Monday, January 25, 2010

Bright Leaf Tobacco Process

Flue-Cured Tobacco Originates in Caswell County
Burlington (North Carolina) Times-News, Sunday 7 August 1977

Purley - Ordinarily, Stephen Slade would have been skinned alive for a mistake like that. Or worse yet, he would have been sold to chop cotton in Louisiana or Mississippi. But instead, the slave and headman for Abisha Slade of Caswell County, earned a place of prominence for himself in the history of flue-cured tobacco production. Although discovered by accident, his use of charcoal helped establish the historic Old Belt counties of North Carolina and Virginia as the predominant "bright leaf tobacco" producing region from the 1850s through the post-Reconstruction Civil War period.

His discovery laid the foundation for the tobacco industry that was later to be built by the Reynolds and Dukes, according to one modern historian. Experiments with charcoal for curing tobacco had been carried out from Virginia through Ohio since the early 1800s. Yet, Stephen Slade's use of tobacco, combined with mid-19th century soil research, proved to consistently produce what growers had been trying to achieve since John Rolfe imported the first West Indies tobacco seed in 1612.

In addition to serving as headman on Abisha Slade's plantation, Stephen Slade operated the blacksmith's forge near the tobacco curing barns. And it is this coincidence that, perhaps as much as anything else, led to the young slave's discovery. He fell asleep one night in 1839, while keeping an all night vigil on the wood fires used for curing the barns of tobacco. Whether it was the stormy night, instinct or just what woke him, no one will ever know. But he awoke realizing that the fires in the tobacco curing barn had almost gone out. Rather than chuck wet wood into the dying fire, he rushed to the charcoal pit near the forge, grabbed several charred log butts and threw them on the embers.

The application of the sudden, drying heat, derived from the charred logs, produced a startling effect on the green tobacco. The result was 600 pounds of the brightest yellow tobacco ever seen in Caswell County. Abisha Slade sold the barn of bright leaf tobacco on the Danville market to W. P. Johns, a local manufacturer, for $40 a hundredweight. Little is known of Abisha Slade's activities during the next 17 years, but most historians generally believe that he and his brothers spent much of their time perfecting the discovery of his slave, Stephen Slade. By the mid-1850s, the Caswell County farmer had emerged as one of the leading educators in the use of charcoal in the curing of bright leaf tobacco -- the variety manufacturers wanted and were willing to pay top prices to get.

Historians of bright leaf tobacco production agree that by the 1860s, growers in the North Carolina and Virginia Old Belt counties were beginning to realize the significance of soil type and curing methods in the production of choice "yellow" tobacco. "Apparently, the Slades furnished the first definite regulations which, by including these two factors (soil and curing), made the production of bright tobacco a matter of some certainty," a leading historian of the period concludes. "By utilizing instructions from these growers (the Slades), farmers in remote areas ultimately produced the golden leaf with success," the historian said.

While historians generally agree on the significance of the Slade's contribution to flue-cured tobacco production, there is disagreement as to which plantation the charcoal curing process was first used on. Some early writers attribute the production of bright leaf tobacco to Eli and Elisha Slade. But this is disputed in Miss Nannie Mae Tilley's classic study, "The Bright-Tobacco Industry 1860-1829." Ezekiel Slade, who lived about five miles north of Yanceyville, had four sons: Thomas, Abisha, Elias and William. His sons eventually began farming the old home place and the surrounding acres, as was the custom.

Elias Slade's name came to be pronounced "Eli" by friends and acquaintances in the county. Apparently the combination of "Eli" and the last syllable of the biblical name, Abisha, served to produce the mythical "Elisha," found in the writing of the period and contemporary highway markers. At any rate, Miss Tilley said, there was no such person as Elisha Slade. But she also admits the possibility for confusion about such names outside their own community was quite possible.

Abisha Slade was a small but fairly prosperous farmer, by the standards of the times. In addition to a substantial acreage in the county, he owned lots in Yanceyville and an interest in the local hotel. In addition to farming, Slade served as Caswell County Clerk of Court from 1841 to 1853 and earned the title of Captain Slade.

Highway Historical Marker Text (G5): BRIGHT LEAF TOBACCO: In 1850s on a farm in this area Abisha Slade perfected a process for curing ellow tobacco. His slave Stephen discovered process in 1839.

Newspaper Article Caption: The old plantation of Abisha Slade in Caswell County is gone, as are the charcoal pit and tobacco curing barns. All that is left to mark one of the minor discoveries in the production of flue-cured tobacco is a historical marker beside a road in the Purley community. (Staff photo by David Rolfe.)

Note that the Bright Leaf Tobacco highway historical marker once was located on Highway 86 between Yanceyville and Purley (approximately in the Covington area). It was moved to the Blanch Road at the intersection with the Bertha Wilson Road. This apparently is closer to the actual location of the Slade farm.

But exactly why did this yellow tobacco leaf command such a premium? Surely it was not just because it was pretty. After all, it was either chewed, dipped, or burned (smoked). It was not framed and placed on the wall. Here is a partial answer:

“Flue-curing [a process accidentally invented by Stephen, a slave in Caswell County in 1839] turned tobacco a bright ‘lemon yellow.’ Many commented on the mildness of this tobacco and its particular suitability for cigarettes. But what they could not have known is that this process also subtly changed the chemistry of the leaf to make it slightly acidic rather than alkaline…..

“Smokers soon found they could take cigarette smoke deep into their lungs, rather than holding the smoke principally in their mouths as they did with pipes and cigars. In this way — as we now know – nicotine absorbs rapidly into the bloodstream; some seven seconds later it reaches the brain. Nicotine addiction was born…. This physiological process would create a mass industry and a consequent epidemic of tobacco-related diseases.”

