Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Boy From Down East - A Trip to the Tobacco Market

Growing up I went to the tobacco market with Granddaddy every opportunity I got.  Even if it meant spending hours there I was never bored.  Well, maybe a little bored, but I always enjoyed it.  I can still vividly remember the smells and sounds of the market. 
The song of the auctioneer walking down the rows of tobacco with the buyers following him is hard to forget.  There was row after row of cured tobacco with each group of bundles brought by a different farmer hoping to get the best price of the day for his sale. 

Several years ago when I worked as an account manager for an industrial maintenance service provider I visited a cigarette plant near Macon, Georgia.  I had to park my car near the raw material receiving docks at the back of the facility.  As soon as I stepped out of my car I could smell the dried, cured tobacco and a feeling of nostalgia washed over me in a flood of memories of the tobacco market and Granddaddy.   As a long time ex-smoker who hates the smell of cigarette smoke I truly love the smell of cured tobacco.

Most years being the first to the market was very important, not as a point of pride but because the best money was paid for the early crops. By that time of year money was tight and the income was needed to keep going.  The first markets to open were the South Georgia markets. Usually Granddaddy and a couple of the other local small farmers would get together, put a load of their tobacco on a large truck and drive from North Carolina to the Georgia markets to get in on the first sales.  I never got to go on those trips.

There were many local tobacco markets in eastern North Carolina. When they opened Granddaddy would listen intently during lunch time to the market reports on the radio and read the reports in the newspaper trying to find which market was paying the best price.  I can remember him saying after the report, “We are going to the market in Greenville tomorrow with a load.  Do you want to come?” My answer was always “Yes.”  We got up before sunrise the next morning and loaded the truck with cured, sorted tobacco and off we went.  We had to get there early because we wanted to get a spot near the beginning of the auction line, not at the beginning but near it.  Granddaddy knew all the little tricks to help get a better price for his crop.

When we arrived and checked in we were given a lot number for our sale.  The buyers from the different tobacco companies would spend the first part of the morning walking around and looking at the various lots and making notes for the auction.  When the auction started the auctioneer began moving down the rows of tobacco and hesitating, not stopping, at each lot and never missing a beat of his bidding song.  The buyers followed behind him indicating their bids with a nod, a hand wave or some other special way.  There were other people next to the auctioneer who wrote up the sale as soon it was indicated and would leave a couple of copies of the sale paper on top of the lot.  One was for the company buying the lot and the other was for the farmer to cash out with.  Granddaddy would take his copy to the cashier window and they paid him on the spot.

There is one particular trip to the market that sticks out in my mind and Momma still gets a little aggravated every time it comes up.  I was around 5 or 6 years old and had been sick.  I had a follow-up visit scheduled that particular morning with my doctor, Dr. Malene Irons, in Greenville, NC.  Granddaddy was going to the market and agreed to take me to the doctor as it was near the market.  All was good as I got to go to the market with Granddaddy again.

On the way to Greenville that morning I guess Granddaddy got to thinking about what time my appointment was and what time he would get to the market and what space in line he would get.  After a lot of scheming and steaming he asked me if I knew where the market was to which I replied yes.  He went in with me to the doctor’s office, checked me in and told the receptionist, “When he is done call him a taxi. He knows where he has to go.”  He left and everyone was happy.

An hour later when I was done the receptionist made the call and I got into the taxi.  The driver looked at me and asked, “Where can I take you little man?”  I replied in my big man voice, “To the ‘bacca’ market.”  “Ok, which one?” he asked.  “In Greenville” I answered.

Now you have to understand that there were a lot of tobacco markets in Greenville not including the nearby communities.  But, to a 5 year old there was only the tobacco market that he went to with his Granddaddy.  The driver tried to get more information from me but to no avail so he began to drive by the various markets hoping I would recognize the right one.

After driving by 4 or 5 different markets we went past the old Pitt County Hospital and I remembered the market was near it.  The driver started laughing and said something like, “thank goodness.”  We pulled up in front of the market which I recognized immediately and we both walked in to look for Granddaddy so he could pay the driver.

On the way home Granddaddy got to thinking about what had happened and told me it might be best if I did not tell my mother about the taxi and our little adventure.  Now telling a 5 year old not to tell his mother was not the smartest thing to do.  As soon as I got home I ran as fast as I could and told Momma all the fun I had that day in every detail.  I have never seen my Momma get so mad and yell so loud.  Even Grandmomma got mad and yelled at Granddaddy and I believe this is one of the few times I ever heard her raise her voice.

As for me, I could hardly wait to go back to the tobacco market and have many, many more great adventures with my Granddaddy.


  1. Courtney Dudley-ThomasAugust 16, 2011 at 9:55 PM

    You are correct, there are not many smells as good as curing tobacco. (I too am an ex-smoker and I also hate the smell of cigarettes. But curing tobacco..... ~sniff~

  2. I grew up in Person County, NC. Loved reading your story. Brought back so many memories of the same kinds of things with my Dad.