it didn’t rain, the beds had to be watered weekly.

By mid-May the beds were covered with 4-5 inch, fibrous-rooted plants, which had to be pulled by hand and carefully placed in a bushel basket (roots down, of course) and carried to the selected field.  The truck carrying tanks of water siphoned from nearby Severn Run would already be there as was the gray Massey-Ferguson tractor, pulling a one-row, two seat planter.   A synchronized water delivery system on the planter irrigated each bedding plant as it was plugged into its slot, first by the person on the left seat and then by the person on the right. 

A good majority of the plants survived, an occasional one died.  Every year, there was the very real risk of Ring-Spot Virus.  My father learned a valuable lesson from this virus, one that he carried with him through graduate school and into his storied career in soybean breeding.  He tells it like this:

“If in two weeks after planting, Tobacco Ring-Spot Virus appeared in every other plant, all eyes looked to Marvin, the only smoker in the crew. It was an important lesson I learned young, before I finished high school, entered graduate school or had my own soybean program:  just the cigarette residue on a smoker’s fingers can transmit the virus to tobacco fields or to soybean test plots.”

About a week later, transplants were established and growing, and so were the weeds.   A one row cultivator mounted under the International, could get the weeds between the rows, but it was left to the help, hired and free, to get the weeds between plants.  How did we survive the tedious hoeing in sandy fields and 90 degree heat?  My dad and the crew made a contest of it, the winner being the one who got the most weeds.  Victory might be short-lived though, because the number of missed weeds was deducted from each man’s tally the following week. 

There were two methods of insect control.  The simplest was to pick off a tobacco worm and pull it apart.  The other was a burlap bag containing a white insecticide powder that sprinkled over each plant would make it white and free of tobacco worm for up to two weeks.  

When tobacco plants were in full bloom, it was time for “topping” with a sharp, hook-shaped knife, two to three weeks before harvest.  Removing the flower head allowed the top leaves to develop into larger, lighter-textured leaves, which brought a higher price at market.  But the topping also triggered the plant to put out “suckers” at the juncture of stem and leaf.  Suckers had to be removed by hand before harvest could begin because suckers would continue to grow even when the stalks were hanging upside down in the barn and consequently impede air circulation for curing.

“Yellowing” was the sign for harvest to begin.  The harvesters would cut two rows at a time, leaving the aisle between them empty.  They swung their machetes with a rhythm that struck one row in the forward swipe and the second in the recoil.  Stalks had to be laid side by side in the empty aisle, butt end to butt end, and allowed to wilt for a few hours so that the brittle leaves would lose their cellular water, becoming soft so as not to be damaged in the next step.

“Darting” was the next step. The stick dropper followed the harvesters and laid a five-foot long wood stake in the empty aisle.   A sharp metal spear-like dart fitted over the wood stick, and the secret to darting was knowing exactly where on the stalk to insert the dart and force the plant onto the stick.  Each stick could hold about 6 plants and would be stuck into the ground, ready to be lifted carefully onto the tractor-drawn wagon and taken to the barn.

The tobacco barn, large and picturesque in the rural landscape, was in reality an oversized jungle gym inside.  A network of 4 x 4 rafters fitted out the barn, 8 frames high and 20 frames long.  My father described his role in the process of hanging sticks of darted tobacco in the barn:

“Being the eldest entitled me to climb to the highest rafters, the sticks of darted tobacco being lifted from the wagon, passed to a second, and then to a third worker before I reached down to grab the end of the stick, lift it above my head, balance it between rafters and distribute the stalks evenly before bending down to get another.”

There was no ladder to climb, no easy access to the highest rafters 30 feet off the hard ground below.  My dad had to nimbly climb and swing his way up to the top layer.  There he worked in suffocating heat, lifting heavy loads from below his feet to above his head with no safety harness, no restraints.  When all the sticks were hung, he had to reverse the process and scale back down the rafters, one at a time.

The “curing” process took three to four months, during which time every other barn board, which was attached with hinges, had to be opened for air circulation or closed for forecast storms.

“Stripping” usually began with humid days in late November, in a small room in the corner of the barn, heated by a kerosene stove.  The stripper sorted the leaves into bundles as he stripped, carefully sorting them according to their quality: 

  • Seconds—the leaves from the bottom of the stalk ($.60—.80/lb)
  • Prime—graded by reddish-yellow color and few blemishes ($.80—1.00/lb)
  • Second Prime—with some green-tinging ($.60—.80/lb)
  • Tips—Usually green color, heavy texture of tobacco tar and gums ($.30—.50/lb)

The stripper not only stripped and sorted the leaves but simultaneously gathered them into bundles and tied the bundles with a tying leaf that wrapped the ends, was drawn through the bundle, and amazingly held it together.  Bundles were stacked on a 4 x 4 base called a “burden.”  Each burden contained only one grade, had to be precisely stacked, and weighed between 150 and 200 pounds.

The prime customers for the Maryland Type 32 air-dried tobacco were domestic cigarette makers, to blend 5-10% Maryland tobacco with the flue-cured tobacco from Kentucky and North Carolina. The Swiss also purchased Maryland tobacco, which burns more freely than the flue-cured. 

The Maryland Tobacco Authority determined the dates for market.  Pop Pop took his tobacco to Upper Marlboro in early spring.  It was an auction market.  After unloading his burdens, Pop Pop would stand aside while a warehouse employee tagged each burden.  Then an auctioneer would lead a company of six to ten buyers down the aisles.  The highest bidder got his name and price on the tag.  If all went well, Pop Pop brought his check home that day.  In 1944, the tobacco crop brought in $4,260.50, about half of the farm income. 

My father was forever marked by the experience of growing and harvesting tobacco.  He learned the value of hard work and the importance of applying lessons learned.  Nevertheless, he saw the writing on the wall for tobacco farming, and thankfully turned his attention to other crops.

I dedicate this entry in honor of my father–a tireless visionary with a love of the soil.  Actually, he wrote a lot of this essay himself, and it is with his permission that I unabashedly plagiarize him.  Thanks, dad, for passing on your legacy of hard work, and for this remembrance of the way things were.

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