Monday, June 22, 2009

Burning tobacco beds

One disadvantage of living in a rural area on the edge of a hardwood forest is that you’re always cutting back trees and branches that grow in and over your lawn. They're looking for sunlight, and they'll take over your property if you don't constantly trim them back. So the past couple of days my sons and I have burned branches and other brush in that big brush pile beside our driveway.

And it got me thinking about an old family ritual that has disappeared in the past generation.

Where I grew up along the Ohio River in Gallia County, Ohio, nearly ever family grew burley tobacco. It was our chief cash crop, and it bought a lot of groceries, Christmas gifts and school clothes. My father owned a country store, and he carried more than one family through the summer until they could sell their tobacco in the fall.

Growing tobacco back then was a labor-intensive process. Profitable, but laborious. Every spring families would burn their tobacco beds. Each bed was bordered by small logs with nails sticking out. Inside the bed was piled lumber, wood and similar combustible material. The entire family would gather around as the bed was burned at sundown. The glowing embers provided the light for people to talk, eat and do whatever their individual family bonding ritual required.

The ashes from the wood provided nutrients for tobacco seeds. After the ashes cooled, the farmer would sprinkle tobacco seeds in the bed and cover the bed with white canvas held in place by those nails in the sides of the bed. When the tobacco plants got to a good size, they were pulled from the bed and transplanted into fields.

Sometime in the 1980s, the practice of burning tobacco beds declined. Farmers were encouraged to use other methods of fertilizing seed beds, and fewer people were raising tobacco. Today when I drive along the Ohio River in Gallia County, I see far less tobacco than I did 20 or 30 years ago.

Even the tobacco market in Huntington WV closed several years ago. The relatively few tobacco growers in the area now must take their crop 40 miles or more into Kentucky to sell it.

Burning the brush in our driveway the past two nights was one of those bonding rituals with my sons as I taught them how to build, sustain and extinguish a large fire safely. The down side was that the family’s financial future was not at stake.

Still, I constantly thought of those tobacco beds and other rituals of country life that have disappeared. 

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