Tobacco may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Vermont, but from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century, tobacco thrived in the southern part of the state. To combat our unpredictable weather, farmers in this region constructed unique sheds which allowed for the drying of the tobacco leaves.
Dale and Darcy Cahill, the authors of Tobacco Sheds: Vanishing Treasures of the Connecticut River Valley, document these sheds and study the history of tobacco in this region. “No one had done this before,” they explain. “When you think about how many books are written about covered bridges or lighthouses or other architectural beautiful things, you would have thought everything was covered and there was nothing out there.”
Although traditionally associated with the south, the tobacco of the Connecticut River Valley serves a vastly different purpose than the tobacco grown elsewhere. “The tobacco that we’re talking about is for cigars and specifically the shade grown tobacco is the wrappers,” Dale Cahill says. “Because of the mild flavor and the light color of the leaves and not a lot of veins, it was completely separate from cigarette tobacco, which was the stuff that was grown down south. All of the finest cigars no matter what was in the middle of them had Connecticut shade grown.” In fact, the Connecticut River Valley provides the wrappers for 80% of all cigars, regardless of if they’re made in the United States.
The tobacco sheds which Dale and Darcy photograph are the key to the Connecticut River Valley’s tobacco industry. “They are completely unique to this region. They’re made exactly the same way as they were made by polish immigrants in the 1850s, and they have a special venting system that allows the drying of tobacco,” they say. “In Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, where there are weather extremes, these buildings were specific to drying tobacco when it was raining or when it was windy. The barn is unique because of our weather.” By approximating the warm, humid conditions that would occur naturally in the south, these sheds facilitate the drying of tobacco.
While the sheds create the right conditions for the tobacco to dry, the farmers must do a significant amount of work to successfully produce these leaves. In the two hundred years that tobacco has been grown in the Connecticut River Valley, the process of preparing the tobacco leaves has changed very little. “It’s not something that’s been mechanized,” Darcy explains. “Hands touch one of those leaves at least 15 times in the course of its growing and being hung.”
To produce the wrappers for cigars, farmers first must harvest the tobacco from their fields. Then the leaves are cut and placed on slats, or sticks, which fit into rails that extend the length of the barns. “They’ll stack them, sometimes eight tiers high,” Dale says. “This is where the openings come in: based on temperature and humidity, a tobacco farmer will open a certain amount of doors in the barn. Then they’ll light braziers and they’ll slowly bring the heat up so that it takes the moisture out of the plant. When these leaves are done and dried correctly they’re like leather, they’re supple and that’s what makes the good cigar.”
Although the Cahills report that close to 300 tobacco sheds still operate in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the tobacco industry in Vermont died out in the 1950s. Today, only two tobacco sheds are left standing in Vermont and neither is used for tobacco. “One is in Putney on river road and the other one is in Vernon,” says Darcy. “It’s part of a dairy farm now, but you can tell from the hardware on it that it was a tobacco shed.”
However, the Cahills are committed to ensuring that the tobacco industry in Vermont is not forgotten. They recently embarked upon a new project collecting oral histories from individuals who were involved in the tobacco industry. “There are wonderful little extra stories that you discover,” Darcy explains. “For instance the first cigars were rolled by women to make extra cash. And Martin Luther King Jr. actually spent a couple of summers in the tobacco sheds in Simsbury, CT and it was really the first time he experienced a different racial dynamic.” Through this project, they hope to allow future generations to learn about tobacco and to preserve this little-known aspect of Vermont’s history.
Note: The Cahills will be at a book signing on Friday, July 11, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in South Burlington.