Knowing about the Tobacco: Women, Burley, and Farming in the Central Ohio River Valley
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Knowing about the Tobacco:
Women, Burley, and Farming in the Central Ohio River Valley

For most of the past century, women in the central Ohio River valley played a series of shifting roles on the ubiquitous tobacco farms of the region. Initially, women north and south of the river modeled their activities upon inherited notions of what constituted proper behavior. However, within a few decades of the introduction of wide-scale commercial cultivation of burley tobacco, farm women began exploring a variety of choices in their relationship to the most important cash crop of the region. For those women with the wherewithal to support the decision, this meant maintaining a careful façade of ignorance about all aspects of tobacco farming. Others decided on a life-cycle approach, helping to raise tobacco in their youth but withdrawing their labor from the fields as they aged. And some, with increasing ease over time, chose instead to maintain their involvement in raising tobacco over their whole work life. This article explores the ways in which these choices were made over time and the different variables that influenced them.

Between 1909 and 2004, tobacco farmers in the central Ohio River valley followed a seasonal schedule shaped in large part by the demands of successfully delivering an annual burley crop from plant bed to warehouse. This annual cycle not only shaped the daily routine of the farmers themselves, but it also molded the economic and social lives of entire communities scattered up and down the [End Page 317] length of the Ohio and Kentucky River valleys, such as Switzerland County, Indiana, and Carroll County, Kentucky.1 This way of life embraced disparate communities and fixed them firmly to a resurgent twentieth-century tobacco culture that was heir to both the first Anglo-American tobacco culture, which developed in the James River valley of Virginia in the seventeenth century, and to the original tobacco culture of the Native Americans.

Burley tobacco overshadowed every other agricultural commodity grown in the central Ohio River valley for most of the last century. Indeed, by mid-century 1042 of the 1283 farms in Switzerland County and 744 of the 833 farms in Carroll County were tobacco farms. On average, from the 1920s through the 1990s, Carroll County farms produced between three and four million pounds of burley tobacco each year, while the farms in Switzerland County produced two to three million pounds.2 Even during the "bad times" when tobacco prices were low, burley was, at the very least, of comparable value to most alternative cash crops. During the "good times" when prices were high, relatively few commercial agricultural commodities have ever been quite as lucrative as tobacco.3 Indeed, the fact that the [End Page 318] annual tobacco crop of the region could be grown for a significant profit on relatively small plots of land, even on hillsides if necessary, made burley tobacco particularly ideal as a commercial crop for the small, hilly communities of the central Ohio River valley.4

Moreover, for most of the twentieth century, as a direct result of the economic stability introduced to commercial tobacco cultivation by the federal tobacco program, burley tobacco also provided a remarkable degree of social stability to the region by consistently supporting a comfortable, middle-class existence for the operators of small family farms. This fact was celebrated, most colorfully, by the unidentified author of a letter to the editor of the News-Democrat in 1944 who boasted that tobacco would "pay off the mortgage, if there still is one, buy a used car or a new one after the war is over, purchase the winter's needs and maybe still be able to take a few war [End Page 319] bonds on the side … it's a wonder crop in more ways than one, but we wouldn't be without it, good, bad, or indifferent."5

Scholars have argued that raising tobacco became the "quintessential family enterprise" on farms in the burley belt and that it contributed greatly to the "maintenance of … family tradition."6 Indeed, for most of the past one hundred years the men, women, and children of the central Ohio...