- “Save Our Tobacco”: The End of the Federal Tobacco Program in the Central Ohio River Valley, 1980–2005
In 1998, President Bill Clinton visited Carrollton, Kentucky, for the first time since his brief stop during the 1992 presidential campaign. He came to take part in a roundtable discussion on ways to stop teen smoking, but local residents freely expressed their concern over the future of tobacco, which had long been the main cash crop in Carroll County. The overall consensus seemed to be that while “most people [in the area] liked Bill Clinton . . . they were worried about what he [was] going to do about tobacco.” When he arrived in Carrollton, a banner with the message “Welcome President Clinton/Save Our Tobacco” greeted him. As he left town, another banner, proclaimed, “We Smoke, We Inhale, We Vote.” Gladys Duncan, a resident of Carroll County, perhaps best summed up the local mood: “I think it’s great that Bill Clinton is coming here . . . but I hope he doesn’t hurt tobacco.” Others, however, were less enthusiastic. Bob Yocum, another Carroll County native and former tobacco grower, believed that the “town would go bankrupt without tobacco.” He noted that the president “didn’t talk about smoking” the last time he was in Carroll County and wondered “why he’s got to talk about it now.” Perhaps the most defiant expression of local pride in their traditional way of life was a sign posted prominently in a popular [End Page 189] diner located in downtown Carrollton that stated simply, “Thank You for Smoking! Support Your Local Tobacco Farmers.” In the spring of 1998, most farmers in the central Ohio River Valley took great comfort both from President Clinton’s public statement that “the tobacco farmers [had] not done anything wrong” and his repeated assurances that he “did not want to put the tobacco companies and farmers out of business.”1
Since the New Deal programs of the 1930s, tobacco farmers clearly had benefited from government intervention into the management of their farms. In exchange for losing the freedom to choose how much tobacco they grew each year, farmers were guaranteed transparent and standardized grading for their most important crop. Thanks to the Lexington-based Burley Tobacco Growers’ Cooperative Association, tobacco farmers were also assured both a buyer and a profitable minimum price for it, regardless of whether or not the tobacco was sold at auction. Established in 1941, the “New Pool,” or “pool” as it was more commonly known, was charged with purchasing any tobacco that failed to be sold to the tobacco companies during each year’s auction season. The purchase price would be the minimum guaranteed by the government. The federal government’s strict regulation of the tobacco supply ensured not only that tobacco remained one of the nation’s most valuable agricultural commodities but that the tobacco bases allotted to each farm added significantly to the overall value of the relatively small farms that characterized the central Ohio River [End Page 190] Valley. Within two years of Clinton’s 1998 visit, however, the tobacco companies launched a program seen by many farmers as an effort to undermine the century-old loose-leaf warehouse-auction system by moving to a system of contracting directly with the farmers for each season’s crop. The resulting move away from the government’s tobacco program has led to both a decline in the number of tobacco farmers and the demise of the region’s tobacco culture.2
Located roughly midway between Cincinnati and Louisville, the Ohio River Valley communities of Switzerland County, Indiana, and Carroll County, Kentucky, were both settled in the 1790s by families seeking fertile land and fresh opportunity in what was, at that time, the westernmost reaches of the newly independent United States.3 By 1900, Switzerland County’s population was largely made up of a mix of families whose cultural roots could be traced back to New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the Upland South, as well as families whose ancestors had arrived as part of at least five distinct “ethnic” settlements—one Dutch, one Scottish, two different groups of Germans, and the eponymous Swiss colony...