Northumberland Tobacco History
Gone in a Puff of Smoke
It’s almost forgotten now, but there was a time not so long ago, when the rolling fields of Northumberland were planted in, of all things, emerald rows of tobacco.
Story by Tom Cruickshank
- “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” So claimed Fred Flintstone to fellow cartoon caveman Barney Rubble, singing the praises of their sponsor on their hit TV show in 1960. After a hard day at the quarry, it seems nothing satisfied more than a Winston.
- “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette,” shouts an ad from Look magazine in 1946. In an effort to thwart rumblings that smoking might not be benign after all, the tobacco industry employed a preposterous spin tactic, using reassuring “research” from health professionals to make their case. They proclaimed things like, “Not one single case of throat irritation due to smoking Camels!” and “As your dentist, I would recommend Viceroys.” The best of all: “20,679 physicians say ‘Luckies are less irritating.’”
- “You’ve come a long way, baby, to get where you’ve got to today. You’ve got your own cigarette now, baby…” So went the jingle for Virginia Slims, the first cigarette marketed directly to women. It was also the last cigarette commercial shown on “The Tonight Show” before tobacco advertising was banned from American airwaves in 1971.
If you’re of a certain age, you remember these ads and you remember the controversy that raged for years in the press over smoking. You might also recall that this was the era in which tobacco was at its peak: in 1965, the first year in which tobacco use was officially monitored in Canada, it was estimated that fully half of all adults indulged on a regular basis. In fact, a daily smoker went through an average of a pack a day. And like earning a driver’s licence or graduating from high school, you recall that picking up the habit was considered a rite of passage toward adulthood.
But what you probably don’t remember is that, at the time, during tobacco’s heyday and amid all the media buzz about its link to heart disease and lung cancer, the northern reaches of Northumberland County—and Durham, its neighbour immediately to the west—were growing vast amounts of tobacco. In 1963, they grew an estimated 6,500 acres of it, making the region second—albeit a distant second—to the counties along the north shore of Lake Erie as the heartland of tobacco production in Canada. Local tobacco never accounted for more than four percent of the Ontario total, but nevertheless, these were heady days for area farmers, many of them on marginal land and only too happy to finally find something profitable to grow. At last, they had a commodity suited to their soil, a reliable cash crop that enabled them to buy a colour TV and still have money left over to send their kids to university. As long as Canada was a nation of smokers, farmers paid little attention to the ongoing war of words and continued to grow tobacco as fast as the public could smoke it.
But as we all know, the times were a’ changin’ and the salad days didn’t last, once the medical case against cigarettes became irrefutable and better known. Within a generation, the public had largely butted out: by 1981, the rate of smoking in Canada had dropped to below 40 percent; by 1994, it was less than 30; in 2013, the Toronto Star reported that only 11 percent of Canadians considered themselves regular smokers. Meanwhile, every level of government had enacted restrictions to discourage tobacco use: by removing tobacco advertising from the media; by banning smoking in the workplace, then in restaurants and bars, and more recently in cars in which kids are riding. Likewise, in-your-face anti-smoking campaigns largely erased any glamour left over from the Virginia Slims era. And over the same period, successive governments raised tobacco taxes exponentially: a carton of 200 cigarettes that cost $4.20 in 1952, including some meagre taxes, now sells for $80.41 in Ontario, an amount that can’t be blamed on inflation alone. Indeed, about $50 of the retail price is tax.
If the writing has long been on the wall for smoking, the same is certainly true for tobacco agriculture, which—no surprise here—has taken a severe hit in the past 40-odd years. Along the Lake Erie shore, the number of tobacco farmers has dropped significantly, as reported by the Ontario Ministry of Finance, from almost 3,300 in 1974 to a mere 230 today. Likewise, the number of acres in tobacco has also plummeted: from about 108,000 acres in 1974 to a mere 15,500 in 2015. Nevertheless, the region still grows about 95 percent of Canada’s tobacco crop. But nowhere is the decline more evident than in Northumberland and Durham, where 150 tobacco farms once thrived in both counties. Today, these farms grow hay, perhaps some grain, or have been left to Nature. Long gone is the sight of the telltale emerald-green leaves—up to three feet long—that distinguish the tobacco crop from any other. And you have to look far and wide to find a tobacco kiln, a greenhouse or any other reminder of the industry. Meanwhile, membership in the Durham Northumberland Cured Tobacco Growers Association, once the voice of local growers, dwindled to a handful of farmers and disbanded in 1990.
