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Tobacco is the second largest cash crop in North Carolina. (Marijuana is the first – similar growing conditions.) My home state is the largest producer of tobacco in the USA. Brightleaf tobacco, sweeter and milder than other available tobaccos, was a favorite of Civil War soldiers. In fact, its popularity was a major contributing factor in the growth and development of the city of Durham, where I was born, with the Bull Durham Tobacco Factory being the first major factory in town in 1874.
Bull Durham was a consolidation of rival tobacco producers, with the merger being initiated by the Duke family. (Yes, THAT Duke family.) This company morphed into American Tobacco, which was split by federal anti-trust laws into five separate companies in 1911. By the time I came along, three were surviving and thriving in Durham: American Tobacco, Liggett & Myers, and R.J. Reynolds.
When I was very small, my parents took me to the tobacco auction. I think we went for two years in a row - I must have been two or three for the first one. I don’t recall that first auction at all, but my Mother told me that they put me up to sit on one of the high bales, and I cried because I was afraid I was going to get cancer from the tobacco. Now, how bizarre is that, that a child of three would know that tobacco is a cause of cancer? The second time we went, I remember enjoying myself, and I remember how strong the smell was. I always wanted to go back, but it seemed we couldn’t after that. I don’t know if they stopped holding the auctions or if they just stopped being open to the public. It’s funny to see the black and white photos, because my memories of the auction are in color. Everything seemed sepia-tinged, the color of teeth stained from smoking for fifty years.
Driving to the beach, we would pass miles and miles of tobacco fields. The leaves were indeed bright and lush and seemed as if they went on forever. I was always amazed at the endless rows, stretching to the horizon. I never saw anyone working the fields and wondered how they were tended, how they were harvested. Tobacco was the first crop I could identify by sight.
In downtown Durham, that scent of tobacco was amazingly rich. Pungent, sweet, smokey, fresh, it smelled like the color of spring green in the Crayola crayon box. The yellow-green color of the tobacco in the fields was the color of the smell. Driving under the L&M bridge walkway on Main Street, there were days when I would hold my nose until the smell was gone. However, as a teenager, I found I loved the smell, practically basked in it when I was driving to work at the restaurant.
Most of the tobacco factories closed down before I left town. American Tobacco was still open, and when I headed downtown for work after school, I had to be sure to avoid one particular street during shift change at the factory – so many people were crossing that it delayed me for ten minutes.
That factory closed in the late 1980s, and was redesigned into offices and shops. From a distance, I lamented the passing of this industry that gave birth to the town. On the positive side, several organizations in Durham (and several developers – pardon me while I spit) have been dedicated to keeping the historic facades of the factories and warehouses alive, so that the character of certain parts of downtown have remained the same for nearly a century. Old Liggett and Myers warehouses were turned into trendy condos, and old American Tobacco warehouses have been developed into Brightleaf Square, a mixed-use complex.
The South’s devotion to retaining its architectural history is both impressive and pleasing. Unlike many other areas of the county (the West in particular), the fact that a building is old does not necessarily mean that it needs to be torn down and replaced with something new. No where else in the country have I seen so many hand-hewn barns and sheds, some canted crazily to one side or another, unused except as a support for rampant kudzu, but still revered for the significance of their past.
(I suppose some could argue that the owners are just too lazy to tear them down, but I choose not to subscribe to that theory – I like my own better.)
I was living in Colorado by the time the movie “Bull Durham” came out, and I loved it. I watched wistfully as Kevin Costner walked down Morgan Street in the dark, past the old tobacco barns turned into condos. Parts of the movie were filmed at the old Durham Bulls Ballpark, which I’ll write about someday. Talk about a ballpark with character.
Although it seemed as if almost everyone smoked in North Carolina, my parents didn’t. Well, that’s not entirely true. My Mother did for a short while before she met my Father, and again during a stressful period when she was in graduate school. I never saw her smoke, but I discovered cigarettes in her purse one day when I was looking for change or gum or kleenex or something. I felt as if I had discovered a betraying secret and it disturbed me terribly, so I had to ask her about it. She wasn’t angry – she was open, but I think she asked me not to tell anyone. It had been drilled into us that smoking was bad for you and a stupid idea.
I didn’t have my first cigarette until the night I graduated from college. I smoked a couple of Marlboros as a peace-offering with a woman who had been cheating with my boyfriend. I actually liked the taste, but I never felt the addictive elements. (E-Bro is the same way. He likes the taste, but could take or leave the whole smoking thing. No nicotine addiction. I wonder why?) After that, I would have an occasional bummed cigarette when I was out in a bar. I only bought one pack in my entire life and my cheating boyfriend smoked most of that. I still have a pack that I found unopened at a catering event some 10 years ago. Pat was a respiratory therapist in his youth, and so was an avid anti-smoker, but he would, on very rare occasions, have a puff of a cigarette to cure a severe case of the hiccups. I have found that a teaspoon of sugar is a better and tastier cure.
(I did smoke herbal cigarettes in college for a month or so, until I discovered that they were worse for you than regular cigarettes and I was asked to leave the student union because they thought I was smoking pot.)
I can’t remember the last time I smoked a cigarette. Maybe it was a hit off of Bubba Sue’s a year or two ago. But my last whole one? Long, long before Kelsea was born. I don’t miss it. The Captain smoked, but that scent was just part of who he was, and I was never tempted when I was with him.
Now, the occasional cigar…well, it’s been a long time since I had one of those either – mostly because I didn’t like tasting it for two days. But in my business travelling days, Davidoff was my favorite brand, and I could only find them in a little cigar shop near Rockefeller Center in New York City. I remember my first cigar. But that too is a story for another time.
I’ve had North Carolina and Durham at the forefront of my mind lately, so I expect I’ll be writing more about growing up Southern. It feels good. And I like things that feel good these days.