Young women twisting string around the stalks of young shade grown tobacco. Tying the stalks to the overhead wires reduces damage from wind and rain. Circa 1960s. WHS collections 2011.1.86.
Windsorites have grown and harvested tobacco leaves for hundreds of years. Native Americans and early settlers both cultivated the crop. Despite being outlawed by the colony in 1650, tobacco soon became Connecticut’s cash crop. By the 1920s more than 30,000 acres in the 60-mile long Tobacco Valley, which runs from Portland, Connecticut to the southern tip of Vermont, were devoted to tobacco. Even when industrial and residential growth began to take the place of tobacco sheds and shade cloth-covered fields after World War II, tobacco remained a very important crop for Windsor. Today, there are only two large tobacco farms left in town: the Browns and the Thralls.
Why tobacco in Connecticut?
The Connecticut Valley has exceptional soil and hot, humid summers perfect for growing tobacco. Tobacco grown in the Valley is for cigars, which were first created in the late 1700s. Broadleaf and Havana Seed are grown here and used as binders—leaves that bind the bits of tobacco together inside the cigar. The white shade tents you might have seen as you sped by on I-91 protect shade grown wrapper tobacco, which is used for the outside of the cigar.
Men inside a tobacco shed with laths full of tobacco leaves ready to hang in the upper reaches, c.1900-1920. Windsor Historical Society collections 1918.104.22.168. Photo by William S. Leek.
In the nineteenth century, Connecticut was one of the few places where broadleaf tobacco was grown, and in 1875 Havana Seed was introduced and used for cigar wrappers. Soon leaves from Sumatra, in Indonesia, took over the wrapper market. Connecticut farmers responded by recreating the Indonesian climate with shade tents that simulated the humidity and overcast conditions of Sumatra. The tops of the tents protect the plants from the scorching sun and the sides keep the humidity high inside. The first place shade tobacco was grown was on River Road in Poquonock, in 1901. Connecticut shade grown wrappers are the finest in the world. Because the leaves are used for the outside of the cigar, they must be perfect, with no blemishes or holes.
Shade tobacco growing operations on Huntington Brothers Tobacco farm near Day Hill Road in Windsor. Men are dragging wicker baskets of leaves, loading them onto a mule drawn wagon, c.1920. WHS collections 1987.13.1.
The early 20th century was the heyday for cigars—in 1904 more cigars were smoked than cigarettes. Hartford housed sorting warehouses and Bridgeport was full of cigar factories. Beginning in World War II, cigarette smoking began to outpace cigar smoking, but the state’s tobacco industry was still worth $50 million in 1951.
Who worked tobacco?
Tobacco was once one of Connecticut’s largest crops and it brought thousands of ethnically diverse people to the greater Hartford area. In the 1950s the Shade Tobacco Growers Association estimated that as many as 13,000 workers were needed to work tobacco each year.
West Indian men and local women pulling plants for transplanting, c. 1950s. WHS collections 1993.6.20.
There has never been enough local labor for this crop. In the early 20th century, Lithuanian, Italian, and Polish immigrants worked tobacco, but increasingly stringent immigration restrictions for Europeans following World War II depleted this work force. During the labor shortages of World War II, farmers looked to West Indian migrant workers for help. These West Indian workers—from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, and other British colonies—came initially through the farm labor branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Following the war, farmers recruited young men from southern black college, as well as teenagers from Florida and Pennsylvania. In fact, Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tobacco in Granby as a young man. Girls from Florida initially came through a program sponsored by the University of Connecticut.
West Indian men hoeing tobacco after planting, c. 1950s. WHS collections 1993.6.20.
In the 1950s farmers also relied on “DPs” (displaced persons) who were mostly men fleeing Poland and other Eastern European countries. By 1947, tobacco farmers began turning to Puerto Rico for help. However, most of the Puerto Rican workers came in the 1960s and 70s. In addition, farmers relied heavily on the annual return of thousands of local teenagers to the tobacco sheds and fields. Local labor consisted of 7,000-8,000 workers each day. In the 1950s there were three to four local teenagers for every Florida or Pennsylvania teenager. Every kid in Windsor, it seemed, worked tobacco, and many still do.
All of the migrant workers had two things in common: they wanted to work and there were few jobs at home. In the 1950s, western Pennsylvania was depressed and Jamaica was poor. Windsor’s tobacco fields provided much-needed income and created cultural intersections where people of different ethnic, cultural, and social backgrounds worked together. While there was little socializing outside of the tobacco fields, when they worked, they all worked together.
Where did the migrant workers live?
All migrant workers were housed and fed in camps, initially former Civilian Conservation Corps camps run by the federal government, and eventually camps run by the farmers and the Shade Tobacco Growers Association. Sidney Barnett remembers arriving in 1944 at a CCC camp and being given a sack to fill with straw for his mattress. Workers also worked six days a week, and conditions in the camps varied. While working tobacco was grimy, filthy, smelly work, it paid well. Neither the camps nor the work was luxurious, but all seem to agree that the experience of working tobacco in Windsor was a positive one.
Why so many workers?
The key to growing shade tobacco is to create a perfect leaf. It has been said that one shade tobacco leaf is handled 12 times before it becomes part of a cigar! Shade grown tobacco is a sensitive and labor-intensive crop. Farmers often experienced compromised crops due to downy mildew or blue mold. In 1951, the Thrall Farm lost 20 acres worth $40,000 to downy mildew. Other risks included wind and hail, which damage the shade cloth and the plants. The wooden tobacco sheds also often caught fire.
Teenagers sew tobacco leaves onto laths, c.1960s. WHS collections 2011.1.93.
From Seed to Cigar
- Hand plant seeds in beds/cold frames
- Tamp and roll seed bed, hand water
- Harrow the fields
- Hang the cloth, sew it up
- After 7-8 weeks, pull best plants
- Transplant seedlings
- Fertilize, irrigate, dust the crops
- Tie each plant up
- After 8 weeks, plants poke out top of tents
- Remove sucker growth (bottom leaves)
- Harvest leaves from the bottom up; pick same field 6 to 7 times in a season
- Drag leaves from field to shed
- Women saw two leaves together onto laths (machine-sewn by the 1950s)
- Hang laths in sheds to cure
- Cure for 2 months
- Charcoal (eventually gas) burners make leaves wilt, cure, become brown and crisp
- On a very humid day (“a good damp”), open sides of shed to make leaves pliable
- Pack the leaves in bales for fermenting (for one year)
- Grade and sort leaves by size
- Steam seed beds to sterilize for fungus (fall)
- Start over
By Amber Degn, Curator, 2003