By this time of year in days gone by my father would have gathered up every bushel basket, wash tub, orange crate and pasteboard box he could get his hands on. It was time to pull tobacco plants.
When the tobacco ground was worked up to his satisfaction, we would gather early one morning and head for the tobacco plant bed. My father had his own method of pulling tobacco plants. Over the years, I came to call it "grazing" a plant bed. The first time through we selected only the biggest and strongest plants. As we did, we carefully removed the yellow and white leaves that grew near the roots of the plants and deposited them outside the plant bed. Under my father's careful supervision we could pull enough plants off a 100 foot plant bed to set an acre of tobacco and return two days later and hardly recognize the plant bed had been touched. The only sign was all the yellow and white leaves on the ground along the sides of the plant bed.
Then, we would "graze" the bed again and give it a few days to recover. After all our tobacco was set out there were always plenty of plants left over for our neighbors and friends.
When the plants were pulled and the containers filled we headed for the tobacco patch.
For most of the years I helped with the raising of the crop, we set tobacco with a New Idea "drag" tobacco setter. Unlike the reel type tobacco setters that came later, the drag setter required both timing and skill on the part of the operator. That is because the operators determined the spacing of the plants. If both riders didn't hit the water at precisely the right time the spacing would be off.
As we started on the first patch, my mother would make an inspection of the first few rows to make sure we were in rhythm. I can hear her now if we got started off on the wrong foot: "Boys, you're setting them two and two!
Somebody's not hitting the water!"
She would stay around until we got back on track.
My big brother Tom and I were usually called on to ride the tobacco setter. It took me years to figure out how I got the job of riding the setter on the left-hand side. I think it was a matter of seniority. I became, by training, a left-handed tobacco setter.
There are so many things I remember from my tobacco setting days, and that old tobacco setter.
I remember the feel of the soft earth closing in around my fingers as I released the tobacco plant to begin the next stage of its growth. I can also remember how an ill-timed rock could catch your finger between the packing wheels and almost mash it off. I have finished a few tobacco setting seasons with a black and blue finger nail.
And I can still hear the rhythmic sound of metal on metal as the watering mechanism released each measure of water for the thirsty plants. And I remember the water.
Sometimes it was pond water and sometimes it was creek water. Best I can recall, we never used a drop of "city" water to set tobacco. Regardless of the source, the inside of the tobacco setter's water tank smelled the same. It was a musty, metal smell. Unforgettable.
My father was a whiz with a two-inch pump driven by a four horse-power motor. Whether the water came from a pond, or a creek or a big storage tank, he could fill that water tank in no time flat. Of course, there were times when we filled the tank using five-gallon buckets. Irregardless of how the water tank was refilled, we spent very little time doing a turn-a-round.
My brothers, John and Dewey, usually followed the setter. It was not a hard job, but a necessary one. My brother Tom and I would occasionally set a plant upside down to keep them on their toes. If they were paying attention, a complaint would be raised as soon as the inverted plant cleared the back of the setter. If they didn't catch it, they would be called upon to get their mind on their business.
My late father took great pride in laying off straight tobacco rows. To him, every phase of growing a tobacco crop was a special occasion. He seemed especially excited at tobacco setting time. I can see him now, turned half-way around in the tractor seat like a trail boss on a cattle drive turning in his saddle to look back and survey the herd. A new tobacco crop was coming to life.
And, somehow, I was blessed to be a part of it all.