Gone are the days when it was a common occurrence to see a man following a mule, or a pair of mules, or a workhorse through a tobacco patch or cornfield. Many a mile has been covered by a working man as he stumbled over newly turned up earth while gripping worn plow handles. But no more. Those days, for the most part, are in the past.
I have often written that my father was a tobacco man. He approached growing tobacco as if it were an art. He seemed fascinated by every step in the process. I hardly think he considered it to be work. You have heard the saying, “Love what you do and you will never work a day in your life?” I believe that to be true. It was true of my father. From preparing the plant beds to stripping the last stalk, it was pure pleasure to him. He especially enjoyed plowing.
Through most of my growing up years I recall my father leaning over the steering wheel of a “Super A” Farmall tractor as he carefully studied the row passing slowly beneath him. At the first plowing each year, he took special pride in covering up all the newly emerging weeds and grass while not covering the tender, yellow and green transplants. Because of his skills with a plow, my brothers and I spent precious little time chopping tobacco. There may have been one or two wet springs when the grass “got ahead” of him, but for the most part, he kept the ground soft and the weeds and grass at bay with his plowing.
Prior to the “Super A” years, my father relied on “Ol’ Charlie.” I can’t remember a time during my boyhood days when Ol’ Charlie wasn’t around. He was a big, black, rugged, plow horse; I would guess, all of 16-hands tall. Nothing seemed to bother him. I never saw Ol’ Charlie get in a hurry. He had one speed – slow and steady. And he was smart.
In the days when tobacco plants (also called slips) were pulled (or drawn) from a plant bed, the young transplants sometimes encountered a rocky start. If the weather was unusually hot, the sun would sometimes burn some of the plants “back to the bud.” Those tiny plants presented a special challenge at the first plowing because they were easily covered up.
When plowing with Ol’ Charlie under those circumstances, my father would watch for covered up plants in the row he had just plowed. When he came even with a covered plant he would call Ol’ Charlie to a halt, reach over, and uncover the plant. After being stopped two or three times, Ol’ Charlie would “get the hang of it.” Then he would automatically stop every time my father came upon a covered plant. I think they call that “horse sense.”
Plowing with a mule or horse was more complicated than plowing with a tractor. The tractor made one pass through per row. The horse or mule made 2½ passes. Each side of the row of tobacco was plowed and, then, the plow man would “bust the middle” between the rows. Such plowing was accomplished with a three-point plow (sometimes called a “rastus.”) As the tobacco grew larger, the plow man would resort to simply plowing the middle of each row. Sometimes that was done with a two-point plow or “double shovel.”
In those days, a patch of tobacco might be plowed three or four times before it was laid by (by laid by, I mean the tobacco was dark green and growing and lapping in the row, making it impossible to go back through with tractor or horse or mule).
Today tobacco is plowed as little as possible and chemicals do most of the dirty work on weeds and grass. Why, I hear in some parts, that no-till tobacco is being tried. What is the world coming to?
Sadly, we don’t hear much of horse collars and hames and trace chains and plow lines and single trees and clevises and plow handles anymore. Those days are gone. And unfortunately, they took something with them.
The reason our fathers and grandfathers didn’t lay awake at night and worry about their problems was because they were too “dog tired.”