Tobacco Research: A Personal Point of View
By Jeffery A. Duvall
Editor's note: What about a topic piques a historian’s interest enough to make him or her research and write about it? In this blog, Jeffery Duvall, assistant editor of the Frederick Douglass Papers and a research associate with the Institute for American Thought at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, answers that question in relation to his article in the most recent issue of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. " 'Save Our Tobacco’: The End of the Federal Tobacco Program in the Central Ohio River Valley, 1980–2005,” appears in the Spring 2016 issue. You can access the article online, via Project MUSE, here.
Recently I was asked what first aroused my interest in tobacco farming. What popped into my mind was the memory of a lone tobacco plant towering above the vegetable garden in the backyard of my family’s suburban home in Indianapolis. My father, who by that point had a white collar job with RCA, carefully tended that tobacco plant for months. When I asked him why, all I really remember now is that he said he thought the blooms were pretty.
I was 7 or 8 at the time, and while neither my sisters nor I were growing up on a farm — unlike our parents, both of whom were raised on tobacco farms in the Ohio River Valley — I knew enough to understand that tobacco didn’t really belong in a vegetable garden. Or at least I’d never seen it when visiting my grandparent and other relatives, most of whom were still farming in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky.
Even so, I also remember that neither of my dad’s parents seemed to think it was all that strange that he wanted to raise a tobacco plant in his backyard, and that they were happy enough to let him take one home … although I do recall my grandfather joking about how much it might be worth. I also remember asking my mother why dad wanted a tobacco plant in the garden — for sentimental reasons was her rather cryptic (to the mind of a 7- or 8-year-old) reply — and her somewhat bemused acceptance of it in the midst of her vegetables.
Mostly, however, I remember thinking it was actually rather fun explaining to my friends that the big plant that dominated our garden was in fact a tobacco plant, something which none of them had ever seen before and consequently seemed quite exotic in suburbia.
Of course I was aware of the fact that even with my limited exposure, I knew far more about tobacco farming than the average Midwestern suburban kid. In addition to year-round monthly visits to my grandparents in southern Indiana (my father’s on their farm in Switzerland County and my mother’s over in neighboring Jefferson County), my sisters and I also spent a week each summer with our grandparents.
This always included at least some exposure to the daily grind of chores and other activities that characterized life on a working tobacco farm. Likewise, from an early age (although perhaps not so early as children who were actually growing up on tobacco farms) both my sisters and I were made to understand the importance of tobacco to our grandparents and other relatives in terms of their incomes. Indeed, even now I can remember my Grandfather Duvall patiently explaining why it was important that we take care not to damage the tobacco plants in the plant beds or out in the fields.
I can also remember being hugely impressed when one of my mother’s uncles took a group of us out to see the tobacco curing in his barns, and my Grandfather Morgan whispering in my ear that I was looking at least $10,000 hanging in each barn. At age 9 that was almost more money than I could imagine, and in many ways it was the first time I really understood what my relatives meant when they described tobacco as their “cash crop.”
Growing up in the city (albeit the suburbs), I never learned how to farm, let alone how to raise tobacco — the closest I ever got to that was “helping” (and I do use the term loosely) my grandparents to set tobacco a couple of times when I was about 14. But as I matured I did grow to understand how important tobacco farming had been to my family over many generations, and how much pride farmers took in their ability to successfully raise a crop of tobacco each year.
As that way of life begins to fade from the Ohio River Valley, I have tried now and then to honor their memory by documenting it as best I can.