Woodworking again: Tobacco culture

By Dave Wood
Posted 7/3/24

These days you hear a good deal about what I call value-added farming, as is covered in our Osseo neighbor Inga Witscher’s Public TV show, “Around the Farm Table.”  What it …

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Woodworking again: Tobacco culture


These days you hear a good deal about what I call value-added farming, as is covered in our Osseo neighbor Inga Witscher’s Public TV show, “Around the Farm Table.”  What it amounts to is diversifying to put a few extra shekels on the farmer’s table.

It’s news to some folks, but it’s nothing new to us folks from Whitehall. Recently I showed a gaggle of River falls pals the wonderful Sesquicentennial Commemorative calendar cooked up by historian Gary Giese and his scholarly minions. When they saw a large photo showing farmers hauling loads of tobacco down Main Street on their way into the huge red warehouse by the RR tracks just southwest of Scranton Street, their typical response was: “TOBACCO RAISED IN WHITEHALL? REALLY?”

So I had to explain to my friends that farmland from Vernon County through Trempealeau County was a fertile, if hilly medium suitable for growing the large-leafed variety of the much maligned plant to be used for cigar wrappers. In fact, I told them, I’m an old hand at this agripractice, which has pretty much disappeared from our rolling hills back home.

“YOU?” Yes me. Farmers like Walter Everson got their seeds from suppliers like Richard Holtan, who began operating in Whitehall circa 1905. The farmers planted these seeds in cold frames in Spring. When the danger of frost was past, they replanted the seedlings in the small fields that dotted the countryside using a cunning little horse-drawn planter that squirted a shot of water onto every plant the operator shoved in the dirt by hand. Very labor intensive, right? You bet and very profitable, too. In 1918 a fine crop could yield as much as $350 per acre.

If the weather was right and hailstorms didn’t drill holes in the valuable cigar wrapper leaves, there was still the cursed tobacco worm to worry about. And that’s where I came in. The aforementioned Walter Everson hired me to come to his farm near Coral City to search out these creepie crawly beasties and destroy them. Wally gave me a large Mason jar half full of kerosene and said: “Davey, you’ll hear them chewing under the leaves. Pull them off and drown them in the jar. I’ll give you a penny per worm.”

The leaves were shoulder high as I crept into the field and first heard a worm loudly chewing. I lifted the leaf from which it came and saw IT. It was light green, about four inches long, bloated with tobacco juice, and sported a ¾ inch black horn located between its eyes. As per Walter’s orders, I grabbed it with thumb and forefinger and gently tore it loose from its fleshy mooring. Trying not to hear the crackle of the plump worm’s death knell, I plopped it into the kerosene and proceeded to work all morning until Walter’s wife Arlie brought me a wonderful lunch topped off with cool green grapes, something I’d never tasted before.  The grapes were of the exact same hue as the worms I’d been slaughtering all morning, but I bit into one and must say the grape’s texture was much more pleasant than the green slime that shot out whenever I accidentally decapitated a worm.

I finished up behind the silo, to count the kerosene-marinated worms I had slain. One hundred and thirty-two. (Ah, I’ll round it to one-hundred and fifty, so Walter won’t have to make change.) I walked home with a paper dollar and a fifty cent piece, worried that my new boss wouldn’t go behind the silo and recount them, lying there with horns pointing upward in defeat.

My work in the fields of tar and nicotine was over, but my Grandad Ralph Wood’s wasn’t. For the next phase of tobacco culture Walter and his neighbor August and Even Finstad cut and speared their huge and heavy leaves onto slim wooden lathes and hung them in their unpainted windowless barns.   When the leaves were cured and dark brown, Granda would join the Finstads, who lived on what is now John Aasen’s farm, and sit in those chill ashen barns to sort and stack the varied grades,  and then they were off to Whitehall to sell the fruits of their labors to the cities where a different variety of immigrant would hand-roll leaves into stogies called Harvesters and White Owls and a popular one in my father’s City Café glass and walnut cigar case called “La Palinas.” Wonder how it got its fancy name?

I never figured I would have a connection to William S. Paley, chairman of CBS, the media giant! Seems his Jewish immigrant family began humbly in in Chicago tenement rolling cigars. To market then, they dressed William’s beautiful mother in regal Spanish costume, shot a photo of her and pasted her countenance on every box of La Palinas shipped out of its warehouse, a classic instance in do-it-yourself marketing.

Get it? La PALEY-nas, the name for cigars that originated in Whitehall, led to Paley’s purchasing radio stations in order to publicize his stogies, which led to his becoming a giant in broadcasting and some unwanted publicity (see “Answered Prayers,” by Truman Capote.)

P.S. Dear George Everson. Do you still live in Pigeon Falls? If so, and you read this tale of annalidean murder and mayhem, please know that I have already confessed to your mom and Arlie forgave me.

Woodworking again, Dave Wood, tobacco, column