Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant navagable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation . . . Here are mountains, hills, plains, valleys, rivers, brooks, all running most pleasantly into a fair bay, compassed but for the mouth with fruitful and delightsome land. John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia
The return of spring puts life back into the land. Sunlight strikes the tin roof of a barn rising against a stand of budding oaks. Around the barn the field spreads in a quilt of color.
Lespedeza, emerald green, is the most striking patch in the fabric. It is a "cover crop," a grass that is easy on the soil. Just planted, to be cut in July, it will feed cattle. The farmer will plow the stubble under, enriching the ground for subsequent plantings of corn and hay.
Dominant is a light, sandy color, the color of the land itself. Under scattered white patches of cotton gauze, tobacco seeds take root. They are minuscule; about 60,000 fill a teaspoon. It is hard to believe that in two months they can grow up to a man's eye.
The fine white cloth patterned across the tan earth is an emblem of sorts. It says that the time is April, the place St. Mary's County.
Tobacco, once vital to life all through the Chesapeake, new only grows in this and the four other counties of southern Maryland. The shape and the quality of this land have helped it endure -- across three centuries now. So there has been time for the crop to root; and for people's lives to flourish around it.
St. Mary's County belongs to the Atlantic Coastal Plain; once sea bottom, now risen to become the eastern rim of the continent. Maryland Type 32 tobacco does well in the sandy, loamy soil.
The land here,too, lies close to sea level, and so the water table rises high. Small farms concentrated on upland tracts result. The average farm in St. Mary's County is about 120 acres.
Type 32 lends itself to this topographic arrangement. Yielding up to $2,000 an acre, it is a big cash crop. But it also resists mechanization. Only hands, thus far, can effectively chop a stalk, strip it of its leaves, and hang them up to cure. Thus a farmer can only realize a decent return on Type 32 if his labor is cheap -- which is to say his own, his family's or his friends'.
Maryland Type 32 is the only American cigarette tobacco not supported by government subsidy. The market is limited, free, and, for the moment, firm. On the average, Type 32 comprises less than two percent of every cigarette rolled in the United States. American tastes lean toward a heavier, darker tobacco.
So there is no demand for the crop to be grown on a large scale. The current market can absorb the relatively small amount of tobacco produced -- an amount already checked by the natural constraints of topography and the crop's hardy resistance to the machine.
HUGHESVILLE WAREHOUSE. The two words, linking a pair of Coca-Cola bottles with their familiar round red backdrops, hang on the side of the building. Fashioned from tin, hugging the highway, it is large, the size of a hangar. Traffic streams by on Route 5, oblivious for the moment to the stoplight ahead which signals arrival in and imminent departure from Hughesville, Md.
Inside, the thick, sweet smell of tobacco greets the senses. Heavy beams and shafts of light web the high, airy space beneath the skylit ceiling. Down below, piles of tobacco, weighing about 250 pounds each, cover the expanse of floor. The crop, tied in countless fan-shape bundles of about 20 leaves each and stacked in near symmetry, bears the unmistakable mark of hand labor. At this and seven other warehouses around the state about 32 million pounds of Maryland Type 32 is sold each year between the first week in April and the last in May.
8:30 a.m.: In the fine morning air, smoke drifts to the ceiling. It comes from the cigarettes of knots of men around the room. Each to his own. Farmers, bills of caps low over the eyes, speak in languid and collective monotone. They are here -- more curious than they often admit -- to see what their crop will bring. Black laborers, lacking the farmers' stake, wait to follow the flow of the day. Things move by their muscle. Most distinct, like penguins in the desert, is a small group of clean-cut, similarly dressed men. Most look to be in their mid-30's, retaining some of youth's vigor, but facing middle age. In windbreakers and V-neck sweaters, they have the styled look of professional golfers.
