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J. B. Hunter
Useful Information Concerning Yellow Tobacco, and Other Crops, as Told by Fifty of the Most Successful Farmers of Granville County, N. C.
Oxford, N.C.: W. A. Davis, 1880.


Tobacco has been cultivated and smoked, in various forms and by various procedures, since as early as 6,000 BCE, when the concept was first developed by Native Americans in North America ("Tobacco Timeline"). Over the last four centuries, it developed into a lucrative industry and a product in global demand. Two documents from the North Carolina Experience reveal the importance of tobacco cultivation to the state's economy during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, as well as the great care paid by tobacco farmers to the technicalities of planting, fertilizing, harvesting, curing, handling, and marketing their most profitable crop.

The handbook of "Useful Information Concerning Yellow Tobacco" was compiled by Captain J. B. Hunter, Agricultural Editor for the Torch-Light, which he describes as the "Oldest Paper in Granville County," North Carolina (p. 1). The Torch-Light, also published as The Oxford Torch-Light and Jubilee Torchlight, was published weekly from 1875 through 1886 as "the official organ of the Democratic-Conservative Party in Granville County" ("About"). It is unclear whether the author is the same "Capt. J. B. Hunter" named as a member of "Morgan's Men" from the "8th KY Cavalry" of the Confederate Army in a commemorative photo album sold at auction in 2006 ("Important"). "Morgan's Men" were Confederate cavalry soldiers who followed Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan—once called a "Confederate Thunderbolt"—on a series of raids into Indiana and Ohio during the summer of 1863 (Horwitz 55).

"Useful Information" was published in 1880, during a period in which North Carolinians (like other Southerners) were attempting to rebuild the state's economy and re-evaluate its race relations in the years following the Civil War. Hunter's handbook provides a brief outline of the history of tobacco cultivation in colonial America, vaunts the excellent properties of North Carolina's soil and climate, and narrates personal profiles of Granville County's "most successful farmers" (front cover). The latter portion occupies nearly three-fourths of the text, and its depictions are both technical and ethnographic. For example, the profiles usually include the farmers' recommended types and amounts of fertilizer, varieties of flues used for curing tobacco, crop yields, field hands employed, and numbers of barns lost to fire. They also contain folk idioms that offer glimpses into the culture of nineteenth-century tobacco farmers in North Carolina. Medicus Morris of Wilton, North Carolina, jokes that he began farming with the venture capital of "two eyes, two hands, and two feet" (p. 19). A prosperous farmer, Mr. Nielding Knott, "boasts of belonging to the hard knuckle aristocracy"—because his hard work has yielded such lucrative results (p. 31). Another farmer, W.M. Blackwell of Oxford, is praised for keeping his gates, fences, and farm buildings in "apple pie order" (p. 48). In such colloquial expressions, readers can imagine the personalities—and hear the voices—of nineteenth-century farmers who had long since left the fields.

These profiles also offer a wealth of practical advice by farmers for farmers. In a short section titled "Instructions as to the Cultivation and Curing of Fine Yellow Tobacco," Hunter offers a summary of the collective wisdom of all the farmers interviewed: "stable manure should not be used as it breeds flies. .  .  . [Prime] off lower leaves, just high enough so that when the plant ripens, the lower leaves may be well off the ground.  .  .  . Cut the tobacco of uniform size, color and quality" (p. 9).

In addition to the apparent purpose of the document—to offer tobacco farmers useful tips and proven strategies—this pamphlet also attempts to promote tobacco cultivation, explaining how those without land can rent plots from Granville County landowners. Hunter notes that most renters are "so well pleased" with their results that they stay until they have "made money enough to purchase and stock a new farm" (p. 41).

The "Tobacco" crop book, another how-to pamphlet, was published in 1915 with a more obvious ulterior motive by the Richmond-based Virginia-Carolina Chemical Corporation. This crop book might be considered an early version of the infomercial, blending practical advice and technical tips with obvious product promotion for "V-C Fertilizers" of various types and grades. For example, its detailed description of how to prepare, fertilize, and sterilize a tobacco "seed-bed" is interspersed with captions such as "Use the best which has proven to be V-C Fertilizers" (p. 6). The book also repeatedly insists that increased use of fertilizer results in disproportionately higher crop yields, rendering it "an investment paying the highest dividend" (p. 19).

The V-C crop book provides an extensive and seemingly well-researched set of instructions for growing the most abundant and high-quality tobacco. The book cites numerous government studies conducted in various states—mostly to support its basic premise, that fertilizer increases crop yields significantly and is therefore worth the expense. It also plunges at times into the minutest of details, as in the section on producing tobacco seeds: "The same number of leaves should be left on the seed stalks as are left on the crop stalks.  .  .  . Before the blossoms open the seed head should be covered with a manila paper bag, that all possibility of cross pollination may be avoided.  .  .  . the careful tobacco grower [should] . . . keep the seed from each plant separate, plant them in different parts of the same plant-bed, or each lot in a bed to itself, and transplant to different parts of the field" (p. 25).

The company also seems to realize the necessity of proving its credentials to farmers, both prosperous and humble. Therefore, the (unidentified) author identifies himself from the outset as "a practical farmer who has made a life's study" of maximizing crop yields (p. 1). The book is full of illustrations from various farms, and farmers are always identified by name and location. For example, one photograph reveals "7 acres of splendid Tobacco grown by Mr. Purvis Tilley . . . in Durham Co., N.C. . . . Mr. Tilley sets 6,000 plants to the acre, and uses . . . 1,200 pounds of Fertilizer to the acre" (p. 9). Like the handbook of "Useful Information Concerning Yellow Tobacco," the crop book concludes with a series of testimonials, such as the following from T.W. Shackleford from Kellyville, Texas: "I experimented with six different leading companies' Fertilizers. From results obtained, I was thoroughly convinced that I had found the goods I wanted in V-C Fertilizers . . . I want no other Fertilizers as long as it holds as good as it is" (p. 53). The voices of these farmers and advertisers add an interesting ethnographic element to this text.

Finally, the V-C crop book demonstrates the extent of interstate commerce in the early-twentieth century. Based on "economical shipping conditions . . . by rail and water," the company was able to cater to customers as distant as Texas, Arkansas, Ohio, and Connecticut (p. 1). Those who share the common view of tobacco as chiefly a southeastern crop may be surprised to read the section on "Northern Tobacco Districts" in New England, Pennsylvania, and Ohio (pp. 47-50). That northern farmers were enlisted by a company based in Richmond, Virginia, as clients and material witnesses alongside their southern counterparts demonstrates that at least some farmers and businessmen became increasingly willing to relinquish sectarian animosity in order to increase their profits during the decades leading up to the first World War.

Works Consulted: "About this Newspaper: The torch-light," Chronicling America collection, The Library of Congress, accessed 31 July 2010; Horwitz, Lester V., The Longest Raid of the Civil War: Little-Known & Untold Stories of Morgan's Raid Into Kentucky, Indiana & Ohio, Cincinnati: Farmcourt Pub Inc, 2003; "Important Civil War Presentation CDV Album of Morgan's Men," <>, Cowan's Auctions, accessed 30 July 2010; "The Tobacco Timeline," <>, accessed 30 July 2010.

Patrick E. Horn

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