The Nutmeg State had a heyday as a growing center
HUMANS HAVE BEEN cultivating tobacco in North America for more than 2,000 years. Indigenous peoples prized the leaf and introduced colonists to chewing and smoking in pipes what the Europeans called “sotweed.” In popular culture, Virginia and Maryland are associated with tobacco, but Connecticut also was a center of colonial era tobacco farming. Tobacco consumption in the colonies changed in 1801 when a Connecticut woman wrapped shredded sotweed tightly in a moistened leaf, creating a portable smoke. By then Connecticut farmers were avidly growing the plant, and that state became a center of tobacco production. In years past, the signature image of the region’s most lucrative crop was white tents used to shade tobacco fields from the summer sun—a sight that has all but vanished. Between ancient times and the present, though, tobacco in Connecticut emerged as an economic engine. Over its 350-year history, the industry has engaged Americans from Revolutionary War general Israel Putnam, a tobacco farmer, to a teenaged Martin Luther King Jr., who first experienced unsegregated life in the summers he spent harvesting the crop in Connecticut.
Long before Europeans arrived, Native Americans had made tobacco a cultural mainstay. Indians cured the leaf by hanging it to dry in darkness. Men chewed and smoked cured leaf for pleasure as well as for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Tribes exchanged strains of tobacco as gifts and incorporated the plant into their rituals, including diplomatic negotiations that led colonists to coin the phrase “peace pipe.” As early as the 1550s, visitors to North America were returning to Europe with what they called “nicotiana” that was chewed, steeped as tea, and shredded for smoking, despite critics’ complaint that this product popular at all social strata was a dirty and common habit. By the mid-1600s, nicotania rustica was among the most valuable commodities exported by the colony of Virginia. Virginia leaf enriched England and wreathed the Continent in smoke.
Sotweed also was cultivated in the Connecticut River Valley, at the confluence of the Farmington River and the
Connecticut River, where a trading hub brought tribes and colonists into regular contact. Early New Englanders traded with Cuba, source of a leaf more fragrant than Virginia’s. In 1640, Connecticut banned imports of sotweed, encouraging farm families to grow their own for subsistence use. That year, at Windsor, Connecticut, farmer William Thrall established the O.J. Thrall Co., to grow and process tobacco; his business has been in operation ever since. Farmers favored a variety called Shoe String for its long, narrow leaf. Soon sotweed was a cash crop on fields in Massachusetts and southern Vermont.
An early popularizer of sotweed in Connecticut was Pomfret resident Israel Putnam, a farmer and later a military man. In 1762, Putnam and a regiment of his men joined the crews of five British warships sailing to take Havana from Spain, which had set up a naval base on that island. Lore has Putnam surviving a shipwreck during the battle and returned to Pomfret with hundreds of “cigarros”—shredded tobacco rolled in cured tobacco leaves—and pockets full of tobacco seed, allowing colonial farmers to grow their own Cuban tobacco.
In 1801, Sally Prout of East Windsor, Connecticut, had an idea for improving on the cigarro. Her husband grew tobacco, which until recently had been packaged in tins. However, taxes had made tin too expensive for packaging sotweed, so Prout wrapped shredded chewing tobacco in whole tobacco leaves that she rolled lengthwise, sealing each outer leaf to itself by moistening its edge. She bundled these “segars” for sale at a nickel apiece. Prout enlisted fellow farm wives to peddle Long Nines, Windsor Particulars, Clear New England Cigars, and other brands of stogies. The new product took off, and at Suffield in 1810 Connecticut got its first cigar factory, soon replicated around the state. One manufacturer hired a Cuban to teach workers how to roll a segar combining local and Cuban leaf. By the mid-1800s, cigar manufacturers were demanding a wider leaf more suitable for cigar wrappers than Shoe String. According to an 1833 Connecticut Agricultural Station bulletin, B.P. Barbour of East Windsor, Connecticut, introduced broadleaf, a hearty strain from Maryland whose thin, pliable leaves were better suited for cigar wrappers.
