Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Up in Smoke: Chemung County’s Tobacco Culture

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

When most people think of tobacco farming they think of somewhere south, Virginia or North Carolina maybe.  Believe it or not, however, Chemung County was once home to a thriving tobacco industry.  Tobacco was first planted in the area in the 1840s in Big Flats. By the 1870s tobacco was a major cash crop in the towns of Big Flats, Chemung, Elmira and Southport with nearly 60,000 pounds of it grown annual.  At the peak of local tobacco production, area farmers were growing upwards of 100,000 pounds a year.  It grew best in the fertile soil near the Chemung River and the area’s various creeks.  Although it was grown throughout the Chemung Valley as far south as Towanda, it was all known as Big Flats tobacco on the national market.  Some big names were involved in the tobacco farming business including the Baldwin, Beckwith, Brand, Hoffman, Lovell, Minier and Sly families.


Chemung County tobacco farm
 Once it’s picked, tobacco is cured or aged.  There are a number of different ways to cure tobacco, but the one preferred around here was air curing.  In air curing, the fresh cut tobacco leaves are hung in a well ventilated barn or shed and allowed to slowly dry over a period of four to eight weeks.  This curing process results in leaves with a light, sweet flavor and high nicotine content.  As processes go, it is probably the least labor intensive and the preferred method for cigar tobacco.  Even today, the southern half of our county is dotted with this type of tobacco curing barn.
 

Inside the tobacco curing barn
Chemung County weren’t content to just grow and cure the tobacco, though.  In 1873, John Brand and two others began John Brand & Co., a tobacco packing and processing business on Elmira’s southside.  Within a few years, cigar making was big business in the city.  At the industry’s peak in 1900, there were 33 different cigar manufacturers.  There were also dozens of warehouses, processing plants, leaf importers and cigar box makers. Modern packaging manufacturer F.M. Howell began in 1883 making cigar boxes.  
 

Chemung County’s tobacco industry experienced a slow decline in the first half of the 20th century.  During World War I, soldiers were issued cigarettes as a way to calm nerves and cigars fell out of fashion.  By the 1940s, the Elmira Tobacco Company, the area’s last cigar manufacturer, had rolled its last cigar.  

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  2. Very informative. I believe I have seen a CCHS publication for sale on this topic. Is it still available?

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