Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Leasburg Tobacco Factory

Tobacco Factories

That tobacco factories once operated in Caswell County should come as no surprise given the substantial acreage devoted to that crop each year. Pictured above are three photographs of what is believed to be a Leasburg tobacco factory. When this factory operated is not known. However, tobacco factories existed in Caswell County as early as 1850 and some remained in business into the twentieth century. In 1860, the county had at least eleven tobacco factories, concentrated mostly in Leasburg and Milton.

The three photographs were found in the papers of Ella Graves Thompson (1886-1970), daughter of George Nicholas Thompson (1832-1891) and Ella Williams Graves (1854-1903). Ella Graves Thompson's uncle was Jacob Thompson, who was born in Leasburg, North Carolina, and served twelve years as a United States Congressman from Mississippi, was Secretary of the Interior under President James Buchanan, and operated as a Confederate spy during the Civil War. Click on the photographs for a larger image. For an even larger image click here. This is, however, a large file and might take a while to load.

Ella Graves Thompson never married and was the last of the Thompson family to occupy the family home in Leasburg (traditionally called the Nicholas Thompson House after her grandfather, who built the structure in the early 1800's). She was an astute observer of Leasburg and a keen student of its history. In 1960 she wrote A History of Leasburg with Personal Recollections and provided the following observation (emphasis added):
The village was teeming with life and industry in the 1850's. While there were woodshops, blacksmith shops, a shoe shop, a saddler's shop, tailor's shop, cotton gin, carriage factory, most important of all there were two big schools and three tobacco factories.
These three photographs were found by a subsequent owner of the Nicholas Thompson house among papers of Ella Graves Thompson left when she died in 1970.

The top photograph shows a substantial two and one-half story wood-frame building. It has a plain gable roof, at least one interior chimney, and what appears to be six-over-six sash windows. Clearly visible in the background is a cemetery, which, given its size, could be the Leasburg Community Cemetery behind the Leasburg United Methodist Church.

The second photograph shows an interior view of what appears to be wooden machinery used in the production of the tobacco product. From where came the power to operate this machinery is not revealed in these photographs, nor is the specific function of the works.

The nature of a tobacco product manufactured may be indicated by the third photograph, which apparently is of an inside wall that contains various stencilled marks and writings. One stencil provides the following information:
B. W. Culbreth
Superior Pound
Crimp Tobacco
Leasburg, N.C.
While there may be another mark before the word "Pound" and the word "Crimp" is a best guess, this is close. The name "B. W. Culbreth" is very clear. Most of the tobacco factories in Caswell County were thought to be manufacturers of plug tobacco, which was chewed. Plug chewing tobacco is made by pressing together cured tobacco leaves in a sweet (often molasses-based) syrup. Originally this was done by hand, but since the second half of the 19th century leaves were pressed between large tin sheets. The resulting sheet of tobacco was cut into plugs. Like twist, consumers sometimes cut, but more often bite off a piece of the plug to chew. Crimp-cut tobacco was for smoking. Of course this one stencil is not conclusive as to the type of tobacco produced at this Leasburg facility.

To the right of this stencil is the stencilled name "A. Strassburger".

In the upper right corner on what may be sack cloth covering a window is: "J. H. Culbreth" and "R. P. Hancock". It also is possible that these two names are written on the photograph itself and are not part of the image.

One stencilled image looks like "Roxie" or "Moxie". Someone wrote before it "Had a" to spell "Had a Roxie" or "Had a Moxie". If the word is Moxie it would help date the photograph. Moxie was a soft drink. The Moxie carbonated soft drink dates from 1884 (and is still available in New England, especially in Maine). It was the best selling soft drink in the United States up to the early 1920's. Interesting, but not significant, is that the inventor of Moxie was Dr. Augustine Thompson of Lowell, Massachusetts. No family connection has been established with the Thompsons of Leasburg.

Above the horse figure is the word "Elizabeth," with "HTO" handwritten over the stencilled image and letters.

However, of all these markings it is the "R. P. Hancock" that provides the best evidence for the identity of the factory. Branson's North Carolina Business Directory for 1867 noted, among other things, that there were four tobacco factories in Leasburg, North Carolina (empasis added):

(1) Fuller (A. M.) & Wilderson (John E.) [probably Wilkerson];
(2) Hancock (R. P.) & Paylor (Wm., Jr.);
(3) Josiah Stanfield's; and
(4) John F. Wagstaff's. By 1872 none of these tobacco factories was listed in Branson's.

Source: When the Past Refused to Die: A History of Caswell County North Carolina 1777-1977, William S. Powell (1977) at 320 (hereinafter "Powell").