The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product the Defined America, Allan M. Brandt (2007).

The Havana seed tobacco is now grown extensively in all the localities in the Northern states where twenty-five years ago only seed leaf varieties were cultivated. This Havana seed is the result of four successive generations from the original parent seed of the Havana variety. The modification brought about by climate and soil gives a distinct variety, longer in leaf, but with diminished fragrance, as compared with the original Havana. The leaves are finer in texture and more fragrant than the seed leaf varieties. If the seed from the Havana seed variety be planted in succession for several years, the tendency of the plant is towards the larger and coarser inordorous seed leaf. In this, one may see the effects of climate and soil in producing variations in species. Flavor is due to climate; texture and color to soil.

The most striking illustration of the variability of species produced by soil is that of the yellow tobacco in Virginia, North and South Carolina. In 1852, two brothers living on a sandy ridge between two affluents of the Dan River, in Caswell County, North Carolina, planted a crop of tobacco. The soil was thin and sandy and almost destitute of any plant nutrition. It was light in color, very sandy in character but friable and highly porous. The tobacco plants set out on this soil were grown in seed beds, sown with varieties that had produced heavy dark types. After being transplanted they grew very slowly. As the leaves developed and expanded it was seen that they changed in color from a light green to a golden yellow. In this condition, the plants were harvested and cured with open charcoal fires in closely chinked log barns. The leaves retained all their rich golden or lemon hues after being cured and they developed an aroma of a honey-like sweetness. When the tobacco was carried to market it brought a fancy price. The manufacturers of tobacco in the North, after that event, soon learned of the fitness of this yellow tobacco for making the best plug and it sprang into active demand. With this demand, came increased acreage and it was soon ascertained that all whitish or yellowish sandy soils in the Piedmont region would grow this handsome type of tobacco.

The production soon extended into Person, Granville and Rockingham counties in North Carolina, and Pittsylvania and Halifax counties in Virginia. It was then carried to Buncombe and other counties in the mountainous division of North Carolina. After 1880 its cultivation in a tentative way was begun in the Champlain districts of North Carolina with remarkable success. It was grown on the Potsdarn sandstone soils and granitoid soils of eastern Tennessee, and in South Carolina. Wherever the conditions of sterility prevailed in a soil with a whitish color, there yellow tobacco could be grown successfully. Any ferruginous matter whatever in the soil is fatal in the production of this type. Portions of the same field, where trap-dykes were found with a residuary red soil, were carefully shunned by the growers of yellow tobacco.

The theory in growing the best types of yellow tobacco is that the soil is a sponge, which must have the capacity to receive and retain just enough fertilizing matter to support the plant until it reaches a proper size. After this it is best that the fertilizers be exhausted so that the plant may go into a gradual decline in its vitality, like the hickory leaves in autumn, growing more and more yellow, more and more delicate in tissue, more and more beautiful and storing up more and more sweetness until it is harvested. It was soon ascertained that too much manure applied to the soil would destroy the best qualities of the leaf, vitiate its fragrance and diminish its brightness of color.

The stupendous economical effects of the growth of yellow tobacco in North Carolina are well worth our attention. The prices of old worn out lands, once perfect pictures of sterility, desolation and unfruitfulness, have advanced from fifty cents per acre, thirty years ago, to thirty and fifty dollars per acre at the present time. Oftentimes from $150 to $300 are made from a single acre of tobacco. Great centers of trade have sprung up, new lines of railroad built, and the manufacturing industry has advanced more rapidly in North Carolina than in any other southern state. The profits from the yellow tobacco crop laid the foundation for the building of a large majority of the 7000 manufacturing establishments now in North Carolina, of which 679 are for textiles and 101 for the manufacture of tobacco.

American Economic Association
Author(s): J. B. Killebrew and William H. Glasson
Source: Publications of the American Economic Association, 3rd Series, Vol. 5, No. 1, Papers and Proceedings of the Sixteenth Annual Meeting. Part I. New Orleans, LA., December 29-31,1903 (Feb., 1904), pp. 135-143
Published by: American Economic Association
Stable URL: Accessed: 26/09/2011 13:

This Day in North Carolina (September 6, 2016)

Serendipity and a Smoother Smoke

On September 6, 1856, Abisha Slade of Caswell County spoke at an agricultural meeting about “the new process of curing yellow tobacco.”

The talk reflected an agricultural breakthrough that had been discovered by one of Slade’s slaves by mistake in 1839. The slave, named Stephen, worked as a blacksmith and oversaw the curing process of the tobacco crop on Slade’s farm.

One day, Stephen fell asleep in the tobacco curing barn, succumbing to the warmth of the curing shed’s fire. Waking up he found the fire almost completely out. He retrieved charred logs from his blacksmithing equipment and threw them on the fire, creating sudden, immense heat. The heat cured the tobacco quickly, leaving it with a vivid yellow color.

Stephen’s accidental discovery became what is known in the industry as flue-cured tobacco and to consumers as brightleaf tobacco. It was an instant hit with smokers.

By 1857, Slade was harvesting 20,000 pounds annually and making some of the highest profits ever. The sandy, relatively infertile soil of many North Carolina farms was ideal for growing tobacco for such a curing process.

The development of brightleaf tobacco was what ultimately led North Carolina to a dominant position in the tobacco industry.

Other related resources:

Duke Homestead State Historic Site, which interprets our state’s tobacco heritage; this weekend the site will be hosting its annual Harvest and Hornworm Festival this weekend

Articles related to tobacco from NCpedia

The Celebrate Tobacco Barns project from the N.C. State Historic Preservation Office

Images of tobacco and farming from the State Archives

Source: "This Day in North Carolina," North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (September 6, 2016).

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