“My dad’s last crop was about 1980,” recalls Freda Westington, whose family—the Szwakobs—owned two tobacco farms, one on the 7th Line of Hope Township and a second a few kilometres north of Elizabethville in Oak Hill. Further west, near Pontypool, Carrie Severn also grew up on a tobacco farm. “My father quit in the late ’60s,” she says. “At the time, the government opened the market to foreign-grown tobacco and the price dropped dramatically. Dad said he had no choice and gave up tobacco farming for a job at GM.” Even then, it seems there was trouble brewing for local growers.
It’s interesting that neither Freda’s nor Carrie’s family was native to the area, but arrived via the Lake Erie tobacco heartland, where tobacco farming had established itself in the 1920s, a good two decades before it came here to Watershed country. For Carrie, tobacco farming was on both sides of her ancestry. “My maternal grandparents—Ned and Thelma Foster—knew it well, having grown up in Virginia before moving to Delhi, Ontario, and then to their own farm in Durham,” she says. Her paternal grandparents were immigrants from Germany and when they decided they wanted to farm, they cut their teeth on a Lake Erie tobacco farm before moving to Durham, too. “My parents, both children of tobacco farmers, met at a ‘tobacco dance’ in Orono in 1961.” By then, tobacco growing was well established part of the culture of the region.
Meanwhile, Freda’s father—Joe Szwakob—was a Polish immigrant who worked odd jobs across Canada during the ’30s before learning the ropes of tobacco farming on a rented acreage near Tillsonburg, another town in the Lake Erie counties. “I was born there,” she says, “but soon after, when my parents ventured out to a farm of their own, they moved here to Northumberland.” Joe’s story isn’t unusual, for hundreds of European immigrants, uprooted by the Depression and World War II, found their first jobs in Canada in tobacco fields. In fact, immigrant families became the backbone of tobacco agriculture as entire ethnic communities put down rural roots in their new homeland. “There were several other Polish families growing tobacco near us, north of Port Hope—the Sokays, the Hanakas, the Skoras, the Zubers and others. There was even a Polish community hall near Osaca.”
Indeed, a disproportionate number of local growers weren’t part of the established rural neighbourhood, but came from somewhere else, including the very first tobacco farmer in Northumberland. In 1948, John Watson established an initial crop in Haldimand and soon presided over a second farm on Crandall Road in Cramahe. He came from—you guessed it—Norfolk County on the north shore of Lake Erie. Like all the newcomers eager to try their luck with tobacco, he was attracted to Northumberland by several factors. One was the price of farmland, which at the time sold for about half the going rate back in Norfolk. But most of their optimism was based on climate and soil conditions: summer weather characterized by hot, humid days and cool nights; and deep swaths of sandy soil, so sandy that you can rub the grit between your fingers. It drains quickly after a downpour, yet contains adequate nutrients to sustain the plants. “It is ideal for tobacco,” Carrie recalls, “but isn’t good for much else.”
The right kind of sandy soil occurs here and there across northern Durham and Northumberland, most of it in isolated pockets along the Oak Ridges Moraine, coincident with the east-west route of what is now County Road 9. There, tobacco thrived on small farms—averaging between 40 and 50 acres—near Pontypool and Orono, Kendal and Elizabethville, Osaca and Campbellcroft, and further east, along the appropriately named Tobacco Road near Castleton. By 1961, there were 57 tobacco farms in Cramahe alone, including a belt in the southern part of the township, where the Moraine turns toward Lake Ontario. In their natural state, most of these lands would have been part of a highly unusual prairie and savannah eco-system—a grassland entirely unlike the primeval woodlands that covered most of southern Ontario—with hardly a tree in sight (see “Lake of the Burning Plains,” Watershed, Summer 2015). Early settlers steered clear, presuming that the lack of forest cover was a sign of infertile soil. It took a couple of generations, but eventually, the prairie landscape was ploughed under for pioneer agriculture, but it wasn’t until the tobacco boom that this marginal land was considered anything better than hardscrabble acreage fit only for pasture.
