Last month, I wrote about my maternal grandfather visiting us shortly after we moved to Wilmington. Over the past four years, I’ve mentioned him in several other blog entries including one about his last Christmas, his family on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, planting his vegetable garden on Good Friday and him killing rattlesnakes. The photo is of his lantern sitting on the mantel of my fireplace. That lantern and a kerosene lamp that is in Rick Bragg’s family (he tells about it in Ava’s Man) inspired these memories. The second photo is of my granddaddy holding me when I was 4 1/2 months old (May/June 1957)
The fire truck had already left and the barn had been reduced to a heap of smoldering logs and twisted tin when we pulled up in Dad’s big Buick. We came as soon as Dad got home from work. Mom had received the call about the fire earlier that afternoon and took us out into the backyard and we looked in the south for the smoke. Back then, flue-cured tobacco barns were built like a chimney, designed to draw heat up through the leaves on sticks. If a stick of tobacco fell into the fire and flashed, allowing the flames to reach the bottom leaves, the flames would quickly be drawn up through the drying the leaves. There would be little one could do to save the barn.
Dad parked behind the pack house, pulling off of the sandy two-track so that other vehicles could get in and out. We walked over to where my granddaddy and a few men were standing around, exhausted, leaning on the on shovels and rakes they’d used to clear the brush from around the barn, to keep the fire from spreading to the pack house. It was bad to lose a barn, it would have been disastrous to have lost the pack house which was filled with tobacco that had already been cured and waiting for the market to open. There was nothing left for us to do. Luckily, the summer was almost over. For the rest of season, my granddaddy hauled his tobacco down to Frank’s farm, his son-in-laws, on the other side of Carthage, and cured his crop in one of his barns. I didn’t know it then, but it was an end of an era.
Ever since he’d left the shipyard at the end of the war, my granddaddy had raised tobacco along with some of the best vegetables in Moore County. Before the war, he’d worked on other people’s farms along with driving a truck for the WPA and making moonshine on the side. After doing time for the later, and under the watchful eye of his mother-in-law (my great-grandma), he stopped making hooch and, I’ve been told, became a teetotaler. Although he was never very active, he joined the Beulah Hill Baptist Church. The war was a good to him. With the shipyards opening in Wilmington, he’d gone to High Point to take a welding class. During the Christmas break, just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, he moved his family to Wilmington. He took a job in the shipyard and my grandma worked in the cafeteria at the dry docks. My great-grandma moved with them and lived with them, watching the kids and cooking for the family which always included a few boarders who’d moved to Wilmington to work in the defense industries. During the war, he’d saved enough to buy two small farms—the Gyger place and Brook’s land. These farms were adjacent to my great-grandma’s land and just west of Beulah Hill. It must of took him a while to arrange things, for after he was laid off from the shipyards at the end of the war, he spent the first year as a sharecropper in Lillington, raising crops on someone else’s land. But then, in late ’46 or early ’47, they’d moved back to Moore County.
Granddaddy built a log barn at the edge of the woods, behind the Gyger house. There, during the late summer, he’d spend most of his hours around the barn, often sleeping under the tin porch, as he cut wood and fed the fires that cured the golden leaf. He’d come home for dinner and to clean up, but he had to stay close to the barn to tend the fires. At night, his constant companion was a kerosene lantern that I have and still use.
Granddaddy had a small tobacco allotment, raising only three or so acres of the leaf. In the winter, he’d take on a second part-time job, as a night watchman or tearing down buildings for salvage. That winter after his barn burned, he built a new one. Instead of using logs, it was a framed barn, built out of salvaged materials. He covered the outside with green tarpaper. Instead of using wood heat, he installed four kerosene burners, attached to a large tank that sat beside the barn. No longer would he have to sleep at the barn, waking up every few hours to feed the fires. Now, with a thermostat, he could sleep in his own bed, stopping by two or three times a day to make sure the temperature was holding. Of course, I was young and don’t remember my granddaddy sleeping at the barn, but I wish I had been there. Guy Owen, in his classic story, “The Flim-Flam Man” writes about men watching the barns at night, while sipping whiskey and swapping stories. Owen blamed modern curing barns, the ones that used kerosene and later gas, for the decline in storytelling in southern culture. No longer did men have to live at the barn, constantly watching the fire. But it was a life I never got to experience. I was four or five when my granddaddy’s barn burned, nine when he raised his last crop of tobacco. My granddaddy’s heart gave out a month or so before setting out tobacco beds for a new season (the plants are started in a bed late in winter, then transplanted into the field after the threat of frost is over). It was a week before my tenth birthday. For years, he’d been suffering from emphysema.
I tell you the fellow that invented them gas curers ought to be horsewhipped. He put an end to some fine tale-swapping and yarn-spinning. The truth is, that's where I got my real education, hanging around Tobacco barns and listening to old timers talk.
-Guy Owen, The Ballard of the Flim-Flam Man