Sam Burnham, Curator
The first English settlers landed in the South, along the banks of Virginia’s James River in 1607. It would be 13 more years before the pilgrims would arrive at Plymouth. By that time, the Virginia colonists had discovered their cash crop.
Long before Eli Whitney’s contraption crowned King Cotton, the South made its living with this plant. Tobacco became popular in Europe and colonial farmers planted it anywhere they thought it would grow. There are even tales of women growing it in their window boxes.
Over the years this plant was used multiple ways as people smoked in pipes, cigars, and cigarettes. It was snorted as snuff. It was chewed or “dipped.” It became more than a cash crop. It became part of the culture. South Georgia farming consisted of cotton, turpentine, and tobacco. It’s hard to think of North Carolina without thinking of “Tobacco Road.”
These days tobacco, in all its forms, is relegated to anathema. The Feds say it’s bad for you. Honestly, they’re right. It’s not a particularly healthy activity. And in their zeal to protect people from themselves, they have added exorbitant taxes, prohibited advertising, banned smoking in privately owned “public” places, and added all sorts of other regulations and restrictions. All of these incursions have run parallel to a gradual loosening of similar restrictions on liquor, which the Feds also say is bad for you. One conspiracy theory I find intriguing is that this is because you can make liquor up north but you can’t grow tobacco there.
Ironically, liquor and tobacco naturally go together. A glass of bourbon is the perfect compliment to a nice cigar. That being said, we’ve discussed before how bootleggers gave us stock car racing, the premier series of which became The Winston Cup. Cars carried advertisements by various cigarette and smokeless tobacco companies. Of course beer companies got in on the act as well. Liquor was banned from advertising at that time, even though liquor gave us the sport. Times change and now liquor has a little more liberty but tobacco is out. Which is kinda funny considering the low number of tobacco related automobile accidents. And tobacco products have to carry a warning label that basically states “if you use this product, you’re going to die.”
Well, no kidding. We’re all gonna die.
You don’t have to look too deep into history to see 18, 19, 20 year olds who invaded occupied Europe or island hopped across the Pacific and SAVED THE WORLD, fueled in part by Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes. Douglas MacArthur was rarely photographed without the world’s largest corncob pipe clenched in his teeth. Winston Churchill is the namesake of the size of cigar he made famous.
These were men of grit and determination, men who knew not the taste of avocado toast. They didn’t live in their parents’ basements. They came home and built things, started businesses, and became our grandfathers.
I’ve seen tobacco related illnesses ravage people and seen them die prematurely. I’ve also seen it catch up with smokers and kill them dead at age 90. I’ve also seen avid runners and fitness practioners not live to see 50. I don’t say all this to tell anyone to smoke and I’m certainly not telling anyone to give up healthy habits. I’m saying this life is short, regardless. I’m saying the government’s onslaught against tobacco is ridiculous in a free country and hypocritical in regard to policies governing liquor, sugar, automobiles, processed food, and a thousand other things that cause cancer or other terminal illnesses. It’s time for some perspective. It’s time to chill out just a little. It’s time for free men and women to make up their own minds. No one gets out alive.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire