Shade tobacco was one of the 3 most money making crops of the South when I was a small child. There were fields and fields of that sweet smelling large leaf plant, all covered in white fabric shades. Gadsden County had white boxed fields everywhere. Shade tobacco was used to wrap cigars. My home county was part of 1 of only 2 districts that grew 95% of the American grown wrapper leaf. If you wanted a job as a youth, you went to the tobacco barns, or the fields.
Our local movie theater was called, The Leaf , and actually made it into a movie scene starring Melanie Griffith in the 1980’s.
My mother, the infamous “Miss Odene”, now 81 years of age, had a tobacco leaf in gold embedded into the gemstone on top of her high school class ring, smooth and worn with age now. Tobacco was king then.
But, by the time I was working age, about 13, the shade tobacco work was dwindling, and my parents didn’t want me to work in the tobacco barns, but considered other field work. Yes, 13…! When you became a teenager, you went to work. Now I’ve written before about my ventures around the courthouse square selling boiled peanuts, but one summer that I will never forget, my parents insisted that I take a job picking squash for Old Man Spooner.
I was scared, but they reassured me that my cousin “Fuzzy” would be there and picking too. So, that morning I got dropped off at Spooner’s Squash Field, and there was Fuzzy. We were both given our wood chip hampers, 3 ft tall, complete with wire bail for carrying on our shoulders, as we worked our way down each row.
There I found myself, just outside the door of a tobacco barn, only to be given that hamper that was just about as tall as I was, and Mr. Spooner showing Fuzzy and I several of the yellow gems and being lectured briefly about exactly what to pick and what not to pick. And so we went. Yes, two small kids age 13. I cannot even begin to tell you how large that field was, or if we picked an acre or more. I just remember that by the time I hauled 3 hampers to the barn, my shoulder was sore and possibly bleeding. I was told to dump all my pickins’ into a huge 55 gallon metal drum full of water, and go back for more. It was hot, it was painful, but I did it, and so did Fuzzy.
So after a full morning of bending over and grasping the most choice golden crooked neck squash, and hauling that hamper with the rusty wire bail digging, and my heat exhaustion, with NO WATER, I was looking forward to being paid my day’s wages.
But Old Man Spooner was not finished with us yet. And mind you, it was only two 13 year old kids that picked the field that day. No one else was in sight, and just when we thought we were done, Mr. Spooner comes out of the barn with scrub brushes. Yes, the squash had to be washed and prepared for the Farmers Market on Hwy 90, west of town.
So as the 55 gallon drum was filled with water, and squash very gently lowered into their bath, the scrub brushes began their up and down motion, like 2 kids churning butter. Then we dried them off, placed them in clean hampers, wired the lids down, and stacked them into the back of Mr. Spooner’s baby blue El Camino. Yep, this farmer had an El Camino instead of an old farm truck. I was told to sit in the back and hold the hampers down as we made our way through the town of Quincy, Florida, and out the west end to the farmers market, which was at least 10 miles distance from the fields.
I sat on the side of the bed in back of the car, holding down the hampers, while Fuzzy drove, maneuvering through Hwy 90, stop lights, and railroad tracks. Yep, that’s right. I was in the back and Fuzzy at age 13 drove. You see Mr. Spooner was legally blind, and not able to drive. So off this farmer went, with a 13 year old kid driving, and 13 year old kid in the back holding down the hampers full of beautiful yellow squash to be sold that day.
And as dusk began to set in, and as my cousin and I waited for our parents to pick us up, we winked at each other, just waiting for our pay for the day. Anticipation getting the best of us, we began to pick at each other and stuck our tongues at each other, having the maturity to work the fields, pack, and drive, but still the innocence to tease and wait.
And as the sun was setting, and after calculating his profits for the day, Old Man Spooner came back to the barn as our parents drove up to load us up and take us home after a hard days work. In each of our hands, he placed a five dollar bill.
Now I don’t recall ever going back to work for Old Man Spooner, and I don’t know why he could only find 2 kids to do his work, but I do look at my grandchildren and wonder what they would think if I hauled their tails out to a farm field and dropped them off for the day with a strange farmer, and to be paid only $5.00. Times sure have changed………..