I have new pictures from the morning of August 31 when they were starting to cut the field of tobacco that I have been doing a photo essay on for the last several weeks. It is nice that I actually got the hands doing the actual job, though I am not sure it truly shows enough. Again, a fond memory for me. I admit to having done a large amount of this kind of work as a teenager. Aside from putting in hay during the summer, actually cutting tobacco right before and even after school started was the best money-making time of my youth.
I admit that I was never super fast, cutting when I was getting paid (not so much at home – where I tended toward lazy – but it was a small crop at home too) at a good steady rate. It is hard work for those with a strong back. To really be good you have to find an almost musically driven pace and hardly ever rise up from your bent over position. I can see it in my mind’s eye, in the field just as the dew burns off, thin leather glove on my right hand only that fits like a second skin. Typically it is pick up the stick that has been dropped for you ahead of time, jab it into the usually hard ground with a slight tilt forward. Drop the spear, a cone-shaped metal device with a sharp point, over the end of the roughly four-foot, usually oak stick, with clunk of sound. Grasping the stalk to right immediately in front of the stick with the left hand mid way up, use the tobacco knife, or as the locals call it the tomahawk, to strike and cut the stalk right above the ground. Without raising up and just knowing where that spear is, you catch the cut in the right hand, and moving the stalk to the horizontal you hit the spear-tip center of the stalk and jab it down. The sound of the light thump, the split of the stalk as it is opened up the ring that follows as the bell-like shape the spear comes to magical live. Usually most tobacco was good-sized and you put six stalks a stick. I worked three up on my right and three back on my left before proceeded to the start the process all over again.
The thump of the hatchet on the stalk, spliiiiitthhh of the stalk, and ting of the spear set the cadence. How I wish I had a recording of the sounds, as I just can not do them justice. Six of those and then the clump of the spear on the wood of the tomahawk, the thud of the next stick into the ground and repeat six more times. If you were decent and not going to be ran off the farm, you did that process approaching a hundred times an hour. If you were good and really hustled a lot of folks could do that process close to two times a minute. I hear of contests of where those numbers seem slow, but I would not want to work the loading or in the barn behind someone who did it much faster than that. They get slopping, don’t hit the stalk center and tend toward split outs – meaning the stalk falls off the stick before you get it up in the barn for curing. More about that hopefully in the next couple of days.