The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

John L. Jordan - Tobacco With A Twist

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1985

Issue: December, 1985

John Jordan and his wife Louise.John Jordan and his wife Louise.Editor's Note... In an age of mechanization, among the many industries to mechanize was the tobacco industry. As a child, I worked for 50¢ an hour as a "hander." My mother got 75¢ an hour for the skill of "stringing," from a nearby tobacco farmer.

Our jobs began at daylight when the first horse drawn homemade sleds full of tobacco leaves came in from the fields. The hander gathered about 4 leaves together with the stem ends even and "handed" them to the stringer. The stringer placed a square tobacco stick (about 1" in diameter and 4' long) in a saw horse sort of contraption with a tin can attached to hold a ball of twine. Every stick had a cut in each end to hook the twine in. Then, the hands of tobacco were wrapped with the twine and thrown on alternate sides of the stick. A good stringer could do a stick so fast you could hardly see what was happening. It would take two or three handers to keep up with one stringer. Afterwards, the full sticks of tobacco would be hefted up to dry in rows on poles in a barn. Wood fires were stoked from outside the barn to dry and cure the tobacco.

Tobacco curing season usually went hand and hand with the time corn was ripe. Huge sacks of "roastin' ears" would be brought to the barns and cooked in the same fires that stoked the heat to cure the tobacco.

One member of the family carried quilts and made their bed at the barn so they could keep a watch on the fire and keep it stoked through the night. Usually other family members and friends would gather at the barn also every night and cook meals there, sing or just enjoy each other's company.

A good price for a barn full of tobacco could make the difference in a family's winter economy. It was a 24 hour job. I remember with enjoyment, those nights spent at the tobacco barn, eating ears of hot roasted corn, wrapped in a handy quilt against the late summer night's chill with only a lantern or the fire's glow. Anyone who experienced it could close their eyes today and think back and smell that wonderful aroma of curing tobacco.

Today, the majority of tobacco farms are mechanized. Tobacco flows along conveyer belts to an automatic "stringer." Barns are aluminum, not log. Fires are oil, not wood these days. Granted, they are safer barns. The old way was somewhat of a fire hazard, but Oh! What a whole generation of children are missing!

These are memories from my childhood so, when I met John L. Jordan and his wife Louise Webb Jordan at The Blue Ridge Institute Folklife Festival, though our experiences differed, we had one thing in common immediately - tobacco.

John L. Jordan knows his tobacco. He was demonstrating how to make cured tobacco twists at the Blue Ridge Institute's Folklife Festival. It is something he learned from his father and grandfather. All three men grew tobacco most of their lives in Franklin County, Virginia soil. They have an ongoing tradition of not flue cured, but dark fired tobacco. In flue cured tobacco, the leaves are stripped from the stalk and cured. Dark fired tobacco is cured stalk and all. Dark fired tobacco is a rich, red color, from retaining more of the sap. Flue cured tobacco is golden yellow. It takes time to dark cure tobacco, and to know when it's just right.

Although John Jordan isn't allowed to sell his home made twists because of government regulations, he still does enough for his own use each year. A twist of tobacco can be pulled apart for chewing tobacco or crumbled to smoke in a pipe. John also knows how to hand roll cigars. He showed one that was perfection.

To make a twist of tobacco, according to John, you take the stem out of the center of the leaves and that divides the leaf in half. He puts six halves in each twist, laying them on top of each other. The dried leaves are then sprinkled with water to make them pliable, rolled and then twisted and tied at the bottom with twine. The twists are then hung up so they can dry out again. That takes about three weeks.

John and his wife Louise raised seven children with money from raising tobacco. Louise grew up working flue cured tobacco. John was in the service during World War II in the Southwest Pacific and his mother sent him home made tobacco twists from home.

John, who is now 67, said that he started chewing tobacco when he was about 18, and that now he has grandchildren that are getting old enough that he is going to watch to make sure they don't get into his twists.

John described a tobacco farmer's year. The ground is plowed in November. Plant beds are started in February. The plants are transferred to the fields in May. The plants are cultivated, worked and then topped in July. Along about August, the plants are cut and the curing process begins. Then the plants are stripped in October. (Just in time to plow again in November.)

It's a year round job and more. It's a worry, a way of life, a tradition and a source of pride and satisfaction for John L. Jordan. In today's mechanized world, he still works with his hands, preserving the craft of tobacco twisting for another generation.