The cigarsmoking contest was won by a man who said he didn't like cigars. Then the winner of the First World Tobacco Auctioneering Championship, the 37-year-old son of a legendary tobacco auctioneer, conceded he was allergic to the weed.
The Pride in Tobacco festival held this weekend in this southside Virginia city attracted more than folks who like to smoke, chew, dip or spit. In Virginia, where tobacco is the number one cash crop, celebrated in gold leaf on the Capitol dome and staunchly protected from tax increases by the state's legislature, there are many friends of tobacco who would never put it to their own lips.
"We are the ticket for tobacco," proclaimed nonsmoker Charles Robb, the Democratic candidate for governor, who addressed a Saturday afternoon crowd gathered for the tobacco festival a few minutes after his Republican opponent, Marshall Coleman, also a nonsmoker, had made a similar commitment on the same stage. Both candidates were received with nonpartisan politeness by an audience that had come to drink beer, listen to bluegrass music and witness all manner of tobacco related contests.
The headline attraction was a tongue-versus-tongue competition between 63 tobacco auctioneers from half a dozen states. The auctioneers, mostly middle-aged and all male, were matched in a mock tobacco sale with pitches delivered faster than the ear could translate, some old-time religious fervor and a liberal dose of country humor.
"What you need to be a good auctioneer is the voice of a jackass and the brains of a hummingbird," said Leslie Hobbs, a back-slapping, joke- cracking auctioneer from North Carolina who has been selling tobacco for more than a quarter of a century. "And you got to like being heard more than you like listening."
The two-day festival was sponsored by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, America's biggest, which controls about one third of the billion dollar domestic cigarette market. For the past few years, Reynolds has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on Tobacco Pride days around the country in a public relations effort.
This year that effort is particularly important, say tobacco industry officials, because of indications from the Reagan administration that it is considering modifying or abolishing the controversial price support program for tobacco.
"There is a move by the Reagan administration to do in the tobacco program," said Jim Devine, a spokesman for North Carolina's agriculture department, who says he has no quarrel with Reagan's free market philosophy except when it threatens tobacco.
Tobacco has been under considerable attack since 1964 when a U.S. Surgeon General's report linked consumption of tobacco with cancer. The attacks apparently have had some effect. Last year the Agriculture Department reported that adults in this country were consuming less tobacco per person than at any time since 1898.
Until this year, there has been little opposition from within the state to the tobacco business, which accounts for more than $3 billion in annual sales and about 33,000 farm and factory jobs. So tobacco industry officials were shocked last May when the Medical Society of Virginia's magazine printed two anti-smoking articles that attacked Virginia's "golden leaf."
"Cigarette smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable premature death and disability in the United States," read one article.
A spokesperson for the Tobacco Institute in Washington responded to those articles by saying, "Such negative campaigns are quite popular today. And physician participation has become fashionable."
The only negative notes sounded at this weekend's festival came from spectators at a tobacco-spitting contest.
"It's disgusting," said Elise Raines, standing with two daughters well behind a half dozen contestants, including her husband William, who were attempting great expectorations for distance and accuracy.
A cigar-smoking contest, which rewarded the smoker who could burn the longest unbroken ash, was held in a street just one block from the Tobacco Museum, which may be the only museum in the country that encourages visitors to smoke.
Kenneth Dalton, a 31-year-old truck driver, won a box of cigars for his 3 1/16th-inches ash. Dalton, who doesn't smoke cigars, said he'll keep his prize in his handkerchief drawer, "to give them a pretty smell."
The largest prize award was $2,500 offered for the best auctioneer. The first competition of its kind, it attracted 63 of an estimated 175 tobacco auctioneers who make their living in a business that is one of the most insular and traditional in America.
"They know what's going on and almost nobody else does," said Koenraad Kuiper, a 37-year-old linguistics scholar from New Zealand who was at the festival collecting material for a book he is writing on auctioneers. "The tobacco auction, because it moves so incredibly fast and you can't understand what is being said, is a very closed community. You would not get into it unless they let you in."
Among the seven judges was L.A. (Speed) Riggs, the most famous auctioneer in the country, who was the voice of the American Tobacco Co. and Lucky Strike cigarettes in the late 1930s and 1940s. Riggs' "Sold American" chant became known to millions of Americans on network radio.
"You got to like being a performer," said Riggs, a thin, silver-haired man of 69 with a voice that still rings out syllables like the chimes of a clock.
The auctioneering contest consisted of a mock sale of two dozen piles of tobacco to six role-playing buyers. Chanting spiels that have been clocked at 400 words a minute, the 11 finalists performed before a crowd of 5,000 people inside an old railroad warehouse.
While the tradition and sound have remained essentially the same for the last half century, today's tobacco auctioneers resemble their forefathers very little. At this weekend's competition there was not a bib overall in the group. The auctioneers were dressed like weekend golfers, in bright country club sports clothes.
The youngest of the auctioneers, 37-year-old Mac Burnette of Clarksville, Va., displayed the most unusual selling technique. Jumping from foot to foot and raising his rapid-fire spiel from deep bass to sweet tenor, Burnette resembled an evangelical preacher. He accentuated that impression by praising the Lord at the start and close of his four-minute performance.
The crowd and the judges were impressed. Burnette won the $2,500 first prize, then dedicated his prize to God and his father, "Smokey" Joe Burnette, a tobacco auctioneer who died at the age of 51 from lung cancer.
"My daddy was a heavy smoker," said Burnette, who nevertheless refused to blame tobacco for contributing to his death. "His daddy died at the age of 47. I think it's just something that runs in the family."