As more and more Canadians took up the smoking habit in the 1950s and ’60s, Durham-Northumberland tobacco farmers had an eager market for their harvest. Always considered a controlled substance and subject to the whims of supply-management politics, tobacco was nevertheless a dangling carrot that plenty of farmers couldn’t resist. Carrie says, “My grandparents were attracted to it because, compared to other crops, it was by far the most profitable.” In the 1990s, Statistics Canada reported that tobacco farmers earned almost twice the income of other farmers and even today, tobacco is still one of the most lucrative commodities in Canadian agriculture.
But compared to dairy, beef, grains or other types of farming, tobacco wasn’t a sure thing. In fact, it was quite risky and farmers had to be willing to gamble. “We always worried about the weather,” Freda remembers, recalling late frosts after planting, early frosts before harvest and especially hail. “Hail could wipe out a crop in a matter of minutes.” Likewise, weeds were a problem and insect pests were a constant threat, particularly hornworms, the same dreaded larvae—as fat and as long as your index finger—that can eat through your tomato garden in no time flat.
Tobacco farming also demanded a larger overhead than conventional cash cropping. Not only would a farmer need the standard barn (in which to store baled tobacco before sending it to market) and the ubiquitous tractor, he also required a greenhouse in which to give seedlings a head-start in early spring before they could be planted in the field. The Szwakob farm had two greenhouses, each measuring about 3,000 square feet. Likewise, the farmer had to build kilns—sometimes called “kil’s” in local parlance—in which the leaves were cured immediately after harvest. More than anything else, kilns—six or seven to the average farm—were the defining feature of a tobacco acreage: upright, square buildings covered in asphalt siding. They would look like sleeping cabins if only they had windows. “You can spot a tobacco farm a mile away,” Carrie says, “by its rows of neatly arranged kilns.”
Most challenging of all, tobacco farming was highly labour intensive, requiring countless hours of manual effort in a constant race against time. At various stages of its development, the plant requires pruning: “topping,” which encourages leaf growth by snipping off flowering stalks; and “suckering,” which likewise promotes the leaves by getting rid of secondary growth at the base of the plant, much like garden-variety tomatoes. Both chores were done by hand; Freda remembers doing her share of the duties as a teenager.
But of all the field chores, the most demanding, by far, was the harvest. “There was maybe a six-week window, starting early in August,” says Freda. “You had to work fast. Too early and the crop wasn’t ripe; too late and you would risk frost. And once it was picked, the leaves would quickly spoil if they weren’t cured immediately.” [italics on immediately] Time was so critical that the harvest required teams of workers—called “primers”—whose sole job was to walk each row, bend down and peel off the bottom leaves from each plant. As the upper leaves ripened over subsequent weeks, the teams would cover the same ground again, working dawn till dusk until the task was done. Priming was relentless, back-breaking work: imagine walking in a crouched position along a row of 650 plants … in the stifling summer heat… stuffing the enormous leaves under your arm as you go… and then turning around at the end of the row, crouching down again and starting over… all day… rain or shine… for the entire harvest. Moreover, there was the risk of nicotine poisoning, although at the time, no one gave it a second thought and chocked up the nausea to exhaustion and dehydration. This was work that definitely separated the men from the boys. Indeed, many who were new might not last a day. Those who endured wore it as a badge of pride. And for an unskilled job, it paid surprisingly well: up to $500 for six weeks’ work. Not bad for 1960.
Priming was usually done by summer students, itinerant migrants or workers recruited from offshore. The farmer was expected to house and feed them for the duration of the harvest. “Those guys would collapse into their bunks every night,” Carrie recalls. “And boy, could they build up an appetite. I remember my mom cooking roast beef for 20 people, and then doing it again the next day.”
Priming was only part of the job. Once the fresh leaves were delivered to the kiln, they would be tied so that they could hang on sticks. This was usually the domain of women and teenaged girls and they proved their mettle by the speed at which they worked, quickly knotting the stems of three leaves together and draping them over a wooden rod, which was quickly handed over for placement in the kiln for curing.
