I have a confession to make. I used to be a stripper. I started stripping when I was in junior high just to make some extra money and continued all the way through high school and college. I was a really good stripper. I could strip as fast as anybody else that stripped with me. The only drawback was that I only stripped when it was cold, mainly November through January. When you’re a stripper in Wisconsin during those months, it’s not easy to stay warm!
Every year in December, one of my friends back in Wisconsin sends me pictures of himself stripping just to make me jealous that I’m not there stripping with him.
For those readers that might think less of me for making money as a stripper, calm down and let me explain. Stripping is the final step in the growing and harvesting of leaf tobacco, a curious crop that is produced in a small geographical area of south-central Wisconsin.
I suspect many of you have spent hours a day thinking to yourselves, “I wonder how leaf tobacco is grown and harvested.” Well, today’s your lucky day! I’m about to tell you.
When we moved to Wisconsin in the summer of 1971, I was going into 6th grade. I got hired by a farmer named Glenn Hagen to help with a variety of farm work. I’ve written about Glenn in previous blogs and told some stories about the dirty jobs I was given. I’ve never told you about the strange cash crop that Glenn and a lot of other dairy farmers in the area grew each year. Most farm labor is difficult and dirty. Nothing, however, compares to the arduous manual labor that is required for each step in the tobacco growing process.
Late that summer I was conscripted into Glenn’s army of child laborers. The workforce included his two children, two of their cousins, Yours Truly and two of my siblings. We were paid $2.50 an hour with no union to fall back on should we decide to strike for more money. We did consider a walkout at one point, but the lunches were just too good. I had missed the late spring planting season but had arrived in time for the harvest.
Over the next few years, we all formed a love/hate relationship with the tobacco harvesting process. The camaraderie was wonderful, to be honest. We conscripts had a lot of fun while we worked. The lunches made by Glenn’s wife were out of this world and the difficult work, in my opinion, steeled us for any future crapola jobs we might get some day.
You might be wondering why Wisconsin dairy farmers, who worked like dogs already, would add a cash crop to their plate that took so much time and effort. Answer? $MONEY$. Raising tobacco was a lucrative endeavor and could help these farmers make ends meet should the price of milk be down or should any other disasters befall them.
Let me walk you through the process.
In late spring the farmers would build tobacco beds, steam the dirt to kill any weeds, plant the tobacco seeds in this clean dirt and cover the beds with a white canvas. They were basically mini greenhouses. A couple weeks later, once the plants were 8 – 10 inches tall, we kids would sit on the sides of the beds and pull the tallest plants out one at a time and place them in wooden boxes.
The planting was done by veteran tobacco growers who sat on the back of a strange-looking but ingenious contraption that was pulled backwards by a tractor at a snail’s pace. A wheel with fingers would turn slowly and each planter would take turns placing a single plant in the rotating fingers. There was a water tank that would give each plant a drink to start the growing process. These plants were then nurtured like children until they grew to maturity. It was a feather in one’s cap to finally be allowed to ride the planter! I’ll never forget my first time. Boy, what a day!
After planting, we would replant. Walking up and down the rows, if we spotted a single plant that had died or had been crushed by a tractor, we would replace it and water it by hand. Every single plant counted. Once they took root and started to grow we would walk up and down the rows with hoes removing even the smallest weeds that might divert nutrients away from the tobacco plants. This was usually done in the heat of the summer...and Wisconsin summers can be very hot!
The plants would grow to maturity over the summer and eventually stand about five feet tall. Before harvesting, we would remove by hand all the flowering suckers that grew out of each plant, a process called topping. This would allow the lower leaves to fill out over the next few weeks.
Come mid-August, the harvest would begin. The first step was to cut each plant down just above the soil. Each cutter used a special tobacco axe that had a stout wooden handle with a thin metal blade honed to a razor’s edge. An experienced cutter could whack through a plant in one swing, moving down the row stooped over, rhythmically slaughtering plants as he went. Bend, whack! Bend, whack! Bend, whack! At the end of each row, the cutter would take a whet stone and resharpen his axe before continuing. It didn’t happen often, but I saw blood spilt on more than one occasion when a wayward chop sliced through work boot and into foot.
Cutting and piling was best done on warm, sunny days because the plants had to wilt a bit before the next step in the process could begin. We would walk down the rows of murdered plants and pile them into mounds about three feet high. There they would sit for half a day before the stringers would take over. Some farmers would string right off the ground. Others, like Glenn, used string horses, wooden contraptions that looked like sawhorses in which a wooden lathe (lat) about four feet long could be placed. At the end of the lathe, a stringer would fit a hollowed out metal spear that was, again, razor sharp. Each plant was pierced in the middle of the stalk; seven to eight plants could fit on each lathe before being piled on the ground again. Row after row. Pile after pile we would spear those poor plants. We wore heavy gloves for this job. Still, it was not unusual for a careless stringer to run the point of the spear through glove and into hand, once again drawing blood.
