John D. Bridgers M.D.
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Chapter 11 - The tobacco industry in Greenville

When the chorus of whistles sounded in the early morning in Greenville they signaled different things to different folks.

The whistles told the town it was 7:00 A.M.

Each resonated with its unique pitch and tone, telling those with jobs in the several tobacco factories that it was time to start work and where.

The pulsing chorus told the rest of us it time to get up if we were still abed.

"Tobacco Season" was the diastole of the financial year, when funds filled the heart of livelihood from whence it was to flow out for the rest of the year.

This was the juncture at which life quickened in the community that was Pitt County.

These things still go on, but with less impact, for Greenville of today is primarily a university town with a more even and less fluctuating existence.

The tobacco industry started when white settlers came to America.

When they came they found the natives cultivating and smoking a plant they called uppo 'woc but which the Spanish called tobacco, coming from the Arabic word tobaq .

How quickly the colonists picked up this habit, and how quickly it spread across the Atlantic foreshadows why tobacco usage is so hard to eradicate today.

The Jamestown Plantation served itself economically when John Rolfe, the husband of Pocahontas, learned how to grow, harvest and store tobacco.

Thus, tobacco became the medium of exchange between colonists and between the colonies and the mother country.

Tobacco has ever been easy to grow, and such easy labor is as addictive as nicotine.


In due time cotton replaced tobacco as the main money crop of the south.

Tobacco, first cured for storage and manufacture by drying in the air in barns, stepped toward more of an industry by accident.

A barn fire taught that the leaves could be cured much faster and more precisely by applying heat.

This ushered in the era of "flue-cured" tobacco.

Wooden barns were built as tall upright structures with semi-cylindrical brick kilns running along the center of the dirt floors -- somewhat like the hypocaust of Celtic homes in Britain.

The mature tobacco plans were "primed;"  that is, the best and prime lower leaves were first stripped from the stalks, these were bound together into bundles, and then were draped over sticks and hung in the rafters of the barns.

A wood fire was built in the flue and constantly replenished from one end.

During the curing process the barns had to be attended 24 hours per day and the temperature controlled by stoking the fire.

Once cured, the tobacco was taken to auction warehouses in town.

There were three selling seasons and districts.

The bright-leaf market included Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia.

However, the season from the southern part of the area -- "The Border Market" -- was from mid-summer 'til early autumn.

Then came the season for most of North Carolina and Virginia which lasted 'til late fall.

As time went by eastern North Carolina became the focus of tobacco farming and auction, while Virginia and Piedmont North Carolina the site for final processing and manufacture.

"The Burley Market" was in Tennessee and Kentucky, involving heartier and darker leaves used mainly for the outer cigar wrappers -- that market operated until Christmas time.


The in-town work in tobacco involved mainly jobs with the auction warehouses and those with re-drying plants.

Those involved with selling and buying involved many who traveled to the three market areas, while the re-drying factories processed leaf from all three markets areas.

A farmer "graded" his output according to leaf size, texture and color and arranged the different grades in flat baskets which are lined up in the warehouses.

A parade of buyers from the various processing companies followed the "sing-song" cadence of the auctioneer as he worked his way down the row of baskets, usually selling about six rows per minute.

The buyers were responsible for knowing how much of which grade their companies needed for each day's production.

A "clip-carrier" followed the sale, so-called because he carried a small clip-board as a writing surface to calculate how much each basket should bring.

When the basket had been filled with bundles of tobacco a ticket had been stamped with a lot number and the weight.

Thus, the "clip-carrier," at the rate of 10 seconds per basket had to figure out a product; e.g. 153 1/2 pounds at 17 1/3 cents per pound.

Our cousin, John Ragsdale, one of the nephews Grandmother helped raise, carried the clip at the Star Warehouse -- when I was a math major in college he tried to explain his "short-cuts" for such rapid calculation, but it was beyond what I wanted to know.

The farmer recovered his ticket, took it to the warehouse cashier who subtracted the house's commission and paid the farmer the balance.

Then the manufacturer paid the warehouse.

It was a well-oiled machine.

The manufacturing facilities in Greenville were all "re-drying plants."

As the leaves entered the line each side was stripped from its central stem.


The stems were stored separately and would be ground up as snuff.

The leafy portions were baked very dry, then moistened just the right amount for storage and preservation in large wooden barrels, called hogsheads.

Thus, the tobacco would be stored away for aging and ultimately would reach other plants for final manufacture into various products.

Eastern North Carolina was the center of "bright-leaf" sales and drying, and Piedmont North Carolina and Virginia were the main areas for final manufacture.

The tobacco industry had waxed and waned since colonial times, but the final boost came after the Civil War when James Buchanan Duke, a scion of a tobacco-processing family rescued a cigarette-making machine from storage in an unused warehouse.

Pipe-smoking, cigar smoking, the chewing of tobacco and "dipping" of snuff had been the major usages.

"Roll-your-own" cigarettes had come on the market, but were too much trouble for most people.

When Duke started the mass-production of machine-made cigarettes it turned the industry on its head.

He in time took control of the whole tobacco industry, but the trust busting of Theodore Roosevelt broke up his cartel.

Not before, however, using tobacco profits he had built a model electrical generating concern -- Duke Power Company -- and then used some of this output for refining the world most plentiful metal, aluminum.

Probably no American in history more changed his native state than did James Buchannan Duke:  The American Tobacco Company, Duke Power Company, ALCOA, the Duke Foundation, and Duke University.

But meanwhile, back in Greenville ....

The factory and warehouse employees who physically worked at selling and processing tobacco worked only seasonally, while those in the cognitive and administrative echelons were on the payroll twelve-months per year.


They worked like Trojans during the tobacco season, but this was for only about half the year.

The rest of the time they were either hunting, fishing, playing golf or just "hanging around."

Their major work-place responsibility during the "off season" was picking up a check ever so often.

While hanging around between pay-days, many played poker, days on end.

When spirits flagged they were replenished from bottle or hip flask.

This was the "laid back" world -- perhaps somewhat caricatured, but not totally imaginary -- in which "Crick" was expected to circulate.

These were his sort of people, and his job was not to sell anything but just to maintain a presence and remind them that "The Daily Reflector" was interested in what they were or weren't doing.

When many of the influential men in town thought of The Reflector they first thought of "Crick," though he had little to do with actually preparing, producing or distributing the paper.

Rarely have man and circumstance been better matched, and oddly enough, he earned his keep.

Take any small circumscribed group, pay them well, give them the leisure to talk, make them garrulous with "spirits," and many good stories will flow.

This held in spades for tobacconists.

Hugh Ragsdale told me of a time when he was on "The Burley Market" out in Kentucky,

It was during the depression.

Mr. Roosevelt's "New Deal" had moved to support tobacco prices and was regulating the speed at which auctions could be conducted.

Each farmer had to come by a warehouse beforehand and obtain a number which determined his place in the sequence of the sale.


As Hugh told it one morning he was standing at the door to the warehouse before the day's sales started with an attendant who was responsible for the sequencing system

A large, stalwart Kentucky mountaineer drove up with his wagonload of tobacco and started through the door.

The attendant moved into the doorway, grabbed the reins of one of the mules at the bit and said:

"Whoa, there!
"You have to have a number to get in here!"

The farmer reached under his seat, pulled out a large pistol, waved it around and said:

"Forty-five -- that's my number!"

The attendant released the mules and replied:

"That's the next number -- come right in, Sir!"

"Crick" loved these stories, and knew many.

________   _   ________


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