- Special Sections
- Public Notices
For a 100 years, maybe 200, my Owen County family relied on growing tobacco for their economic health. Of course, they did not know how unhealthy smoking was for their bodies, but even understanding that as I do now, I am stunned that within a handful of years, six bent barns have come to stand empty. Fertile fields lie fallow. And the mammoth tobacco auction warehouses that once dominated towns like Carrollton, Cynthiana, and Lexington have become, like dinosaurs, extinct overnight.
My childhood memories of Christmastime intertwine with the tobacco market like conjoined twins, making it is difficult for me to separate one from the other.
The Sears Wish Catalog would arrive the week after Thanksgiving, and I would sit, then, in a corner of the stripping room with its colored pictures spread on my lap while my parents worked 12-hour days to make my wishes come true.
Preparing the tobacco for market was next to the final step in an economic process that had begun in the early spring.
The final step, of course, was selling the tobacco. My family usually opted to take our crop to Lexington, which claimed to be the largest burley tobacco market in the world. I have no reason to think the Lexington Chamber of Commerce was exaggerating. All over town, gigantic auction warehouses came right up to the edge of busy thoroughfares like South Broadway and Fourth Street, a visual statement of the enormous economic impact tobacco held for Lexington businessmen as well as the region’s farmers.
Now, the old warehouses have been torn down or gentrified into loft apartments. Tobacco has become a villain, and few mourn the demise of the auction and government price support system that sustained it. The tobacco warehouses and auctions will soon linger only in footnotes – like flatboats on the Kentucky River – and in the memories of farm kids like me.
The burley tobacco market (not to be confused with North Carolina’s flue-cured market) opened in early December on a date calculated to be the coldest of the year. The cavernous buildings were walled with cheap sheets of tin that did little more than infuriate the wind, and a damp chill oozed up through the concrete floors until feet went numb and the roots of the hair on the head froze stiff.
Despite the frigid temperatures, excitement electrified us when we heard the auctioneer’s rapid-fire chant echo off the high rafters. He moved up and down the mile-long aisles stacked with dry, brown tobacco, pausing only a few moments at each person’s crop. When he finally came to our baskets – which were not exactly baskets but woven pallets that cupped shoulder high hills of small, crisp tobacco “hands,” small bundles of leaves neatly tied together — we held our breath. A year’s work hung in the balance of a single minute. Our hearts beat so loud we couldn’t be sure of the agreed on price as the auctioneer, speaking in his quick foreign-like language moved on to sell another family’s sweat and tears to the highest bidder.
Only then could we rush forward to see the sale price the buyer had written on the tag.
Only then could we leave the rank-smelling place.
The odor of the dried, dusty tobacco leaves was so intense in those warehouses that it cannot be described in olfactory terms. It was something more, its presence so strident that it seemed to take on three-dimensional shape like the walls and the floor. Alive, it stormed our nostrils, seeped deep into our lungs, and then emerged through our pores to cling to our skin and hair. The first thing we did when we left was to breathe in the outdoor, winter air, as thirsty for it as we had been for ice water in August fields.
Only then could we let the euphoria well up within us as we drove downtown where the fine stores lined up along Main Street.
We would spend freely for one time during the year, on Christmas gifts and small luxuries, a new electric Mixmaster for my mother, or maybe a transistor radio for me. We would eat at Walgreen’s Drugstore – the “all you can eat” fried fish in a basket was always my choice—or at Purcell’s Department Store’s more genteel cafeteria with its fancy fruit salads and fluffy desserts.
Years later, I would learn that the Woolworth’s I thought was so wonderful really was wonderful, a magnificent example of art deco architecture. Ditto for the Kentucky and Ben Ali movie theaters. I would learn that the Phoenix Hotel with its canopy that stretched from door to street, its uniformed doormen, and its thick-carpeted lobby was a pretty good version of a first-class hotel anywhere. Lowenthal’s fur-filled windows and Embry’s vestibule heavy with the scent of an expensive perfume were as hoity-toity as shops I’d later see in much larger cities in other parts of the country.
But the burly tobacco warehouses were unique. And so on this frosty December morning, I stare at my Christmas tree and remember.
Gran Hudson and Daddy and Mother, our neighbors Jock and Doris and Charlie Wright who swapped work with us, and those, too, who farmed our land on our behalf, Sonny Carr, Henry Bruner, Alan Wainscott, Rueben Perkins, Dallas Smith and the others whose names are lost to me. I thank them for making my Christmas wishes come true.