Top: North Carolina Highway Historical Marker G 5, “Bright Leaf Tobacco,” on State Road 1511, Blanch Road in the township of Blanch, Caswell County North Carolina. The sign states, “In 1850s on a farm in this area Abisha Slade perfected a process for curing yellow tobacco. His slave Stephen discovered process in 1839.” The marker stands in the front yard of a historic home (in the Carolina I-house form) and farmstead.
Bottom: Looking down the road, toward “in this area.” The view is of farm fields, full of log tobacco curing barns (which are more numerous in Caswell County than in any other area I have traveled), and the Dan River valley, where just out of sight lie the Town of Milton, and the City of Danville, both early trading centers of bright leaf tobacco.
This is it. Where it all started; the genesis of the cigarette, and tobacco towns like Durham and Winston-Salem, and Honus Wagner baseball cards, and the Marlboro man and “You’ve come a long way, baby!” Surgeon general warnings, and my generation’s grandparents all living 15 years less than they should have.
North Carolina Historical Highway Markers rarely ever point you to the exact spot where history occurred, a mandate places them the nearest highway, for happy motorists to view while whisking by to the store, to grandma’s or to Myrtle Beach. So, I am not sure the exact spot in 1839 when Stephen happened upon the new curing process (at this time, tobacco was cured in a less sweet, stronger method, burly tobacco, that was made into plug, pipe or chewing tobacco), but it has to be the greatest miss of all time of where a theme park should have gone in North Carolina. I can envision a historically accurate re-created farmstead, or if the State had not been involved, a Dollywood style theme park sponsored by Camel and Marlboro, complete with candy cigarette snack bars and Disney style rides (a Circle-Vision 360 movie entitled, “O-Tobacco!”).
Abisha Slade, the white farmer who “perfected” the process, went on to be one of the most prosperous tobacco growers in North Carolina before the Civil War. The tobacco wealth allowed him to keep his farm in the County, while building a house in Yanceyville and directing his interests toward politics. The slave Stephen’s history sort of doesn’t exist. Though the above sign credits him with the discovery, popular lore only allows that the discovery process involved him “falling asleep on the job.” A history no doubt written many years ago when all historians were as Lily white as the flour their biscuits were made from.
My idea of the State Historic Site or Theme Park probably never came to fruition because of the controversial nature of the product discovered. Cigarettes lead many down a road of serious health problems and even death. The controversy is not new, G.I’s in World War II nicknamed cigarettes “coffin nails.”
I have never understood why this point is even debated. If you step back from the science of the debate, and boil it down to facts my pre-school children could understand; you, by smoking a cigarette, are setting something on fire, and putting said object in your mouth! What’s not to understand?
Not one particularly interested in science, I conducted a more informal poll for around two months 10 years ago, the only time in my life I smoked cigarettes. I was 25, and had moved from North Carolina to Seattle, Washington. I knew two people. The very first week I met a tall, gorgeous brunette from Vancouver who worked, of all things, as a Starbucks barista. In her free-time she smoked cigarettes and wore the color black from head to toe.
I was determined to impress her, and immerse myself in the Emerald City. So, I turbocharged my vices. I took to drinking double-shot americanos and smoking filterless Chesterfields. A mix of supporting her employment and backing my hometown (Chesterfields were made in Durham). For 5 or 6 weeks we tramped all over Seattle, her as tour guide; to the Zoo, and Trader Joe’s and the Egyptian Theatre. The walking made all the more tiring by the bright leaf tobacco burning in my mouth, and clogging my lungs.
After a while the novelty of my Southern accent wore off and she tired of me. I was broken up for a day or two, but excited beyond belief to be able to stop smoking cigarettes.
Today, ten years later, they sell Starbucks coffee at rest stops all up and down I-95 on the Eastern seaboard, and not one cigarette is even produced in Durham North Carolina. Nothing’s sacred anymore.
As clear to me that smoking cigarettes kills, or stunts your growth, I will defend to my death the right of my neighbors to grow and sell tobacoo. Its what they do, though less do it now that the Federal allotment program is gone. What if you spent 20 years being a firefighter, the best you could be, and you loved it, loved getting up in the morning for the hard work your job entailed. Then, I and 200 million other Americans told you to stop, that we didn’t like what you did for a living, that you were a killer? I wouldn’t like it much, I know that.
Of all the cable news stories that have seared a place in my memory; 9/11, the Federal building bombing in Oklahoma, another burns brightly, as it appeals to my local sensibilities. I will never forget a certain pant-suited Senator from the Pacific Northwest, standing on the House Floor arguing for the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. She continually banged her fist on the podium as all members of Congress do when trying to make a point or vie for CNN time, and yelling someting to the effect of how she would fight and fight to take millions of dollars from these publicly owned businesses in the U.S., the tobacco companies, to pay for her citizens’ mounting medical bills. And how these companies, this industry; personally owed her and her constituents this money.
Again, I am not here to debate the sanity of cigarette smoking, but I could see in her eyes that day she had no context for which she was speaking. She had no clue what I had seen, still see to this day; hard-working people, who perform back breaking work to feed their families, who work and live in the lush landscapes of the above photographs.