Food was not a big problem for the earliest residents of Kentucky. Sources of protein were almost unlimited. A look at the map today reveals just how many places were named for elk, deer, hickories and walnuts. The streams were teeming with easy-to-catch fish. There was little need for a cash crop, and that need was usually met by the enterprise of trapping. The furs of the beavers, otters, minks and muskrats were traded for staples at the trading posts and at stores that were soon in the settlements.
As increasingly more people settled in Kentucky, the availability of game, and the fur bearing animals to trap, decreased dramatically. It became increasingly more difficult to find both. Tobacco, as a cash crop, filled the void.
Tobacco as a crop was especially accommodating to the vast woodlands of Kentucky since it required small patches that could be hacked out of the forests. A large yield per acre, as well as the close care and supervision required, has always confined tobacco to a relatively small plot of farm land. The small hill farms that were prevalent in the areas north, south and east of the inner bluegrass were perfect for tobacco production. By the 1860s, almost every farm in the area was producing some tobacco, and the nature of the leaf and what it took to produce it had profound influence upon life in rural Kentucky.
raised a crop without the help of neighbors. Men, women and children rotated from one farm to another to plant, nurture, cut and house the crops. Neighbor helping neighbor was necessary to get the crops in and that impacted the personality and style of entire communities. An almost club-like community trust developed.
The job of adult men was farming and that was it. Women were mostly homemakers. The boys and girls of the farm communities had work waiting for them after school and there was always money-earning work in the fields and barns for the young men who lived on the farms and in town. During cutting and housing season, everyone worked. Students were excused from attending school during the first weeks so they could help in getting the tobacco cut and housed. And, farm boys were excused from football practice for weeks at a time. Only about half of the students made it to band practice.
Opening day on the market was a huge event. The feed and farm-supply stores offered ham sandwiches and drinks. Those tiny packages of five or six cigarettes were handed out everywhere. Towns were abuzz with people, and the talk was non-stop with conversation about just what the different grades were bringing. Humorous tobacco related stories were told and retold for decades.
When the crops were sold and the checks delivered, the next step was settling up with the banks. A new note was executed, some money taken home, and the whole process began again.
It is different today. The 2004 demise of the USDA support program changed everything. Very few farm families get their income off of the farm and nowhere else. The small hill-farm owners have jobs in the factories and other places off the farm. Their land still provides some income, but certainly not the main source that it was before. The mindset of “neighboring” has mostly disappeared.
The powerful fabric of shared interest is hard to find today: A wholesome way of life has disappeared.
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