Tobacco was king of the economy in Eastern North Carolina in ways that cotton in other parts of the South could only dream of.
Family farms, many of them with only a few acres planted with the sprouts that would grow into the tall green plants, could count on tobacco’s income.
Mile after mile of farm-to-market roads – some paved, others not – were dotted with wooden barns given over to curing tobacco into golden leaves.
Warehouses were the scenes of frantic activity as auctions started. Anxious farmers waited to see how much their piles of tobacco would fetch per pound.
Equally anxious merchants waited for farmers to come out of the auctions flush with cash. Some of the growers would be settling accounts the merchants had been carrying for months. Others would be splurging on a long-wanted special purchase for their wife or children.
Even social events were tied to tobacco’s fortune. The June German, the high-society dance for which Rocky Mount was famous, was held in a tobacco warehouse. One printer created a color postcard for the city, its cover emblazoned with the words “Greetings from the Heart of Tobaccoland.”
Now, all of that has changed. The federal price support program ended years ago, leaving tobacco to be grown on a more industrial scale on fewer and fewer farms. The crop is delivered on contract to buyers. Rituals such as the arrival of the state’s agriculture commissioner – for many years, Jim Graham, the man known as “The Sodfather” – for opening day sales have been forgotten.
The warehouses largely sit empty now. Some have been converted to other uses, while others have been left to decay.
“Pride in Tobacco” once was a marketing slogan. Today, it’s memories of the golden leaf.