Tobacco Museum – More than just about smoking

Tobacco museum - in a barn

On my trip to Eastern North Carolina, I visited the Tobacco
Farm Life Museum
in Kenly, close to Wilson. When walking from Raleigh to New
Bern on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, I saw plenty of tobacco fields. I wanted to
understand the impact of tobacco on the state.

North Carolina is still the largest producer of tobacco. After
the Civil War ended the reign of King Cotton, tobacco became more popular and is
credited for rebuilding the state. Two types of tobacco are
grown. Flue tobacco is used for cigarettes and is heat cured. This is what is
grown in Eastern North Carolina. In the mountains, Burly tobacco, used for
cigars, is more popular. That’s air cured.

The Museum seems to want to spread out from just tobacco to
the farm life that tobacco provided. I was greeted by Melody, the curator who
answered all my questions. On a cool winter weekday, I was the only person in
the museum.

First I watched a film produced on the Holland Farm on 
growing tobacco. The movie showed every step of the process from starting the
tobacco plants in greenhouses to taking to market. I’ll spare you the
step-by-step flowchart but the lasting impression I came away with is that it’s
a very labor intensive process.

Traditionally, tobacco was sold at auctions. It seems that
with the auction system, farmers got paid once a year. That would require some
serious financial management. Now most tobacco farmers are contracted directly
with a cigarette company.

 The Museum also has looms, and exhibits on soil erosion. They
explained that traditionally settlers moved on when soil was eroded. By the
1920s, you couldn’t do that anymore – there was no place to move.

When walking the MST, I passed many private gravesites on
the side of the road. The museum explained that private gravesites were cheaper
than church sites. There were no rules and need to pay for upkeep in the church
cemetery. People want to be buried on land they are emotionally connected to
and near the family members they left behind. That made sense of what I saw.

Tobacco museum- houseOutside the museum building, they had laid out the Brown family
home which was built starting in 1910. It was left empty in 1960 and donated to
the museum in 1989. The dining room and kitchen are in a separate building from the
main house. The house seemed like a palace compared to houses in the Smokies.

There were also several barns and outbuildings. Each building had a
“Thank you for not smoking” sign. Do they get the irony?

When I see old farm tools, my eyes just glaze over. But I
did catch that the tools had been donated by a Midwestern company. Didn’t North
Carolina have its own legacy of tools?

I went back to the Museum gift store and saw Melody again.
She was the only on duty and therefore stuck with me. She asked me what I was doing here and this was my chance to tell her about the MST.

I bought a book of local
history My City, My Home about
growing up in Wilson. Then Melody suggested Jacob’s
about a Jewish immigrant family’s involvement with the tobacco
industry. I wonder why she did that.

I’ve never smoked but I am not a militant nonsmoker. I’m
militant enough about other subjects.

Tobacco is an important part of North
Carolina history and explains part of its prosperity. Now I see that I missed a
cotton museum. But this won’t be the last visit to Eastern North Carolina as I
write my MST book.


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