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Tobacco In Connecticut: A Story of Change

Once over 30,000 acres in the north-central valley grew tobacco, employing thousands of teenagers; acreage has declined over 90 percent.

Despite the best efforts of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, it isn’t often that an exact date can be established for the coining of a new word (or neologism) in the English language. Such is the case, however, with the word "entheogen," which was born in 1979.

Scholars of mythology such as Carl A. P. Ruck – a Boston University professor of classics and native of Connecticut – coined the term "entheogen" to describe psychoactive plants used in a religious context to bring about an altered state of consciousness. The term first appeared in Ruck’s book, The Road To Eleusis: Unveiling The Secret of the Mysteries, and was deliberately chosen to distinguish substances used ritualistically in a religious context from the recreationally used, mind altering plants and substances implied by the terms "hallucinogenic" and "psychedelic," which have strong connections to escapist pop culture of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Derived from two Greek words – entheos (meaning "full of god") and genesthai (meaning "to bring about") – an entheogen is a substance used in a ritualistic, religious context to bring about a connection to the divine within an individual or group of individuals. Such a substance was tobacco to the aborigines of Connecticut – the Native American Indian tribes who had once lived here in abundance.

But just like other substances such as cannabis and mescaline (which also had their origins rooted in a ritualistic, religious context) tobacco also became more popular for its recreational use than for its spiritual use. In fact, it soon evolved into a cash crop consciously cultivated for recreational use by the European settlers who supplanted the Native Americans.

"Tobacco Valley," a 61-mile stretch of land running from Portland, CT, to the Brattleboro, VT, area (see featured photo) has historically been and still remains an economic force in Connecticut.

Windsor is home to the Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum on 135 Lang Road in the Northwest Park section of town. Endowed by money from a trust fund established by Windsor resident John E. Luddy, the Connecticut Valley Tobacco Historical Society was founded in 1988 to preserve the history and artifacts of the tobacco industry in Connecticut. The museum itself consists of two buildings: one, a replica of a tobacco barn filled with implements and machinery used over the years; the other, an exhibition center used to exhibit photographs, advertising, and documents relating to the tobacco industry in Connecticut. By viewing the exhibits and reading the accompanying literature, one can arrive at a very good understanding of the history of the tobacco industry in Connecticut.

According to the museum’s curator, Jay Jackman of Enfield, when we talk about Connecticut tobacco, we are talking about tobacco grown exclusively for cigars. Wild tobacco – the kind used by the Native American Indians of Connecticut – still grows in places near the river. He described that as "harsh" tobacco that is mainly used as a pesticide. Revolutionary War hero Israel Putnam of Connecticut was the first to bring back cultivated tobacco from the Caribbean to the Nutmeg State in 1763. Since then various types of tobacco have been grown in the valley, but two types have historically predominated: broadleaf and shade-grown tobacco. Both types have been used for the outer two layers of a cigar – the binder and the wrapper. Jackman claims that Connecticut-grown tobacco used for binders and wrappers is "the best in the world."

Even Cuban cigars – supposedly the finest in the world – use Connecticut tobacco for their outer two layers; though trading directly with Cuba is prohibited by law, Cuba is able to obtain Connecticut tobacco "indirectly" from other countries.

Broadleaf tobacco is grown in direct sunlight and has been part of Connecticut’s crop since the early 1800’s. It constitutes about 60 percent of the tobacco grown in the state today. Shade grown tobacco, imported from Sumatra just over 100 years ago, must be grown under tents to flourish and is much more labor intensive.

One acre of shade grown tobacco – approximately 12,000 plants – requires 5,000 yards of netting, 50 cedar poles, 350 pounds of wire, and two tons of fertilizer! It costs about $30,000 per acre to grow. Shade tobacco constitutes about 40 percent of the approximately 2,500 acres of tobacco under cultivation in the valley. The first tent for shade grown tobacco was erected on River Street in Windsor in 1900.