Thus, are these photographs of the Hancock & Paylor Tobacco Company? If so, who were B. W. Culbreth and J. H. Culbreth? Why did these businesses fail? Powell provides the following analysis:
Leasburg, like the rest of Caswell County, never recovered from the shock of the Civil War. Many young men left to serve in the Confederate Army and many never returned. A number were casualties of the war while others established themselves elsewhere after 1865. Without the advantages of transportation by rail or by good highway, Leasburg suffered. The tobacco factories could not meet the competition of those elsewhere that were more suitably situated, and in due time, its population having declined, it ceased to be a significant trading center. Most of its residents owned nearby farming land and they earned their livelihood from the land but lived in Leasburg.
However, it is to the source of the three photographs and her little history of Leasburg that we must turn for more of the story. Ella Graves Thompson had the following to say about the tobacco factories in Leasburg (paragraphing added for ease of reading):
Not only her schools brought prominence to Leasburg during the mid-century. Before, and just after the Civil War, three tobacco factories were doing a flourishing business here. Miss Willie Lea and Mrs. Lillie Lea Neal could remember the bustle of industry when these factories were being built.

At first, no licenses were required for the manufacturing business, and a fortune could be made by any man enterprising and capable enough to manage it. It is said that at one time 95% of the plug tobacco on the United States market came from Leasburg. Wilkerson and Fuller, E. W. Culbreth, William Paylor, and R. P. Hancock are names on record as operators here. In some way, R. L. Lockett was also associated with the business.

One of the factories was located in the large lot back of the Connally home; another in the lot just west of the Joe Smith home; the third, operated by Paylor and Hancock stood far back directly across the street from the Connally store. The last mentioned factory registered as No. 98, 5th District, North Carolina, did the most extensive business and continued operation for the longest time. An interesting chapter in the history of tobacco as well as the history of Leasburg could be pieced together from a tour of this old factory which remained standing until 1940 -- too strongly built to tear down, too dilapidated to repair. From stamps on the wall, it is clear that Leasburg was supplying chewing tobacco to large firms at distant points, notably Atlanta, Montgomery and New Orleans. William Paylor seems to have dropped from this firm soon after the Civil War, perhaps when a prohibitive tax was levied by the government in an effort to raise money to pay the war debt. Transportation was so difficult and labor so unpredictable that the tax finally was ruinous. An effort to evade this tax finally crushed Hancock financially and brought an end to this chapter of Leasburg history.
We are fortunate to have these three photographs that most likely are of the Hancock & Paylor Tobacco Company, Leasburg, North Carolina.

Do you have any information or ideas about this tobacco factory or others that operated in Leasburg or elsewhere in Caswell County? If so, please share them here or with the CCHA and help preserve our agricultural and industrial heritage.

References and Links

When the Past Refused to Die: A History of Caswell County North Carolina 1777-1977, William S. Powell (1977)

Branson's North Carolina Business Directory (1967)

Jacob Thompson (1810-1885)

Historical Sketch of Leasburg

History of Tobacco

Tobacco in Caswell County

Here are additional interesting facts gleaned from census records:

Note that the 1860 U. S. Census enumerated one R. P. Hancock, age 28, and a saddler. He was a next-door neighbor of L. C. Wilkerson, age 31, wealthy, and shown with the occupation "tobacconist". In the Wilkerson household were two others with that occupation: Ambrose Nelson (66); and D. R. Rice (26). The household also included a mechanic (J. C. Barnwell, 26), which would be helpful in operating a tobacco factory. The Branson's publication cited above listed the Fuller (A. M.) & Wilderson (John E) tobacco factory also operating in Leasburg in 1867. Was this "Wilderson" actually "Wilkerson"?

R. P. Hancock had interesting neighbors on the other side of L. C. Wilkerson. First was Josiah A. Stanfield, physician, age 31 (and very wealthy indeed). Then came J. L. Hambrick, a wealthy "merchant" (age 34). Near J. L. Hambrick was William Paylor, Jr., age 30, merchant, and with $13,000 in real estate and $3,000 in personal property. This William Paylor, Jr., most likely was the partner of R. P. Hancock in Hancock & Paylor Tobacco Company. Continuing, one finds the household of Solomon Lea, 53, and a teacher in an academy. This is, of course, the famous Solomon Lea, and the academy most likely was the Somerville Academy (formerly the Somerville Female Institute).

R. P. Hancock's next-door neighbor on the other side was Joseph Sidney Thompson, 55, with real estate reported at $64,000 and personal property stated at $26,300. This wealthy individual was the father of physician Jacob A. Thompson.

To see more on R. P. Hancock and William Paylor, Jr. go to the Caswell County Family Tree.

What is striking about the small community of Leasburg, Caswell County, North Carolina, in 1860 is the number of very wealthy relatively young men. However, the next five years would change their circumstances forever.

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