Friday, July 20, 2007

Tobacco Ax to Grind

A few months back I posted a picture of a farm tool and asked folks if they could tell me what the object was. I indeed knew what the object was but wanted to have some fun with our readers. A few folks correctly identified it as a tobacco knife which is used in the production of burley tobacco.

The knife was a recent gift from my uncle George Bob by way of my dad. I had never seen one in all my time helping in my grandparent's tobacco fields.


The items pictured here are tools that I was more familiar with. I found these lurking in the general purpose barn on grandma and grandpa's farm. The tobacco barn complete with the “stripping room” where four generations of Ralstins had stripped and hand tied tobacco is now just a grassy field. These tools and a pile of tobacco stakes are all that remain of a family occupation that spanned over two counties and 200 years.



  1. Beaters – These crude homemade mallets were used to drive the tobacco stakes or sticks into the ground after a number of tobacco stalks had been threaded onto the sticks.


  1. Tobacco spear – This conical piece of metal with the pointed tip was used to split the pithy tobacco stalk and allow the the stalk to be threaded onto the stake. Typically 5 to 6 stalk were loaded on to each stake.


  1. Tobacco stake or stick – this long square or rectangular cross-sectioned stick is make of hardwood with with sharpened ends. Burley tobacco stalks are cut from the ground and split lengthwise with the spear or knife so that they could be threaded or "speared" onto these stakes. The stakes are then pounded into the ground using the beaters. After the tobacco has been staked in the field for the required number of days the stakes, still carrying the whole tobacco stalks, are gathered and hung in the tobacco barn to cure.


  1. Tobacco ax – This ax looks to be a store bought item. The tobacco ax is used to cut the tobacco stalk from the ground. In some area these tools are called tobacco knives but in our area a tobacco knife is a completely different tool.


  1. Tobacco ax – This ax is homemade and looks to be fairly new.


  1. Tobacco ax – This ax appears to have a commercial handle but it is possible that the ax blade has been replaced.


Burley tobacco production was ubiquitous in Appalachia and is much older than coal or almost any other industry typically associated with the region. It seems appropriate that our most controversial “legal” crop is Appalachia's only or at least most lucrative cash crop.


3 comments:

SteveLong said...

This post brings back lots of memories for me. I have spent countless hours using most of those tools. We didn't drive the tobacco sticks into the ground, though. We typically cut in pairs. One would cut and hand directly to the partner who would spear it onto the tobacco stick. In later years, we began a different technique. Everyone would go through cutting (two rows at a time), piling the tobacco stalks into piles of six, with the butt ends turned the same way. Then, when the desired amount was on the ground, we would go through and put one stick on each pile, then proceed to spear it up.

I hated those days with a passion, but looking back on it now, it wasn't so bad. It was hard work, but it was a way of life.

K&M said...

I have fond childhood memories of being in the grading room of the tobacco barn while my great-grandparents and parents worked. They taught me to tie, but mostly I sat on a quilt on top of a stack of pallets behind the coal stove, coloring, while they worked. I loved listening to them talk, my grandparents telling stories...I miss that so much.

Wesley said...

I'm in NC in the middle of Flue-Cured tobacco country, which is the type I'm familiar with but I'm raising my first crop of Burley this year. I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out.