These are tobacco buyers. Collectively, they represent two cigarette companies and five tobacco brokers. They migrate as a flock, the crop describing their movements through the year. From this sale they travel deeper into the Southeast to buy flue-cured tobaccos -- so called because they are cured by heat. Then, in late November, the sales shift to Kentucky and Tennessee, the burley-tobacco belt. That season ends in early March, and soon after, the buyers repoint their noses north towards Maryland. For them, it seems that not only the calendar but the map is drawn by tobacco. Ask what they are doing here and now, and many will say that they are "working in the Maryland."
Landis Joyce grew up in the flue-cured. He is 32, boyishly handsome. Green eyes match green windbreaker. The cigarettes are Camels. He began sweeping out the Fairmont, N.C., tobacco warehouse in which his father was a partner as soon as he was "old enough to walk."
He is here as the "sale leader": in effect, the buyer for the warehouse. He sets a floor price on each lot of tobacco. If it is not met, then he has bought the lot, and he will probably put it back on sale the next day.
9 a.m.: Joyce opens the sale. He walks down the row, establishing a base price for each pile of tobacco.
"Twenty-five bid, 26, 26, what d'ya say, 28, okay." The staccato belongs to the man following Joyce, acutioneer Walter Wilkinson. He, too, grew up in the flue-cured. The tobacco warehouse he swept out as a boy was in Oxford, N.C. Being an auctioneer was his "only desire."
"Twenty-eight, what d'ya say, 30, 30 bid, sold Reynolds." Now in his early 40s, he has been doing this for 20 years.
On the other side of the row walk the buyers, cobras to Wilkinson's flute. Constant is the sing-song of hic voice, the cloud of numbers gathering in the air. "Twenty-Eight, 28, c'mon, 30 bid, 30." Each brings a flicker of response from one of the men; there is a feeling of tautness. A buyer yanks a bundle of leaves from the middle of the pile to see if it matches what's on top.His gaze is hard. Another suddenly shouts something unintelligible. There is some jostling to get a closer look.
To Wilkinson, who must translate into a flurry of numbers the flurry of gestures his eyes must pick up, falls the duty of controlling the pace. "If you go too fast you don't give the buyers enough time to see the tobacco. If you go too slow then they have too long to look; they can always find something wrong with a leaf." He adds, "It's always easier to sell a good crop."
This is a good crop. Ample rainfall and a hot summer saw to that. The middle and bottom leaves of the plant are bringing up to $1.30 a pound, a record price. That is up a nickel over last year, but cause for some grumbling by farmers whose costs have likewise risen. "These companies pay you what they want to pay you." The top leaves, also known as "dulls," bring a lower price. They are more opaque than the leaves lower down. That represents lesser quality. A lot of light is needed to determine a leaf's thickness. And that is why there are skylights in the warehouse roof.
The auction moves on down the floor and leaves in its wake parties whose interests in the proceedings vary. Willy Bizon leans on a pile of tobacco, a freshly lit Lucky Strike between his index and third fingers. Sad eyes above a substantial nose, a substantial moustache below, Bizon looks like a French detective. "Biggest user of Maryland is Swiss," he says in a thick, elegant accent. "In States taste is different than in Europe."
Bizon's company, a Swiss subsidiary of the British American Tobacco Company, makes a very mild cigarette. It is 50 percent Maryland tobacco. The West Germans and the Belgians are other big importers. The three countries, thankful for Maryland Type 32, have set up the Maryland Tobacco Improvement Foundation. "Money is sent each year from Europe for research," Bizon says. "Also what I think is unique in States is foundation gives seeds free to farmers."
Bizon is a tobacco blender, "the cook in the kitchen," as he describes it with a wink. He began as an apprentice in his native Belgium. "You travel and learn. But you must have taste and feeling for it." His gestures are full, as though to affirm that he thinks he does.
But Bizon, nonetheless, is a little worried this year. His concern extends beyond the reach of his taste buds. Due to the weather, this tobacco is high in nicotine. It is straining at the "marketing objective" that his company has established. How much nicotine should the tobacco have? "Two percent, no more," he asserts, slapping the flat of his hand on the pile of tobacco.