A cigar came to be standardized as comprising filler, binder, and wrapper. A leaf’s quality, or grade, decides where it fits into that triad. Filler, the lowest grade, makes up the innermost layers. Filler burns well and has appealing flavor; its low marks derive from tears, bruises, and other physical flaws. Binder, a middle-grade leaf, is thinner and serves to compact a cigar’s filler. Wrapper looks, smells, and tastes impeccable and burns evenly.
The rage for cigar smoking spurred competition among farmers and led to tobacco “sheds”—barns in which growers hung leaf to cure; buyers maintained their own barns for storage and aging. Tobacco sheds were ubiquitous along the Eastern Seaboard, but those in New England had a particular style: enormous, heavily built—the better to withstand winter storms—and fitted with adjustable ventilation. To warm sheds during the New England winter, farmers burned coal, balancing temperature and humidity with vents.
Farmers also tinkered with ways of curing, fermenting, packaging, and shipping leaf. Warehouse operators stockpiled leaf for shipment to cigar manufacturers in New York City and other metropolitan centers as demand required. East Windsor, Connecticut, originally was named Warehouse Point, for facilities built there in 1825. In Hadley, farmers in 1850 had about 130 acres under cultivation, producing more than 138,000 lbs. of leaf. The Civil War saw broadleaf production explode to meet demand among Union troops and counterbalance the interdiction of tobacco shipments from the South; by 1870 production at Hadley was 7 million lb.
Between 1870 and 1880 a new seed, Havana, took root along the Connecticut River. Despite the name, no records trace a Cuban connection. Havana leaves, smaller and smoother than broadleaf, could serve as both filler and wrapper, and did—until farmers embraced Sumatran. That exotic leaf, native to an island in Indonesia, produced smooth, golden leaves superior to either rival for cigar making. Sumatran leaf was thin, uniform, and delicately veined. Growers and scientists bred it with domestic strains to generate a premium wrapper. However, the Sumatran variant was sensitive to the sun’s light and heat.
Angling to protect domestic growers from imported Sumatran leaf, the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded a study of the shade-loving strain. On Sumatra, researcher Marcus Floyd observed that growers shaded their crops with bamboo slats, enhancing the tobacco’s delicate flavor and appearance. In Connecticut, Floyd planted a third of an acre on River Road in Windsor with the shade-loving variety. He softened the sun with cotton cloth
suspended over the tobacco on a wire grid supported by cedar poles. The tents filtered light and protected the plants but also held heat, simulating Sumatra’s 110o-plus natural temperatures. In this setting, plants grew four inches a day, producing soft, easily worked leaf with only a trace of vein. Satisfied with his results, Flood planted and shaded 50 acres in 1901. Shade leaf quickly rivaled Sumatran as the world’s most coveted wrapping leaf.
Farmers continued to raise “sun grown” broadleaf and Havana for filler and binder, meanwhile dedicating ever more acreage to shade-grown wrapper leaf. During the 1920s, the Connecticut Agricultural Experimentation Station reported, an average growing season in the state saw farmers install and wire 350,000 chestnut poles holding up tents of uncounted yardage of sheer cotton fabric enveloping tobacco fields to the ground. The Windsor Company, run by John E. Luddy, made a fortune importing, selling, buying back, and reselling Cannon 88, which was good for only two years of Connecticut-grade shade but afterwards was deployed by growers elsewhere secondhand.
Tobacco sales rose in the early 1900s, as did shade-grown leaf’s popularity. Valley production peaked in 1921 with 30,800 acres of leaf grown in Connecticut and 10,400 acres in Massachusetts. A Connecticut farmer spending $713 in 1936 to plant and raise an acre of shade-grown leaf grossed $1,144, four times the sun-grown yield. But shade-grown leaf carried high costs. To shade an acre, a grower needed 50 sturdy poles, 350 pounds of wire, and 5,000 square yards of tenting, as well as skilled crews to put up and take down the structure. To assure flawless wrappers, shade leaf pickers had to be experienced, further boosting labor costs.