Acreage devoted to tobacco production in the valley peaked in 1921 at 30,800 acres under cultivation. This year, between 2,000 and 2,500 acres grow tobacco in the valley. The "down period" for tobacco accelerated in the 1970’s to about 1995, coinciding with health concerns about its use. The recent popularity of cigar smoking, however, has brought up demand somewhat. Moreover, many thousands of acres of former tobacco land have been sold for housing developments in the past 40 or so years, as the value of the land as real estate often exceeded its value for growing tobacco.

Much of the land on which Bradley International Airport now exists had once been under cultivation for tobacco, for example. The Connecticut state prison in Suffield now sits on tobacco land once owned by the Markowski family.

Generations of young people in Connecticut got their first jobs working on tobacco when they turned 14, the minimum legal age for working on a farm. My aunt, Shirley (Cooper) Fuller, began working on tobacco for Allen Pascoe in East Windsor in 1934. Later, she worked for the Turners in South Windsor and was part of a lengthy feature article in Life magazine on October 2, 1941 – the issue with Gary Cooper on the cover (see photo). Most of the people that I grew up with in Windsor Locks worked tobacco all summer for $1.30 an hour for the Christian Brothers or for the Markowski family in Suffield. A beat-up looking former school bus painted blue would make the rounds and pick up the kids between 6 and 7 a.m. Everybody would take a lunchbox and thermos with them. The work was long and hot, but at least you were with your friends, and you’d get some spending money for the weekends and for buying new clothes for school.

School finally started back up after Labor Day, and your hands would finally lose their yellow tinge by late September. Oh, and there is one more point to be made: working on tobacco provided a mighty incentive to work hard in school and get educated so that you could get a good job and not have to work on tobacco again!

Notes, Sources, and Links

  1. To learn more about the tobacco museum in Windsor, click on this link:

http://www.tobaccohistsoc.org/index.htm

  • Critical Mass Productions has recently produced a documentary film entitled "Entheogen: Awakening the Divine Within." Go to entheogen.tv to read about it. Also, a trailer of the film can be found on youtube.com.
  • For a discussion of the term "entheogen" go to the following: http://www.erowid.org/psychoactives/psychoactives_def.shtml
  •    4. On the day that I visited the tobacco museum in Windsor, a PBS filming crew was scheduled to arrive to film a piece on the history of tobacco growing in Connecticut for the network’s "America’s Heartland" series. Look for that segment in the future.

