Photo Credit: Larry Lamb

Did I Ever Do Farm Work?

I have been thinking about this for a long time now and the answer is yes, I worked on our family farm all of my early years. This was not a working farm but mostly supplied much of our food for the summer months and the rest stored either in root cellars, canned or later frozen for year-round eating. We did, however, have several cash crops and most of the years as I remember since we had a tobacco shed that held an acre of produce and were fortunate to live where there is the right kind of soil and weather requirements for this crop, it made sense to raise it. We were close enough to the Connecticut River Valley, known since the 16th century as one of the prime places to raise this weed either broadleaf for cigars or shade grown for other kinds of smoking, it was almost decided for us to get the young plants and a “setting” machine and put in an acre.

My first job when I was about 7 or 8 was to walk among the rows of this rapidly growing plant, pick off the worms and put them in a can that I carried. It wasn’t very much fun but Grandma always said, “If you have a chance to earn money, take it.” So off I would go to the lot down by our family pond and gather up those ugly worms.

Then when I was older the men folks thought I could handle it — so I became a “sewer” of the long stalks that contained the wide, green leaves that had to be sewed onto a lath and then hung up in the rafters of our shed. I don’t remember the details as to how I hand-sewed the leaves with the string but it wasn’t any fun at all and my fingers got sore. Sally did better with it than I did so she became the official sewer. That was broadleaf for us. But another job was to pick up the plants so they could be hung up in the truck carrying them to the shed.

Then when I finished my freshman year at UConn I wanted to earn more money in the summer and so did Sally as she was going into her senior year of high school. So the only way we could do this was to “work on tobacco,” that is, go to work for one of the big companies in town, either the Hales or the Goodriches. We decided to see if Goodriches needed help as it was the closest of the shade grown farms and we could get a ride with Uncle Don whose garage was on the edge of one of the planting areas and very near to a huge shed probably a 3-acre shed by its looks.

So off we went on our new adventure — as outside of the work I had done at college as a waitress, I had never worked elsewhere in my hometown.

We arrived at the shed by the river early in the morning and we were told that we would work as a pair with a third girl, one of the foreman’s daughters, Phyllis Sadlowski. So the three of us worked around a table containing a tobacco sewing machine. We waited until a canvas box-like container with the leaves was brought in and parked next to us and then we started in taking one long green leaf at a time and holding it up to a lath and the machine automatically wrapped the string around it. Then the lathes were taken to the hangers who were up on ladders in the rafters where it was hung up to dry. Before I knew it, the juice would start dripping out of the leaves and onto the hair and clothes of all of the workers underneath them. I remember getting wet hair and my dungarees were so stiff at the end of the day that they would almost stand up straight. In those days we didn’t wear blue jeans for best and even perform on the stage in them with holes in the knees.

Phyllis was much younger than us and didn’t take this job too seriously. She would go off visiting a friend and leave us to do the work but the work was done in bundles and we had to divide the three dollars we got for each bundle amongst the three of us so she would often make out quite well.

The downside of this job other than getting covered with juice was that we would have to wait on the arrival of the leaves that the pickers were gathering underneath those cheesecloth awnings. Sometimes, in fact, most of the time there were only two canvas containers in the morning and one in the afternoon so that left us with three dollars for the day’s work. I was very discouraged as I was hoping for a bit more than that and figured I had to work a week in the summer for a weekend’s worth of food at college. We carried a brown bag lunch and sat out on the grass to eat it. This was NOT a very good first working experience but when you start at the bottom it is up all the way after that.

I must say I didn’t think much about this work we were doing and how it fits into the betterment of mankind — it was just a way to make money. I must say that I like living in a world that is largely smoke-free now and the tobacco fields are gone with nursery fruit trees there instead and most of the old sheds have been torn down and I don’t miss them at all.

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Gardener, artist, and keeper of family history

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Bethia Robinson

Bethia Robinson

Gardener, artist, and keeper of family history

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