Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Big Burley

Big Burley is not the guy in the picture so much as it is the large, leafy plant next to him. I thought I should first make that clarification. Now for those not in the know Burley tobacco is a tobacco variety unique to the Appalachian (apple-atchin, correct pronunciation, damn Yankees like to screw it up) region. The Burley tobacco variety is used by cigarrette manufacturers in blends with other tobacco varieties such as Bright Leaf in order to give a cigarrette a sweeter flavor. Anyway, enough about the stuff itself, all that said, it is the dying Appalachian culture that has evolved around the production of Burley tobacco that I am concerned about.
Many consider coal to be the product that built Appalachia. I cordially disagree. Burley tobacco made a larger impact on the region and it's culture. It is only with the dawn of modern industrialization and the decline of "Big Tobacco" that Burley has rapidly begun to be forgotten as a true source of Appalachian culture. For example, in Southwest Virginia I can only think of 5 counties (Buchanon, Dickenson, Lee, Tazewell and Wise) that have strong ties to coal. Twelve other SwVA counties economic roots are in Burley Tobacco. Get my drift.
It would be interesting to find out how many tobacco warehouses have been torn down or turned into flea markets in the past twenty years. Every fall Main Street in Abingdon, VA once played host to farmers going to market. Now farmers sell directly to manufacturers. Tobacco barns are now used for storage instead of their original use, which was far more preparatory. Fields once plowed to harvest the crop now bear the scars of subdivisions and trailer parks. Heck, when I was in high school I only knew of a few male classmates that had not worked in a field of Burley tobacco. Anyway, you see where I am going with this. So, the next time you have a chance go explore an old Burley Tobacco barn, the wonderful aroma of dried tobacco will surely bring back many fond memories.



Eric Drummond Smith said...

Dude, I dig on the Morgan-esque discussion, but I have to respond to the assertion that Burley is the primary product influencing the region's culture. Now you may be right as to the effects on Southern Southwest Virginny and indeed East Tennessee. But as to the rest of Southwest Virginia, West Virginia, and East Kentucky, I'm gonna' say coal was much bigger, followed by lumber, which I think was also dominant in Western Virginia and North Carolina. Thoughts?

Our Goblin Market said...

Actually Washington County was the largest county in the state and close to the largest in the Northeast for Agriculture. There were more farms per square acre in Washington County than in any other industry. I think this might be brought down to the county line so both of you are right. Also, corn was a close second to tobacco in Washington County.

SteveLong said...

Don't know about southwest VA as much, but what Shawn states is pretty darned accurate as far as northeast TN goes, at least in an overall agricultural sense. Beans were king here up until probably the 60s. Burley was around of course, and really took the prominent cash crop role after the bean market declined.

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