tobacco culture

Where we worked: tobacco barn.

Over the last couple of decades, the once ubiquitous tobacco barn has largely disappeared from the rural Wilson County landscape. I was surprised to find this one, then, completely enclosed in a grove of trees near a Springhill township cemetery, but otherwise in remarkably good condition.

After tying freshly picked tobacco leaves to wooden sticks with twine, workers hung the sticks from racks inside the barn to be dried, or “cured,” in the heat delivered via flue from an external fire box. The grueling work of barning season ended around this time of year.

I invite anyone knowledgeable to estimate the age of this barn. Thank you!

Photographs by Lisa Y. Henderson, July 2019.

Artis’ tobacco stick business.

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Wilson Daily Times, 11 November 1919.

John T.M. Artis announced his tobacco stick business in the Daily Times in November 1919.  Tobacco sticks were thin cuts of wood used to hang tobacco leaves from barn rafters for drying.

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On 24 February 1903, J.T. Artis, 21, of Wilson, son of Ben and Ferabee Artis, married Mattie Thomas, 20, of Gardners township, daughter of Peter and Margaret Thomas. Sidney Wheeler applied for the license, and Primitive Baptist minister Jonah Williams performed the ceremony in the presence of Willis P. Evans, John Barnes and Henry Melton. E.L. Reid witnessed Williams sign an X.

John T. M. Artis registered for the World War I draft in Wilson in 1918. Per his registration card, he was born 17 March 1880; lived on Route 5, Wilson; farmer for Petter Thomas; nearest relative, Simon Barnes.

In the 1920 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer John Artis, 38; wife Mattie, 40; sister Hattie Sims, 40; mother Fariby Artis, 82; grandmother Rosa Barnes, 94; and nephew James Artis, 12.

In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Artis Jno T (c; Mattie) lab h 1114 Queen

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1114 Queen, rented for $9/month, Morison Artis, 63, and wife Mattie, 65, tobacco factory stemmer.

Mattie Artis died 21 October 1962 at Mercy Hospital in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 82 years old; was born in Wilson County to Peter Thomas and Maggie Barnes; was married to J. Marshall Artis; and was buried in Barnes cemetery.

John Marshall Artis died 6 January 1967 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, je was born 17 March 1883 in Wilson County to unknown parents; lived at 1109 Washington Street; was married to Odessa R. Artis; and had worked as a laborer.

 

The stemmery.

This corbeled chimney is all that remains of the stemmery that stood at the corner of Railroad and Stemmery Streets. A stemmery was a factory in which stems were stripped from cured leaves prior to processing for shipment to companies that manufactured tobacco products.  Stemmeries provided seasonal employment to thousands of African-Americans, mostly women, an the small streets around it were lined with worker housing.

The original facility at this location, erected by Richmond Maury & Company in 1896, burned in 1920. It was replaced by a three-story building in 1922. This chimney vented smoke from the boiler room that powered the plant. A succession of tobacco companies operated this stemming and re-drying facility until 1973, when Montrose Hanger Company moved in.  Montrose Hander operated into the twenty-first century, but had long vacated the building when it was razed about 2012.

Photograph by Lisa Y. Henderson, October 2018.

Lost ‘hoods, no. 3.

As illustrated in earlier “Lost ‘Hoods” posts, downtown Wilson was once shot through with narrow alleys packed with the tiny double-shotgun dwellings of African-American tobacco workers. In addition to Banks Alley and Oil Mill Alley and Parker’s Alley (also known as Vick’s Alley) and Young’s Alley, there were:

  • Sunshine Alley

Sunshine Alley lay in the shadow of Liggett & Meyers’ tobacco warehouse and within a block of Smith’s, Planter’s Warehouse, Banner, Monk-Adams, Farmers and Watson Warehouses. As shown in the 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson, the western end of the alley was a slot off Goldsboro Street in the block otherwise bounded by Hines, South Mercer and East Jones Streets.

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The eastern end formed a dogleg dividing the block bounded by Goldsboro, Hines, Spring and Jones Streets.

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Sunshine Alley is long gone, but its path is easily followed in the driveway of the Family Dollar store at Hines and Goldsboro, the driveway of Barrett’s Printing House (the white-roofed structure below standing with the former footprint of Smith & Leggett) and the cut-through that continues past Barrett’s to Douglas Street (formerly Spring).

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  • Walnut Alley

Only a block long, Walnut Alley ran parallel to South Spring (Douglas) and South Lodge Streets between East Walnut and East Banks Streets. The 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map depicts a small “colored church” on Spring.

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That church is now Saint Rose Church of Christ, and the alley is Walnut Lane.

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Current maps courtesy of Google Maps.

Negro ministers recruit colored workers.

To address the acute labor shortage created by World War II, the Wilson Colored Ministerial Association came to the aid of tobacco factories and volunteered to recruit workers. “Three meetings of the colored ministers have already been held at the Darden funeral home, and colored church workers are making a house to house canvass for workers as a result of this meeting.”

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Wilson Daily Times, 22 August 1944.

Centre Brick auction.

Per Keith Barnes’ The World’s Greatest Tobacco Market: A Pictorial History of Tobacco in Wilson, North Carolina, this photograph depicts a tobacco auction at Centre Brick Warehouse in the 1920s. Several African-American farmers or warehouse workers can be seen standing behind the tobacconists who owned and operated the warehouse.

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Looping.

In this undated photograph, probably taken in the 1930s or ’40s, shows children and adults — four African-American — looping, or tying green tobacco leaves to sticks for drying.

Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Archives and History, reprinted in Keith Barnes’ The World’s Greatest Tobacco Market: A Pictorial History of Tobacco in Wilson, North Carolina (2007).