Tobacco Farming in the Cape Fear: A Look Back

Venture onto the rural roads that surround Wilmington and you are likely to see  tall barns that linger in the landscape, accidental monuments to an era when tobacco was the main cash crop for thousands of small farms across southeastern North Carolina.  Whether well maintained or falling in, the tobacco barns tell a story.  They evoke the experiences of landowners, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers alike, for whom cultivating and curing tobacco by hand was a way of life from the time of the Civil War to the 1960s.

Dr. Richard T. Newkirk reflects with wry humor on the many hours of his youth during the 1950s and 1960s that he spent working on farms in Pender County. “When do you work on the farm?  All the time.  When is there not a time to work on the farm?  Never.”  A longtime educator and professor of English literature, Dr. Newkirk’s teaching skills are evident as he describes a typical day during tobacco season.  The harvest day usually began with him getting out of bed at three-thirty in the morning, taking the cured tobacco out of the barn, and having a quick breakfast before working in the field for the rest of the day.   

Dr. Richard T. Newkirk explains the process of hanging and curing tobacco.

Standing in front of one of the old tobacco barns where his family sharecropped in Ivanhoe, NC, Dr. Newkirk explains that while the men were cropping (picking) tobacco leaves and loading them onto a sled pulled by a mule, women and girls worked under the barn overhang tying tobacco leaves onto sticks.  Agile boys and young men would then hang the sticks on tier poles with the tobacco leaves pointing downward.  They started hanging them at the top of the barn and worked their way down. Once the tobacco was cured, which took five to seven days, they would reverse the process to take the tobacco out of the barn.  Before gas heat came into widespread use, putting wood on the fire all night long to keep the barn at the proper temperature was usually done by the young men.

A barn’s materials give some indication of age; barns built of whole logs are rare, and may be as old as one hundred and fifty years, dating back to a time when planed lumber was scarce.  Most log barns harken back to the earliest days of North Carolina’s tobacco economy.  Between 1860 and 1880, America’s taste in tobacco changed.  From colonial days until 1860, popular dark tobacco from Virginia was used as snuff or in pipes.  However, during and after the Civil War, people began to prefer smoking cigarettes made of the “bright” (golden) leaf tobacco for which North Carolina became famous. 

Bright leaf tobacco was first produced in Caswell County, NC in 1839 by an enslaved man named Stephen.  Legend has it that Stephen, who was enslaved by Abisha Slade, fell asleep while tending the fire as he cured tobacco.  Awakening to find the fire was almost out, he hurriedly took charcoal from the blacksmith shop on the plantation to build the fire up again.  This drove the moisture out of the tobacco leaves quickly, producing leaves of a pleasing golden color.  Slade perfected the innovation and spread knowledge of the new curing technique.   

Tobacco barns are simple structures that became important conduits for the growing value of North Carolina tobacco.  Farmers still had to use materials in  economical ways, however.  After log barns, the next oldest barns are likely to have exteriors of vertical planks, called “board and batten’’ siding.  Boards placed vertically shed water, which preserves the lumber from rot.  In contrast, barns that are covered in tar paper or tin are likely to have been built as recently as sixty to seventy years ago.  Regardless of material, most tobacco barns exhibit the same basic shape.  They are tall square buildings, roughly twenty feet by twenty feet, often with overhangs.

Generations of people in the Cape Fear region lived according to the demanding rhythms of tobacco.  Perhaps even more than other crops, tobacco required the labor of entire families.  Even very young children would be pressed into service, picking hornworms off the valuable plants.  Tobacco was sometimes called a “year-round” crop because tobacco farmers might finish curing in November with just enough time to repair equipment, order seed, and start preparing the ground for seedbeds in January. 

Dr. Newkirk’s paternal grandparents not only owned a farm, but also sharecropped for other landowners.  For several years they were careful not to let it be known that they had purchased their farm.  They allowed people to believe that they were just tenant farmers for fear that someone would burn them out.  It was the 1940s and their son, Richard’s father, was serving in WWII. 

Although all farming families struggled to “make the crop,” the Newkirks’ fears illustrate the further burdens under which African Americans operated during the segregation era.  Respected members of the community, with a son serving our nation during wartime, they nonetheless had a justified fear that they might be targets of malice and arson.   

Dr. Newkirk, like many farm children, worked hard and dutifully under his family’s direction.  He also looked to his individual future and a path that would lead him far from the farm to a teaching career in California.  Now semi-retired, he has returned to his family’s homestead.  Reflecting on his family’s hard work farming tobacco over three generations, he says “How you got here is one thing.  Where you go from here is another.”

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Written by: Claudia Stack | Photography by: Claudia Stack, with some photos provided by the Library of Congress

Quotes and some images excerpted from Claudia Stack’s 2017 documentary SHARECROP, made possible by the generous support of the Middle Road Foundation. For more information and to view film trailer please see stackstories.com 

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