Once all the plants had been impaled, a driver would bring a specially designed tobacco wagon and load up all the harvested plants. Hoisting the lathes from the ground to the wagon loader was no easy task as the plants were still heavy with moisture. He would then transport the plants to the long, red tobacco sheds that dot the countryside in this part of the state.
These tobacco sheds have a unique feature that allows for slats in the walls to be opened in order to let the tobacco leaves dry out more quickly. Hanging, like many of the other tasks in the harvesting process, is difficult and dangerous. The sheds are outfitted with hand cut poles that are spaced just far enough apart to hold the tobacco lathes filled with plants. Starting at the peak of the shed, three to four people will hang the tobacco. One person would stand on top of the tobacco wagon and hand a lathe to a second person who in turn swung it up to a third person who tossed it up to the person in the peak. Each hanger straddled the poles while doing this. Falling from the peak of a tobacco shed doing this precarious job was something to be feared. Consequently, only the most experienced farmers handled this job.
The plants would hang in these drying sheds from late August through the end of November, gradually turning from bright green to brown. The leaves became brittle during the cold, fall weather. Luckily, this part of Wisconsin has a strange winter weather phenomenon called case weather. It’s a time when temperatures warm up into the 30s or 40s with stretches of foggy, humid days that soften the tobacco leaves enough so they can be taken down from the sheds without crumbling to dust.
A few years back, we were in Madison on a business trip. I took the afternoon to drive out to the place where I had lived as a child. I stopped in at the Phil Nordlie homestead, a farmer I had worked for from time to time. His son Mark ran the show now. When I pulled into the driveway, I could see activity in one of the tobacco sheds. I walked into the shed and yelled, “Hello? Anybody home?” From the top of the shed I heard, “Hello! I’m up here!” Mark climbed down from the peak of the shed where he was hanging tobacco. He was 65 years old at the time. We shook hands and I said, “You must be crazy to still be hanging the peak!” He said, “Well, a couple of my workers didn’t show up today, so I had no choice.” Meanwhile, I saw a woman outside on a John Deere riding lawn mower. It was his mother, Lila Mae, mowing the lawn. She was 91 at the time. Say what you will, but these farmers only know one thing, and that’s hard work, every day, sun up to sun down.
Once the tobacco leaves were softened, the farmers climbed back into the sheds and took down each lathe by hand. They re-piled them on flat wagons and drove them to the strip house and piled them in interlocking circles. On most farms, the strip house was a vacant shed that had been outfitted with some special equipment. First and foremost was the steamer. A steamer consisted of an old wood burning stove that had been retrofitted with a huge pan on top. The pan would be filled with water and after a fire was going, the water would come to a boil and the steam would permeate the strip house, making the leaves even softer and more pliant before they could be stripped. I can still remember the feeling of walking into Glenn’s strip house. It could be 10 degrees outside, but as soon as I opened the door, I could feel the warmth of the steam coming off the stove and the musty, sweet smell of the tobacco leaves. He would always have a 6-pack of 16 oz. Pepsi bottles chilling in the window sill and a big box of Nilla Wafers to munch on when we got hungry. We could strip down (no pun intended) to our flannel shirts and get busy!
The strip house had stalls where each stripper would stand. You would grab a lathe and place it in a bracket bolted to the wall. Starting with the first plant, you would pull the leaves off each stalk on the lathe from top to bottom. Glenn was the fastest stripper I ever saw, and I saw a lot of strippers in my day. He could rip through eight plants on a lathe in 30 seconds, strip the empty stalks from the lathe, reload and get stripping again before most people would have three plants finished. If your hands got full of leaves before the lathe was finished, you would tuck the extra leaves between your legs and continue. Once all the plants had been stripped, you would bunch all the leaves together and place them neatly into a tobacco press. This ancient machine was simply a three-sided box that the strippers would fill to the top with leaves. Then, a press would be placed on top, and you could compress the bunched leaves into a tight bale that would be wrapped with brown paper and tied in three places with thick twine. That was the end of the line for those tobacco plants planted eight months ago!
Once all the plants had been stripped and the leaves baled, they were transported to one of the tobacco companies in Edgerton or Stoughton. The bundles would cure in huge warehouses for the next seven years. Warehouse workers would rotate the bundles every couple months. At the end of seven years, the leaves could then be made into the final product: big leaf chew! Red Man is the main brand produced in this area.
In the end, I know what you’re wondering. Did you ever use the product you helped produce? Did you chew Red Man? The answer is yes. Yes, I did. I started chewing Red Man when I played baseball in college. A couple of us guys would mix a big ‘ol chaw of Red Man with a stick of Doublemint gum. We would chew it together and then stick it back in one of our cheeks and try to bail out all the spit that was produced. We spit and spat and spit and spat throughout the games. To be honest, I really didn’t like it that much. It gave me the willies, but I thought it made me look cool, like a big league player. One summer, my dad came to watch me play baseball. After the game, we were driving home together. My dad rarely criticized me, but after a short silence, he said, “Daniel, you know that big chaw of tobacco you put in your mouth while you play ball?”
I said, “Yeah?”
“It really makes you look stupid.”
I laughed. I knew he was right. That was the last time I ever chewed!