    Janet Lomba August 01, 2011 at 03:55 PM
    I also worked tobacco summers, at 14, 15, & 16, for the Kendricks Farm in Windsor. Wow it was a dirty job, my mother used to make me take the outer layer of clothing off in the downstairs bathroom, right inside the back door, and toss it directly into the washer. And showers would take forever - getting all that goo off your fingers, and out of your hair, if you forgot to wear a bandana to protect it. But the money was great for a teenager - and I was able to take 3 trips to Europe on that money - with the Windsor Cultural Club. It was all students and teachers, but because of insurance it wasn't "part of school" What great memories. Janet Lomba
    ellen hanna August 01, 2011 at 04:40 PM
    We used to have dinner at the Tobacco Valley Inn. Years earlier, as teens, we picked or used to sew in the sheds. My grandfather fired the sheds at night, tending the pots. My Aunt worked in the office for Thralls. The tobacco tar was hard to remove from our skin. We made money but the work was hard. Ellen F. Hanna
    Susan August 01, 2011 at 05:27 PM
    I worked tobacco, too, in East Windsor in the 70's (Consolidated). Like the other commenters here, I have to say it was a dirty job; we stayed with it only because we were with our friends and it was an incentive to stay in school (and it paid better than babysitting). Because we lived so close to one of the farms, we started early; pulling plants in the spring and worked during takedown in October/November when the sheds were wrapped in plastic and a humidifier running to keep the leaves moist while we stripped the laths and packed them into wooden boxes. Just one correction I would like to make: the structure that the tobacco is dried in is called a SHED, not a barn, which is used for livestock. I know people use the words interchangeably, but they are different structures with different purposes. We always laughed at people who said "barn" when referring to a tobacco shed.
    Philip R. Devlin August 01, 2011 at 05:45 PM
    The tobacco museum website uses "barn" not "shed." That is why I used it. Here is the direct quotation from the website: "The resulting Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum consists of two structures. First, an existing tobacco curing barn was remodeled to accommodate exhibits of early and modern equipment used to grow the crop. Second, a new, year-round facility was built to exhibit photographs, writings, and other documents about the crop." I presume they know what they're talking about.
    Donna Carey August 01, 2011 at 10:08 PM
    What a great article.... this could be the seed of a very interesting book... you took me back many years... luckily I was a supervisor! Donna Carey (formerly from Windsor Locks)
    Philip R. Devlin August 01, 2011 at 11:33 PM
    Thanks, Donna;click on this link to read another recent article about working on tobacco: http://www.courant.com/features/hc-parenting-teresa-pelham-20110729,0,5704029.column
    Debbie Stauffer August 01, 2011 at 11:34 PM
    Sean that is awesome that your sons work tobacco. I still can't help thinking that they are an exception. The early mornings, the heat and the dirt...hmm I don't know!! And I instinctively used the word "shed" so that is interesting the usuage of the words shed and barn!
    Jerry Riggott August 02, 2011 at 01:01 AM
    If you worked on Consolidated's Broad Brook Farm, you worked for my grandfather, Bill Miller. He retired in 1977, and Sugar Minor ran the farm afterwards. I agree, nobody who worked tobacco ever referred to a tobacco shed as a barn. You'd get a funny look and a "Huh?" if you called one a barn. Barns are where you keep hay, horses, and cows, not tobacco, so I'm not sure why the museum refers to the sheds as barns. I do know in Maryland where they raise tobacco, their sheds are called barns.
    Dan Starvish August 02, 2011 at 01:21 AM
    Great article to read. I grew up in a tobacco farming family, and still stop by the fields in the summer during harvest time to see the latest crews and to see my Uncle still watching every single detail with his broadleaf crop. I must say, though the website says barn, I would agree with Susan, its a shed. I have never once heard my family, or other large tobacco men like the Maturo family or Waldron family refer to them as barns. "Your hanging in the shed today" was a term I heard many of times, until I had to spear. Spearing was one of the hardest, but bittersweet jobs I ever did. All the work and atmosphere with your friends, made you feel like you accomplished something at days end. Anyone looking to teach your children good work ethic, find them a tobacco farm to work for! The money they earn will make them happy, but the lessons taught will last a lifetime!
    Dan Starvish August 02, 2011 at 01:24 AM
    I also meant to add, Martin Luther King worked tobacco in CT. I am pretty sure he worked in Simsbury. CPTV had a great documentary on tobacco in CT I saw over the winter.
    David Moran (Editor) August 02, 2011 at 04:23 AM
