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Thanksgiving in the Stripping Room


By Jene Hedden 


     For most of my early life, I participated in the Shelby County tradition of the small family farm and the growing of a “patch of Burley”. As long as I can recall, our family's planning for the year centered on the busy times associated with tobacco production.
In late winter, we “burned” the plant beds. This consisted of finding a sunny well-drained parcel of land and plowing it carefully. Afterwards, we ran a disc harrow and dragged the soil to create a smooth seedbed. Then we piled branches and logs on the plant bed and set them aflame to sterilize the soil and remove weed seeds.

     We planted the tobacco beds in March and covered them with a thin cotton canvas to keep the soil warm enough for the seeds to germinate.


     The seedlings were usually ready for transplanting in late April to mid-May. As a child, this was a time of the year when there was much to be done by kids. After the transplanting was finished, we were freed from most of the work in tobacco production until it became time to harvest the crop.

     Following the “topping” of the crop (removing the center blossom), we began the cutting and spearing of the ripe plants. We placed either five or six stalks on a four-foot wooden stick. The stalks were split by a sharp metal spear placed over the end of the stick to allow the stalk to hang on the stick.  My job was to help cut and load the tobacco on wagons and haul it to the barn. Then the tobacco was passed by hand high up in the barn and set on rails made of two by four lumbers where it would remain until the leaves had dried.

Then in the autumn, when the burley was cured and dried to a golden brown, I helped take it down from the barn and remove the sticks from the plant stalks.

     This was a time when all the family worked long days in a small shed (called a stripping room) where we separated the tobacco leaves into various grades of quality. The lower lighter colored leaves were called “trash”. The next leaves were called “lugs”. These leaves were often the most abundant and my luck was to be assigned to pull these leaves from the stalk. The topmost leaves, and often the greenest were called “tips”. I never enjoyed pulling “tips”.

When you had about all the leaves you could hold in your hand, they would be wrapped at the stem end with a smooth leaf and tied with the leaf end tucked carefully in the center to hold the cluster of leaves together. It was not hard work, but I found it monotonous. Sometimes the shed was chilly and always the gum from the leaves coated my hands until my fingers stuck together.

These were the days of family and neighbors working together…when we felt like a real team. Dad pulled the “trash” leaves and insisted we all pick up the pace. Someone, maybe a neighbor helped by pulling the “lugs”, my mother pulled “tips”, and I was responsible for keeping a supply of stalks on the table for stripping.  Then I took the stripped stalks and loaded them onto a wagon to be driven out to the field and scattered, allowing the nitrogen to leach into and enrich the soil for the next year’s crop.

In those days, tobacco was auctioned at local warehouses beginning in early November, and the successful sale of your Burley crop signaled you could now begin your wish list from the Sears-Roebuck catalog. If it was a good year I could ask for something fun. If a poor year, my request was a new winter coat, school shoes or some other practical item.

Our goal was to have the crop all stripped and ready for the warehouse by Thanksgiving Day.  However, some years, we were not finished by then and found ourselves working that day.

So mid-morning, Mother would say, “I’m going to the house”.  

     I knew that meant that she was going to finish the preparation of the Thanksgiving dinner. The preparation had begun a day or two before, delicious fragrances in the house had already signaled the gastronomic joys that would come on the big day, and the bird had baked all night in the oven. 

     We usually quit the tobacco stripping around noon when we heard the sound of the dinner bell. We walked to the house in anticipation of the meal that would follow, took off our dusty clothes at the door and headed for the bathroom to wash our hands with lye soap to remove the tobacco gum. Though the gum was gone, the earthy and spicy smell of tobacco remained on our clothes and skin.

     After a blessing of the meal, we “dug in”!  

     Dinner was always the traditional bird with dressing, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole and corn pudding, with pumpkin pie for dessert. Then all too soon, the word would come from my Dad, “Time to get back to work!”  

     I always wished we could have Thanksgiving like some of my friends, snoozing on the couch under the influence of the tryptophan from the turkey and watching football games. But, the crop had to be prepared for market, so we spent the rest of the day pulling leaves from the dry tobacco stalks.

     Our work was usually completed well before Christmas day. We felt we had failed some way if we had tobacco to strip after Christmas, so delivery of the crop to the warehouse for sale was the highlight of the crop season. Getting a fair price for the crop meant we could pay the annual bills that were due.

     I no longer have to worry about stripping tobacco on Thanksgiving Day. We sold our last crop of tobacco in the year 2000. We sold all our equipment as well, because I didn’t want to take the chance of changing my mind and deciding to grow it again! 

     I miss the money and the family camaraderie that stripping tobacco on Thanksgiving day brought me as a boy.  And I am thankful for those memories of time working together with my family.  But, now I celebrate the day in a different way.  After dinner, I stretch out on the couch in front of the TV, turn on the football games and take a nice, long Thanksgiving Day nap.