Having traveled the Southeastern region of these United States for many years, I have come to realize there is a significant number of my generation whose roots run deep in tobacco country. In Kentucky, Virginia, the Carolinas and Tennessee I have found countless numbers of men and women who have shared my experiences.
When this time of year rolls around I can’t help but go back in time and relive the sights and sounds of tobacco harvests of the past. These past few weeks have found me looking and listening as I moseyed down the hallways of my memory.
The ringing sound of a tobacco spike is indelibly etched in my brain. A skilled spiker (and I have worked around some of the best) used one arm to balance and force each tobacco stalk down on the spike. A flick of the wrist and a strong downward stroke of the forearm left the spike ringing on the tobacco stick. The sound was a ringing not like a bell, but more of a humming sound – ommmmh! There is no other sound like it on earth.
The sound of ripe tobacco stalks being laid to the knife is another sound familiar to these ears. The sound generated by a “pull” knife (now a relic of the past) is altogether different from the sound made by a “hatchet” knife. When a skillful hand leaned a ripe tobacco stalk just right, the slightest pull on the knife freed the tobacco stalk from the ground. The sound was quiet and quick and clean.
I remember one pull knife in particular that survived many a tobacco crop on our farm. It had a straight handle which was grooved to fit your hand. The blade, according to my father, was fashioned from a piece of a T-Model Ford fender. You could cut tobacco, bare-handed, all day with that knife and never raise a blister. It was a sweet piece of craftsmanship. That knife should have made it to the Burley Tobacco Hall of Fame.
The sound made by a hatchet knife is more of a “whacking” sound. When my father finally relented and made the switch to hatchet knives things never seemed the same. I grew to hear that “whacking” sound in my sleep. I still hear it sometimes when tobacco fields begin to yellow.
It might be said my father handled every stick of tobacco at least three times every tobacco season. I can see him now, in a wide stance to keep his balance, on a hay wagon or two-ton truck flatbed; looking bigger than life as he took each stick of tobacco from waiting hands. Later, he would handle each stick again as he swung or pointed it up into the barn. I also remember the sound of tip leaves sweeping the wagon or truck bed as he turned to thrust it skyward. He would handle each stick again come stripping time. You might say his was a “hands on” operation.
Once we were in the tobacco barn there are other sounds I remember – like the sound of tobacco stalks splitting out and falling out of the barn. Not good! And here’s another sound that was never good – the sound of a tier pole cracking under your foot. Yikes! That made you want to wear a parachute! I remember the sound of yellow jackets buzzing around my head. That’s unnerving when you are in the top of the barn! And how about this sound? Did you ever hear the tin roof “popping” on a brutally hot day? The tin would pop when a cool breeze hit it and then pop some more when it heated up again.
And here’s a sight that was always easy on my eyes – empty tobacco patches. Once the tobacco was cut and hauled to the barn on Frank McCall’s farm, the patch was left empty, devoid of weeds, grass and tobacco leaves. We left nothing in the patch but lonely rows of tobacco stobs.
But of all the sounds I remember from tobacco crops of the past, here in my very favorite. On the last day, when the last load had made it to the barn, and we were closing for the finish, my father would proudly announce, “That’s it, boys! That’s what the shoemaker killed his wife with – the last!”
Music to my ears.