The importance of the tobacco market

Published 10:16 pm Sunday, January 29, 2017

Thanks for the many nice compliments about our series on the history of Washington. Reading and now writing has become a hobby, and to study our local history was a pleasure.

In this article, let us look at what used to be one of the most important days in our town’s economy: opening day of the tobacco market!

We only wish more could have experienced this day because the process of getting tobacco to market was an arduous, laborious and sometimes educational process.

Many lessons of life were learned, and it even had its own language. On a hot, sultry day, words like “puttin’ in,” “takin’ out,” “handin’,” “hanging,” “priming,” “tie horse,” “truckin’,” “tier poles,” “lugs,” “poking,” “suckering” and “toppin’” were common words. Even the name tobacco was pronounced “bacca.” In the field or under the shelter, work started early and finished just in time for a bath and supper. This process usually started in June and could run until September in a good year. The work from the field, to the shelter, to the barn, and then the pack house was indeed much more than a chore! And yet, there was still work to be done and fretted over. Tobacco still had to be taken to market.

Washington had three tobacco markets: Sermons Warehouse (owned by Wayland Sermons), Hassell and Talley I (owned by Malcolm Hassell and Bill Talley) and Hassell and Talley II. Farmers could choose any one to sell their tobacco. Trucks would line up from Hackney Avenue all the way down Third Street loaded with piles of tobacco waiting to be placed on the floor. Our city’s economy was getting ready to take off, and those who bought tobacco represented every major tobacco company and were treated like royalty wherever they went. Warehouses had the smell of freshly cured tobacco placed strategically in baskets forming rows in the warehouse. A young man knew he had come of age when his dad asked him to come and watch the sale. Buyers would line the floor, and the auctioneer knew their every signal, which was a private gesture, known only by the two.

You may ask how this affected our economy. Money from the sale of tobacco helped pay a farmer’s overhead for raising the crop. Also, money could buy groceries, school clothes, book fees, school supplies and many more essentials of the time. Our business leaders helped make this a big day by advertising and welcoming our local farmers to town. Our economy grew and our central business district was as busy as any other time of the year. All the buildings were occupied, and a person could get anything from hardware to a game of pool. The Turnage Theatre and Rita Theatre were a haven for both young and old alike.

Today, many of us still talk and relish the memories of working in tobacco and the lessons it taught.

Some lessons we wish not to be remembered but never forgotten.

Our merchants still want our support, and the WHDA is doing all it can to promote prosperity in the central business district. These are our fellow Washingtonians looking for support from their own.

Is it not our responsibility to support them first? When you finish, and if you have time … you can take a walk with the H-Rob!

Harold Robinson is the executive director of the Washington Harbor District Alliance.