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ETSU History Harvest hopes to preserve region's tobacco heritage

Nathan Baker • Feb 3, 2017 at 10:11 PM

An East Tennessee State University program aims to preserve an important part of the region’s agricultural, economic and cultural heritage before it goes up in smoke.

The college’s Department of History will sponsor History Harvest, a new effort to find and digitally scan documents, photographs, artifacts and family histories. In its first year, the harvest’s title is “Preserving Southern Appalachia’s Tobacco Heritage.”

Dr. Tom Lee, ETSU associate professor of history, grew up in the area and recognized the cash crop’s significance to the communities and the people who lived in them. About a decade ago, he started interviewing significant figures among the region’s tobacco growers.

“It was noticeable, the changes that were occurring and had already occurred,” he said. “That got me thinking that it was time to start to capture the history if I could. It had been such a big part of people’s lives.”

Lee said tobacco started growing in the area commercially around World War I. The cigarette won popularity among Americans during the war, partially influenced by British and French soldiers who smoked them, but also because cigarettes were included among soldiers’ rations.

Burley tobacco, commonly used for cigarettes, became an important source of income for Appalachian farmers, and was grown by families for generations. The Burley Bowl, a football game and accompanying parade in Johnson City, the Burley Cubs, a minor league baseball team in Greeneville and the Burley Festival in Abingdon gave testament to the tobacco leaf’s importance to the surrounding communities.

Washington County farmer Keith Ervin said he helped in his family’s tobacco fields since he was able to walk. His grandfather raised it, he and his father still raise it, and his daughters worked on his farm to earn spending money to buy themselves vehicles.

Ervin’s seen the now defunct tobacco warehouses in full swing, where farmers from miles away would parade their harvest during auction season, hoping to catch the eye of a buyer. Now, growers rely on contracts directly with companies, setting prices that Ervin said are nearly level with those attained in the 1990s.

“The companies and the government make more money on a pack of cigarettes than the farmers do,” he said. … “It brings in a lot of taxes and, if they don’t get it from a pack of cigarettes, where are they going to get it.”

Though jokingly questioning his own mental capacity for continuing to grow his five acres of tobacco, Ervin said the money he’s paid is an important part of his family’s income each year.

As long as it’s viable, he said he’ll work to keep a contract and keep raising burley.

Not only a course of income for farmers, Lee said many businessmen in the area made their fortunes in the tobacco business.

Large warehouses, like those mentioned by Ervin, were built in most of the hub cities in the area.

Greeneville had an especially bustling tobacco warehouse district, but Johnson City’s warehouses, like the Big Burley warehouse near the railroad tracks on Legion Street, were where the months of growing paid off.

Now, with the tobacco auction system mostly dismantled, the central warehouses have mostly been abandoned.

One such property, the Central Tobacco Warehouse between Cherry and Ashe streets in downtown Johnson City, has recently been redeveloped by Mitch Cox Companies into Cherry Street Commons, a retail shopping center — a new use for an old commercial building.

By the 1980s, Lee said new discoveries about the health risks associated with smoking led to regulatory changes. Those changes, paired with the area’s turn from a rural area to a more suburban community helped quicken the decline of tobacco farming.

“You used to have whole families and neighbors putting up and cutting tobacco, then it moved to farmers using more outside labor and, into the 1990s, when farmers started consolidating allotments to grow larger and larger crops,” he said. “You had cultural and other shifts, in ideas about work and expectations of what our lives should be like, that made growing tobacco less desirable.”

For the History Harvest, people currently or previously involved in tobacco farming or selling are invited to contact the Department of History by Feb. 28. The department can be reached by email at history [email protected], by phone at 423-439-4299 or by mail at History Harvest/History Department, Box 70672, ETSU, Johnson City, Tennessee, 37614.

Students who took a new digital history course taught in the fall will scan or photograph documents, images and equipment brought to campus. All original materials will be returned, and participations will receive their own digital copies of their memorabilia. The digitized items will be stored on a server at the college.

Lee said the department plans to build an online exhibit with the results of the harvest, and could make a physical exhibit to travel to communities in the region.

He also said he hopes to History Harvest will become an annual event with a new topic each year.

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