Two men in weell-starched raincoats walk by and Bizon introduces them: Mr. Clayton and Mr. Reese of the Exprot Leaf Company, Bizon's representatives in the United States. Clayton, silver hair in place, a ring on each hand, registers a look reflecting a tobacco man's unexpected displeasure at suddenly encountering a journalist. The greeting is polite and perfunctory. Reese is sufficiently elated about the crop not to notice. He says to Bizon: "When you've got a moment I want you to walk down this row."
"Oh, hell yeah. We really got it this year."
Clayton and Reese are not alone here. It is the second day of the auction and around the floor a number of button-down types are scrutinizing the merchandise. These are executives seeing how well their buyers did -- and what they had to work with.
For the most part they are close-to-the-vest men, generally unwilling to exchange more than pleasantries with the press. PRIDE IN TOBACCO reads a banner strung overhead between beams. In much finer print is the R. J. Reynolds trademark. The company has also printed up a series of handsome pamphlets stating their side of the smoking and health issue. Over the last decade per capita consumption of cigarettes in America has dropped less than one percent. However the weight of the tobacco in those cigarettes is down about 13 percent due to the search for less tar and nicotine. Americans are smoking less tobacco and more air. The industry could be happier.
The morning wears on. Tobacco is sold and moved out. The movers are black, and most of them are migrant.
Joseph Plater is black and lives in southern Maryland. For the last decade -- since he was 17 -- he has worked construction mostly. It has been piecemeal. He's done the work; it's run out; he gets laid off, and has to find new work.
He moves up the row of tobacco, straightening sales slips on the piles so the old man behind him with a clipboard can make a record of them.
"C'mon, move on." Plater, who has slowed down to talk, gets a poke in the back with the clipboard. He smiles and looks as sure as a bull at pasture.
What will he do after the auctions here?
"Get another construction job or work on the railroad down at the power plant. I know some people down there."
What was he doing before?
"I was working on the Metro up in Washington. That run out, and a bunch of us got laid off. Way it goes I guess." He stops and thinks for a moment. That earns him the clipboard in the back and another gruff command. "Some foremen have trouble laying you off; they can't really look at you straight. You see 'em coming, and you know what they're going to tell you."
From here the tobacco travels out a door in a distant corner of the warehouse and into the packing room. The tobacco is dumped on a conveyor belt, rises to a circular fan and is blown down into a hogshead. Two men assemble the hogsheads, which come in two semi-cylindrical wooden pieces. They couple them together as though hanging a door, lining the hinges of each up and then banging a pin through.
Hogsheads, which hold between six and seven humdred pounds of tobacco, are a stunning, apparent link with the past. They used to be hitched to oxen and rolled to port or market. The highways they traveled came to be called rolling roads. Now, a lot of tobacco is packed in cardboard boxes. Square boxes, similarly exact in dimension, utilize space more efficiently and more predictably than round, irregular hogsheads. They weigh 40 pounds, the wooden containers 80.
The full hogshead rolls out from under the fan to a machine that wants to put a lid on it. The hogshead resists th machine. Two men, one wielding a mallet, the other a crow bar, take to this anachronism. They club and pry away, trying to fit the lid down tight. One man climbs on top, Hoping his weight can persuade it. Finally, the lid is is on, the hogshead subdued.
The spire of Christ Church, King and Queen Parish, pierces the blue sky. A white rapier thrust heavenward, it dominates this low, tidal country. That steeple endures through time and rises over place, and so there is something signal about it.
The church was built in Chaptico, Md., in i736, fianced by levies on tobacco. Until the mid-18th century there was no such thing as cash here. Tobacco was the coin of the realm.
Time has taken us off the tobacco standard. Mildred Harrison remembers her father telling of when the crop brought no more than a penny a pound. That was during the Depression. At that price, and with their tobacco traveling all the way to central market in Baltimore, farmers around here got back bills from the warehouses -- freight and handling costs exceeded the sales price. Spurred by such an unfavorable trade balance, the farmers, in 1939, set up their own tobacco exchange in Hughesville, 15 miles away.