A kiln could hold about 1,200 sticks of tied tobacco. “The curing process was the most painstaking part of the harvest,” Freda continues, “and would determine how much the crop would be worth.” Conditions inside had to be just right—not too hot, not too cold, not too humid—and a man was hired to monitor a propane fire and ventilation, and keep a constant watch. In fact, curing was a profession in itself, for like a baker who knows precisely when the bread is ready to come out of the oven, a “cureman” knows exactly when his tobacco is done. Over five or six days, he would check it around the clock, pausing only for meals and to grab the odd cat nap in the bunkhouse beside the kilns. A trusted cureman was a godsend to the farmer. Some made the annual trip from Virginia; a few were local. “My grandfather, Ned, was a cureman,” says Carrie, a hint of pride in her voice.
The kilns operated full-time throughout the harvest. As soon as one batch was cured and ready to bale, the primers would have another load of raw tobacco on hand. And so it went until the work was done or until frost brought everything to a standstill. When it was all over, the cureman would head back home and catch up on his sleep; the primers would nurse their aching backs and go their separate ways; and the farmers and their wives would breathe a collective sigh of relief. “It was hard, hard work,” Freda says, “but there’s no denying the great sense of accomplishment when the harvest was done.” Indeed, everyone who grew tobacco shared that feeling, working against the odds and against the clock to get the job done. Indeed, it made them a community.
Of course, it didn’t last, even as mechanization made easier work of some of the jobs, including priming. Tobacco farming in Northumberland and Durham was over in little more than one generation. It was always the poor cousin to the older tobacco lands on Lake Erie, and when smoking started its precipitous fall from grace, local farmers were first to feel the squeeze. Thanks to a strong export market and better economies of scale, tobacco growers along Lake Erie continued to prosper for another couple of decades, but the bubble finally burst in the early 2000s when the federal government started to buy them out in a concerted effort to divert them into other, less controversial crops. Meanwhile in Northumberland and Durham, the original farmers had already retired; with poor prospects for the future, few of them passed the tradition on to their sons and daughters. With that, the tobacco days in Watershed country ground to a halt.
From a health point of view, no one laments the decline of tobacco, but even so, something was lost when the last kiln on the Oak Ridges Moraine cured its final crop.
A Brief History of Smoking
As we all remember from history class, tobacco is a native plant long cultivated by First Nations and used as barter when North America was colonized. It quickly became a major export for the fledgling economies of Cuba, Virginia and the Carolinas, and when Canada was settled, farmers would sometimes grow tobacco for their own use. Back then, it was limited to cigars, pipe and chewing tobacco and snuff. Meanwhile, cigarettes—employing a special kind of cured leaf and wrapped in thin paper—were a relative latecomer that first became popular among Civil War soldiers as one of the few indulgences that could be taken to the battlefield. But they were not a viable commercial product until 1884, when an inventor from Virginia patented a machine that could roll 200 cigarettes a minute. The tobacco industry was on its way.
Sales soared, but smoking was not without its critics even then. Led by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which correctly identified some of the health hazards of cigarettes, popular opinion turned against tobacco and in 1908, the Canadian Parliament under Sir Wilfrid Laurier actually contemplated outright prohibition. It settled instead to ban the sale of tobacco to minors and laid the foundation for future taxation. Indeed, the government did nothing to stand in the way of the ever-increasing appeal of tobacco and by the end of World War I, all of Canada was inhaling. Returning troops had grown accustomed to their daily ration of cigarettes, while women, once forbidden the pleasure, embraced the habit as a sign of emancipation. According to Neil Collishaw’s 2009 History of Tobacco Control in Canada, some 87 million cigarettes were sold in 1896. By 1920, Canadians smoked well over 2 billion of them and it would be another 40 years before anyone questioned tobacco again.
Sidebar 2: The Cure
Over centuries of tobacco use, various methods have been employed to cure the raw leaves to make them suitable for consumption.
- Among the simplest techniques was to let the leaves air-dry in a well-ventilated barn for a period of up to two months. To be sure, air-curing is time consuming, but the best cigars are still produced this way.
- Fire-cured tobacco is also a long process, lasting up to a few weeks. Here, tobacco is hung in a large barn where the fresh leaves are exposed to a smouldering fire on the floor beneath. Traditionally, snuff, pipe tobacco and chewing tobacco were produced this way.
- Flue curing is the process described in this article (see main text). It heats the leaves as they dry, but the harvest is not exposed to smoke. It takes less than a week and is by far the quickest way to cure tobacco. Flue curing is the preferred technique for the production of cigarettes.