I was born in 1982, or as my seven-year-old calls it, the “nineteen hundred and eighties.” No, you may not call it that. It wasn’t that long ago. It was just the other day. It was “the eighties” – we can all agree to that, can’t we?
The eighties were the last decade of tobacco’s long and glorious reign. I just made that up; it’s not written in stone. But then again, nothing is, because it didn’t happen that long ago. We had paper in the 1980s. My dad even worked on computers, though they were about the size of a car and used floppy disks that resembled square records. You know, records? With music? That you put on a record player? This was just the other day, I’m telling you.
And in that golden age of tobacco, North Carolina shined brightest amongst the brightleaf cultivators. We grew so much of the stuff, it became the tar coating our heels. Cigarette smoke clung to our mountains in fine white wisps. Tobacco stained our soil a rich, sepia brown. (As an aside, did you know that sepia is the Latin word for cuttlefish, since it’s the color of their ink? Now you know.)
Tobacco barns still dot North Carolina roadsides, picturesque in their obsolescence. The photo at the beginning of this post hangs in my five-year-old’s bedroom. I don’t display any other smoking-related memorabilia in his room, but old tobacco barns are art, and they won’t last forever. These gently leaning wooden relics hold snippets of songs, the babble of babies on blankets, and the goodwill of neighbors helping neighbors, in one hundred degree harvest season heat. They hold histories – like this one recorded by David Cecelski, or this one, in Our State Magazine. But once the tobacco curing process became mechanized, the barns were left to slowly decay.
Yet, North Carolina is still #1 in tobacco, producing 250 million pounds in 2022. You can still drive by fields of wide wavy leaves, and you can still buy NC-made cigarettes at the gas station.
Also, you can still drive by hospital staff in scrubs, puffing their cancer sticks by the second busiest road in town. I can only assume they’re not allowed to smoke on hospital grounds, and I’m awed by their commitment to the cigarette break, no matter the cost. Was there ever a job that needed it more and allowed it less?
They’re not the only ones still smoking. It’s the lady driving the car beside me, a fella outside the grocery store, one of your relatives. The other day, I went into the women’s bathroom at the park where my kids play baseball, and it smelled of cigarette smoke. It smelled of the past.
Since the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on tobacco’s harmful effects, most of us have moved on – to vaping or abstinence, quitting or never starting. I hope my kids never smoke, of course, though I myself breathed the dragon’s breath in my youth. Mine were clove cigarettes – both worse for you and more alluring. I once ordered a variety case straight from India, a mixed box of spiced tobacco chocolates. I think about those cigarettes and feel nostalgic – they look better from a distance. We look back at the age of tobacco through sepia-colored glasses.
Lately, I’ve been noticing when music mentions smoking in the past – here are snippets of two great songs, with cigarettes:
Jason Isbell, “Something to Love”
“I was born in a tiny southern town
I grew up with all my family around
We made music on the porch on Sunday nights
Old men with old guitars smoking Winston Lights”
“Someone said, ‘Youth is wasted on the young’
I spilled every last drop of time that summer in the sun
My daddy had a Timex watch
Cigarette in his hand and a mouthful of scotch
Spinnin’ me around like a tilt-a-whirl on his arm”
Now doesn’t that just take you back in time to the nineteen hundred and eighties? Me, too.
2 thoughts on “Tobacco Barns”
Oh my god why are you so good?!? You crack me up. This should be in a fancy magazine, ma’am!
You tell the fancy magazines that!