Listen. Listen real close. Shut out all the sounds around you and you can still hear the echoes of those hot summer days, the ghost of times past.
An echo of a nasally, sing-song chant…”Hey, hey forty dollar, forty dollar, do I hear forty-five? Forty-five now fifty? Fifty dollar, fifty dollar, fifty-three. Fifty-three, fifty-three, sold to Lolly. Now forty-five, start forty-five, fifty? Fifty-one dollar, fifty-one, fifty-one! Sold to American.” And it would start again, sometimes it would end in “sold to Reynolds” or “sold to the house.”
The auctioneer’s chant, the smell, the sights, the sounds of our little town during the months of July and August. It was the season and the culmination of everyone’s efforts since February of that year. The dust that gave up its pungent aroma. The smell that I can still remember to this day. The smell of hard work, the smell of money, the smell of flu-cured tobacco. It was tobacco season time in Hahira, it was GOLDLEAF time!
Hahira’s five tobacco warehouses sat like monstrous, empty, tin tombs throughout most the year. But for eight weeks in the middle of the summer they became alive and filled to the brim with tobacco, farmers, buyers, warehousemen, and laborers. Occasionally, you could spot a chubby, towheaded boy selling ten-cent bags of boiled peanuts from the grocery next door to Mr. Wallace’s “Farmer’s Warehouse.”
Mr. Wallace owned three warehouses and another person, I can’t remember the name, but I think it was a Mr. Lee, owned the other two. Some of you might say there were four warehouses in town. That is true, but there was one across the overpass at I-75, which was later demolished to make way for Day’s Inn and Tasty World.
For the farmers, the process started as early as February. Preparing seed beds to plant the small seeds with varieties like “Hicks Broadleaf” and “Coker 139.” These tiny little seeds were like gold and in the 1960s sold for ten dollars per ounce or more. The seed beds were prepared and the seeds were planted and covered with a fine cotton cheesecloth to protect them from bugs, critters, and the elements.As the weather began to warm in March and April, the tiny little plants would burst through the soil, waiting to be pulled from their beds and carried to the tobacco fields for transplanting in April.
While the plants were sprouting in their beds, the tobacco warehouses were making preparation for the season too. The warehouses only had a few electric lights and the lighting was supplied by rows and columns of skylights on the roofs of the warehouses.
The warmer spring weather brought roofing crews to Hahira. They would nail wooden rigs with pulleys to the sides and roofs of the warehouses. Large, black tar cookers would be towed into town and the smell of cooking tar permeated Hahira. This thick, hot goo was applied to the edges of the skylights, roof seams and on other holes to prevent the rain from leaking into the warehouse during the rainy days of July and August. The contraction and expansion of the tin roof from the cold days of winter to the warm days of spring made this annual ritual a necessity.
The farmers were busy transplanting the small plants in the fields. This consisted of a transplanting machine pulled behind a tractor that would seat two people. The transplanter would open a trench and the people sitting on the transplanter would feed the small plants into a chain controlled belt which delivered the tobacco plant to the newly opened furrow. A second “foot” on the transplanter would close the furrow behind the plant. A water tank mounted on the tractor delivered water to the furrow and the newly planted tobacco. Behind the tractor-drawn transplanter, someone would walk with a hand planter to plant the seedlings where the mechanical transplanter missed.
Sometime in mid-April or early May Mr. Dixon Wallace would come to town. He was a small, thin man and he owned three of the five tobacco warehouses in Hahira. I still remember seeing him walk from the warehouse named “Hahira Number One” and cross in front of Charles Cornelius’s station on his way to his Farmer’s Warehouse.
Farmer’s Warehouse was across the small street from my parent’s store and every year he would stop in and say hello. He also would bring me two gifts. One was a quarter that he would make disappear by sleight of hand and then pull from my ear. The other was a genuine, tobacco buyer and warehouseman’s sweatband. These sweatbands were worn around the head and positioned so the foam rubber pad was on the forehead. Their purpose was to keep the sweat out of the eyes of the buyers and auctioneers and other folks involved in the sale.
Mr. Wallace would inspect the warehouses and return to his home in Smithfield, North Carolina and return a few weeks before the beginning of the market in Hahira. During the off season, the warehouses were looked after by the “most level headed man in Hahira”, B.J. Miley. Mr. B.J. was a short man, maybe around five foot three but could work the socks off a man twice his size. B.J. oversaw the warehouses and managed the local workers.
My dad and a few others called him the “most level-headed man in Hahira” because B.J. loved chewing tobacco. When he had a wad in his mouth the tobacco juice would run down both sides of his chin evenly–thus indicating a “level head.” His brand was a plug tobacco called “Brown’s Mule.” He also loved his short boy Cokes. This column is named partially in memory of Mr. B.J. I loved to watch him sit in my dad’s store and listen to the stories they would spin with the other men of Hahira.
Joe Griffin is a couple of years younger than me and he worked for B.J. in the warehouse. I checked with him to make sure that my recollection of B.J.’s tobacco was correct. Joe confirmed for me that “Brown’s Mule” was indeed B.J.’s tobacco of choice but added that he could be seen with a pouch of “Beechnut” on occasion.
B.J. was loved by many. The boys and men that worked for him were treated fairly, but they learned from him to work hard. He would joke and kid with the workers but when it was time to work, it was work and no foolishness. B.J. was a hard-working man that kept the tobacco warehouses in Hahira purring like a litter of kittens after a bowl of warm milk. He will always be in my memory and in the memory of those that knew him.
Next week, we will hang around the tobacco warehouses a little longer and take you inside the market and hopefully bring back some memories of those times and places. A time when not a parking place could be found on the streets of Hahira. Tobacco season and boiled peanuts, oh how I miss those days. Precious memories, how they linger.