Picking initially fell to European immigrants, especially Polish men. In the early 1900s, the picking ranks began to fill with Mexican and Caribbean immigrants. A shortage of male workers during World War II filled the fields with women and adolescents—a pattern that held after the war. In 1941, Hartman Tobacco Company began hiring more than 12,000 high school students from the South, the females known as “Florida girls” for their point of origin, to work seasonally. In 1944, Cullman Brothers Tobacco Company in Simsbury, Connecticut, brought north 186 men attending historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. That group included Martin Luther King Jr., 15, who would start that fall as freshman. In postcards home and in an autobiography, King described an environment new to him. “I had never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere,” one card read. “But we ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford.” King attended services and sang at Simsbury United Methodist Church, which, to young King’s surprise, seated him and his schoolmates among white congregants. Off-hours, the Morehouse men played baseball, held religious meetings, and visited Boston and New York. King came back for a second summer in the fields, remarking in his autobiography that after these sojourns “it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation.”
During the 1950s, Connecticut River Valley tobacco farmers felt the tide turn. General Cigar Co. introduced a machine that mixed a paste of tobacco scraps formed into sheets of pressed tobacco. This fabricated wrapper and similarly derived filler delivered an acceptable smoke at a much lower price. Shade-grown wrappers still sold at a premium, but broadleaf and Havana tobacco lost ground. Labor became problematic, even though Congress tweaked federal law to make it easier to recruit Mexican pickers at a lower wage. As the 1960s neared, awareness grew of smoking’s hazards. The surgeon general’s 1964 declaration that tobacco products contained carcinogens cut into tobacco sales. Congress rescinded the Mexican wage rule, on the theory that higher pay would draw domestic workers to farms. It did not. Tobacco harvesting is grueling manual work that involves a slow advance through hot field spearing onto sharply pointed, sometimes splintery hardwood stakes leaf stems made sticky by a thick coating of resin; the stakes also serve as hangers on which leaves cure. An ancillary task is crushing caterpillars that feed on the leaf. Connecticut Valley farmers hired local teens and migrant laborers from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Valley tobacco cultivation withered to 9,000 acres, a figure that continued to shrink as developers colonized fields.
Another chapter of Connecticut River Valley tobacco history began in 1986, when a farmer visited the Agricultural Experimentation Station in Windsor, Connecticut, to give Chief Scientist James LaMondia tobacco seed from Honduras, where the source plant was being grown. The visitor wondered about the seed’s DNA. LaMondia concluded that the strain, a form of Connecticut broadleaf, had originated in his own lab.
Amid all the interbreeding and cross-fertilization of the previous century, no one had thought to trademark Connecticut broadleaf tobacco. Now, like aspirin, the strain was a generic commodity that anyone anywhere could grow. The establishment of Connecticut broadleaf as a popular tobacco strain in Central America, with its benign climate and lower production costs, left little hope that domestic farmers could compete. Ecuadorian farmers, too, began planting a “Connecticut seed” to grow leaf sometimes marketed as having been grown in the state even though its roots are equatorial. A lobbying effort, likely too little and too late, is attempting to reshape American regulation to fight this misbranding. Science, dispersion, and a falloff in cigar consumption have erased for all but the most discerning cigar aficionados the nuances separating Connecticut River Valley shade wrappers and wrappers grown abroad. Those billowing white tents and long, tall sheds have all but disappeared. ]\
Since June 2017, O.J. Thrall Co., an element in the tobacco orbit of Windsor, Connecticut, since 1640, has been offering for sale 325 acres of crop land on Day Hill Road. The property is zoned for industrial use.
Dale and Darcy Cahill have written two books about tobacco sheds in the Connecticut River Valley and give presentations on tobacco growing in the Pioneer Valley. Their website is tobaccosheds.com.