    Dan, Simsbury Patch wrote an article on the students who researched Martin Luther King's time in CT picking tobacco: http://simsbury.patch.com/articles/inspiration-in-simsbury-for-martin-luther-king-jr Dave M.
    Christine Gonyea August 03, 2011 at 02:32 AM
    Our family business was raising tobacco, Maturo Farms, my sisters and I started in the fields at 10 years old. I always say its the best job training you can get. I remember my 1st job off the farm, I was working at a garden store and stacking mulch etc. The boys would be complaining and I would just throw them like they were feathers. Farm work gives you an education and training that is impossible to receive anywhere else.
    Susan August 03, 2011 at 11:16 AM
    This comment is for Jerry Riggott: Yes! that was the farm I worked on. I knew your grandparents and lived right around the corner from them. I especially remember your grandmother, Mary. Every morning she would climb on the bus that picked us up for work to take attendance. She always said in a very loud voice, "Good morning, girls!" If you weren't awake on the ride, you sure were after that! I find it a bit irksome that the museum would not use the correct term "shed". If their intent is to preserve the history and culture of tobacco farming in the Connecticut River Valley, they should use the correct name for the structure.
    Susan August 03, 2011 at 11:30 AM
    There was a film ("Parrish") made in 1961 starring Troy Donahue and Karl Malden (and many others) with the tobacco farms as a backdrop for the story. It was filmed in East Windsor and Windsor. I believe the Library Association of Warehouse Point has a DVD copy of it. You may see some relatives in the background or recognize some land marks! Here is the Wikipedia link for it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parrish_(film)
    Philip R. Devlin August 03, 2011 at 07:18 PM
    Susan, My follow-up tobacco article next week features "Parrish." This is the 50th anniversary of the movie.
    Wayne Jones August 04, 2011 at 01:37 AM
    I remember when I heard I could get a job at 14 worling in tobacco, I said to my friends, "You mean I can work all week and they will give me $40!, Where do I sign up!" Whow...Things have changed.
    ellen hanna August 05, 2011 at 05:38 PM
    not only was Parrish, the movie filmed at a home on Poquonock Avenue, Windsor but there was a bar called the Bar G, then the Coral Club and finally the Tobbaco Shed or known to locals as the T Shed. my Aunt lived upstairs in the building and there was a hole in the floor where she could look and see just how much my Uncle was drinking. lol
    Susan August 06, 2011 at 11:22 AM
    Looking foreword to the article about the movie "Parrish". I was just a baby when the film was made, but I remember hearing stories from relatives about the filming. In one scene an uncle of mine, a volunteer fireman, is seen running with a hose to put out a shed fire.
    Tina Sheridan August 06, 2011 at 02:03 PM
    Thank you, Phil. It has been 50 years since I got my first job with Christian's. So many great memories!! Tina Sheridan
    Doe Stowell August 06, 2011 at 03:49 PM
    As a little girl in the 30's and 40's on the way to my grandparents in Massachusetts we drove through the areas of Connecticut where the tobacco was growing and drying in the shed. I was always fascinated by the big leaves. Since my father's company in New Haven made cigarette cartons I was sure that that was the tobacco in the cigarettes came from those fields.
    Jerry Riggott August 11, 2011 at 07:49 PM
    Susan, Bill died in 1989 and Mary Miller is 95 years old. I have set up a facebook group for East Windsor. Please visit and join. I have numerous pictures from around town. Comments welcome. Contact me when you join.
    Jason Jackman August 23, 2011 at 07:18 PM
    On behalf of the museum, I apologize for the error on our website. It is not consistently referred to as a "barn" throughout the website. This was simply an error on one portion of the site describing the structures that comprise the museum itself. I appreciate you all for pointing out this error and please rest assured that visitors to the museum are always told that these structures are sheds not barns.
    Jason Jackman August 23, 2011 at 07:21 PM
    Hi Susan. I apologize for the error on our museum's website. They are not consistently referred to as barns throughout the website. This was an error on one portion of our site that was simply describing the structures that comprise the museum. Rest assured that all visitors to the museum are told that the structures are called sheds not barns.
    Barbara Avery October 19, 2011 at 12:46 AM