Mildred Harrison still lives within sight of the spire, though nine of her 10 siblings do not. Eleven children solved one problem on the farm. "With a big family you don't have to pay come-in labor." Things changed, though, when the wars in Europe and Korea came in to life in southern Maryland. "War does funny things to people. Once they was in the service and out seein' the world they didn't want to come back."
Many of her brothers now live in and near cities; many work with machines. Mildred looks bemused. "If I had to live in an apartment I'd go crazy . . . I guess if they like the mechanic work that's what's important. I just know it's not for me."
What is for Mildred Harrison is not mechanic, not urban. She lives on 7 1/2 acres of land. The elements of her life surround her.
Out in back of the two-story shingle house three cats doze in the sun. What are their names? "No names. I just call 'em cats. They keep down the mice." Nearby is the garden, tilled and ready for every type of seed imaginable. "As long as there's something you can eat and the weather lets you, you put it out there."
Between the cats and the garden stands a smokehouse, moss on its shingled roof. November is "good hog-killin' time," she says. It's gotta be cold, otherwise the heat stays in the meat." Inside, under a shelf of Mason jars sits a pair of cobwebbed barrels. Unlike the smokehouse, they haven't been used for a few years now. They were the freezer. Filled with brine and the right blend of seasonings, they would keep meat. Now they represent a lost art. "There used to be a colored man who'd come around. He knew what seasonings to put in so it would keep."
Down a slope, against the forest, stands the barn. Last year's tobacco crop hangs in the shadows. Tobacco joins the circle of the year neatly here. Beside the barn new plants sprout under cotton gauze. Mildred will cut them in August, "spear" them on stakes, and hang them to cure. Through the cold months she will strip and bundle the leaves, then hang them back up to cure some more. When spring arrives, and she has some time off from planting the new crop, she will pack the old for market.
Mildred plants about 2 1/2 acres each year, and in that sense she is not atypical. For her and many of her neighbors it is just "something to fool with." "You can't make a living from it, but it helps out with your taxes, insurance and big bills."
Mildred, who has worked with tobacco all her life, fills the spaces of her day with it. Forty hours a week she collects tolls on the nearby Potomac River Bridge. She is a handsome, rough-around-the-edges woman, nearing 40 and probably never to marry. As we walk around her land we hear the concussive booming of jets over the forest. The Patuxent Naval Air Test Center. Many around here would say that this is now the economic backbone of the area.
There is something uncanny about Mildred's accent. It has a drawl, surely, but there is also a noble, rounded quality to her vowels. One always hears of people in removed places speaking perfect Elizabethan English. Like Type 32 her voice seems indigenous. It keeps abstractions such as toll bridges and air bases at a distance.
So does her thinking about tobacco. "People will smoke and chew it if they want to. I don't understand all this no smoking this and no smoking that. There's other things besides cigarettes that cause cancer." A look of beguilement crosses her face. There is some distance in her eyes.
"I like to watch it grow more than anything else. You set that little seed in the ground, and it comes up. Then the sun hits it, and for a couple of days you don't think it's gonna make it. But then the roots take hold, and it grows right on up. It's fascinatin'. Sometimes you look at that plant when it's five feet high and wonder how it made it." CAPTION: Picture 1, Tobacco reaches to the horizon in St. Mary's County. Lifeblood of the colonial economy, tobacco now endures in southern Maryland as a small cash crop. Buyers bid on tobacco at the annual auction in Hughesville.; Picture 2, no caption, all Photographs by Bill Snead.; Picture 3, Taxes on tobacco financed the building of Christ Church in Chaptico, Md., in 1736.; Picture 4, Farm crew plants young tobacco in spring. Cut in August, the crop reaches six feet and can bring $2,000 an acre.; Picture 5, Rivers draining across the coastal plain carve peninsulas -- and siolate people. Before bridges and fast, wide roads, St. Mary's County, toe to the Southern Maryland boot, was a separate place.