    Working tobacco was the best on-the-job training I've ever had! Lied about my age the first year and got a job on the Doye farm in East Windsor. Funny how Kenny (the owners son-in-law) didn't find out I was only 13 until the day we finished in the fields. He told me to make sure I put down the Doye farm when I appied for my working papers the next year. At 14 I was one of the first into the sheds and quickly learned to sew in order to make piecework wages. Spent four years on that farm working with the "Florida girls" and treasure every memory and friendship that came from it. My father's family immigrated from Hungary and made cigars in NYC for Consolidated in the winter and spent the summers on their Westfield MA farms. He took us to see Parrish then on a driving tour of all the filming sites. Dan Starvish is right about the work ethic. Tobacco farms sent thousands of hard workers into the workforce!
    Mark Danforth November 06, 2011 at 02:18 PM
    I'm surrounded by tobacco! I too picked tobacco for two summers, 74 and 75 I think. Lived in Tolland and would take the bus from Rockville center or Ellington five corners to Culbro in South Windsor. Worked with friends from school. We made $2.00/hour. Hard work, great memories. The house I lived in until I was eight, on Skungamaug rd. in Tolland had an old tobacco shed. In 1994 I purchased a house on this same street. The previous owners family came from N.Y. in 1904 and worked in the cigar making business. We found several cigar union coupon booklets from the 1880's and 90's, etc. in the attic. Even found a large tin in the attached shed attic with eleven "hands" of tobacco. The house was built in the 18th century and we constantly find clay tobacco pipe sherds in the yard. I find the history of tobacco very interesting. I'll have to get over to the museum, as I haven't visited yet. Really enjoyed reading this post.
    Margaret Sheldon Bellanger March 24, 2013 at 06:16 AM
    Working on the Silverherz tobacco farm somewhere outside of Manchester, Connecticut in the summer of 1966 was one of the best experiences I had as a 15yr old teenager. This was the first time I had been away from home for any length of time, and I was spending the summer with friends from my high school. Busses drove us from our pick up location in east Tampa all through the night, until we reached the YMCA in downtown Manchester which was turned into a dormitory to house 125 girls and the staff of cooks. The first few weeks we began in the shaded fields and weeded the tobacco, the next couple of weeks we learned how to tie up the plants, and the rest of the weeks I spent as a sewer. I even met the inventor of the sewing machine as he visited the shed I worked in. We were very well cared for and supervised. The company planned outings every weekend for us at amusement parks, castles, Mystic Seaport, New York City and trip to Radio City Music Hall, ferryboat to Statue of Liberty, tour through Boston, shopping in Hartford for Bass Weejuns. I was very grateful to have had a job paying $1.00 and hour with an opportunity of making more if I managed to sew another bundle of lathes than the minimum number. I really never knew who I was working for and would be interested in learning a little more about the history of this company.
    Bill Carter January 17, 2014 at 01:09 AM
    First job I ever had was dragging tobacco leaves out of the fields in Connecticut, 1.10 an hour but we lived in a dorm and they fed us, golden days, on Google maps I found the dorm we lived in and the pond next to it, also the dairy barn behind it is still there, the seed tobacco area is still in the same place
    ellen hanna January 18, 2014 at 12:41 PM
    My Aunt, Anne Kradas worked for Thralls office for 30 years. she was happy there. I worked for Kendricks as a sewer, or whoever was hiring for 2 summers. My husband worked for 2 days under the shade nets when he thought of a 'better method' of picking and was fired. we needed the money.
    Vic Molek February 01, 2014 at 07:17 PM
    Great article and though I'm from Pennsylvania I worked in those fields for 3 yrs (1958,59,60). Picked for AST from Camp Hazelwood and attended church in Poquonock each Sunday. The people in tobacco valley were very friendly. I drove by there in 2010 but my old camp was gone and they were growing vegetables at that intersection.
    Dan J February 27, 2014 at 05:34 AM
    Worked at HC Thrall from 72 to 75 while in high school. The fields were located on Day Hill Road and Marshall Phelps Road in Windsor, They also had a field in Windsor Locks on Old County Road. Started at 1.38 an hour in 1972 and made 2.01 in my last year in 1975. The work was hard but learned a work ethic that still sticks with me today. Walked a 1.5 miles to the bus stop at Dexter Plaza in Windsor Locks with my jug of Kool Aide and bought donuts for lunch at the bakery next to the plaza. The work was back breaking. If you can hack that you could take anything that anybody wants to throw at you. Today, still working in private sector at a challenging IT job and my PT job at UPS at age 56. Came home every day and had to wash down in the shower for 10 minutes to get the tar out of my hair and body. My parents worked in potato fields in Maine in the 1940's respected my work ethic because I never quit. Do any local kids want to pick tobacco today?

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