Turning a new leaf can prove elusive in tobacco-built South

His mentor sat in a hospital bed, dying. 

Glenn Hayes walked into the room, and saw his old friend batting his hand in front of his face, as if waving away a persistent fly, and muttering. 

“What are you doing?” Hayes asked. The man, startled, smiled sheepishly and said “I’m biddin' tobacco!” 

The two men had spent decades as tobacco buyers for large companies. Though they didn’t smoke, they had lived and breathed the crop since childhood. And it was time to say goodbye. 

Hayes, born in 1936, had already said goodbye to his career in the tobacco industry when he retired in the '90s. But even by then, tobacco was already submitting its long farewell to many small towns peppering the belt from Kentucky to the coast - some it had sustained for centuries.

“We would get up before day. Before I went to school that morning, when I was 9 or 10-years-old, we would lay tobacco out for our parents to grade that day,” says Hayes. “And when we came in we’d tie it and stick it up; had to be done.” 

Hayes has come to the South Carolina Tobacco Museum in Mullins, South Carolina. Mullins was once the tobacco capital of the state, its warehouses once numbered 41, and $120 million would flow through this small town each fall in the early '80s. While tobacco is still grown in the state, a visitor from Charleston would likely now see more golden leaves on display in the museum than in roadside fields during the two hour drive.

“My first job was driving a mule when I was 8 or 9, and I thought I was somebody,” Hayes remembers in a drawl and with a chuckle. “We didn’t get paid, we had four families on the farm, and we divided the crop up  25 acres of tobacco  and we all helped each other put in. About 80 percent of our income came from tobacco.”

People lived the crop’s ups and downs together, which Hayes says connected them in a way that’s rare now.

“I remember a farmer comin' to me one time, he said 'I got an awful crop, Glenn, I can’t help it,' and it wasn’t a good crop. But I wouldn’t’a told him that for nothin' in the world. He’d worked just as hard as the next man. If you could stretch a grade you did, if you could help him out you did," says Hayes. "We all did that.” 

Hayes's old friend Jimmy Daniel, who worked at a warehouse and is now passed away, put it this way in one of the museum’s archival recordings:

“It was hard work, like anything is. And if the farmer fared good then I fared good. If he catch the devil then I caught the devil too.”

Explains Reggie McDaniel, curator of the museum: “If the bids weren’t good and the tobacco was not good and the farmers didn’t get A1 top prices, the warehouse suffered along with the farmers. If the farmer 'caught the devil,' the warehouse 'caught the devil' too... That just means it all filters down, 'We all are taking a diminished return here.'” 

Hayes has become a painter in retirement, and often depicts scenes from the farms of his childhood – every detail corresponding to a memory and reflecting the vibrant role tobacco once played. 

In some paintings, his 9-year-old self is lifting sticks, holding bundles of tobacco ready to cure in a barn. In others, his middle-aged self is walking through rows of 300 pound piles of tobacco leaves, bidding as he goes.

Many of the paintings hang in the Tobacco Museum, whose rooms full of artifacts include hundreds of colorful unopened packs of cigarettes made by long-defunct companies, war bonds from WWII sponsored by Lucky Strike, a pioneer-era kitchen and a pre-WWI quilt made of flags, many of which came from countries that no longer exist.  There’s also a 100-year-old rebuilt tobacco barn inside the museum; it still smells warmly of tobacco. 

“It’s got a sweet, earthy smell,” says Reggie McDaniel, curator of the museum. “My dad used to say it smells like college.”

Why’d he say that?

“...‘cause it pays for your college!” McDaniel says with a laugh.

Tobacco marked the calendar and tobacco marked the social life.

“We had well-known orchestras and band leaders for one warehouse, the next warehouse would be square dancing and more country fare, and the third warehouse would be what we call beach music today for the African American community.”

Part of economic growth is what economists call "creative destruction." As new industries emerge, old ones die. There are booms and busts and growth moves from place to place, disrupting old ways of doing things and creating new ones. If people are lucky, they can move with it. 

But not everyone, and certainly not every place, can get out of the way. 

Mullins, South Carolina couldn’t get out of the way. 

Mullins, South Carolina caught the devil.  

It now has the highest unemployment rate in the state.

The devil might’ve been in Mullins all along.

Tobacco is addictive and deadly. It killed 100 million people in the 20th century.  As people began to realize that, smoking declined, and government subsidies were withdrawn. Tobacco farming became mechanized and then shifted overseas along with other industries like textiles. The population has been declining for 25 years now.

Antonio Williams is hanging out under a pecan tree in a lot full of rubble and weeds. They say it used to be a small mall before it was torn down. Sometimes people come here for daywork. Right now a few kids are running around, and a few old men are sitting on milk crates drinking. 

“The jobs are limited, all the textiles and companies have left and there’s no incentive for people to stay here,” he says. “It’s not for a young person here. My son is 17-years-old, he got a scholarship, A-B honor roll student, and I just wanna get him up outta here.”

When Hayes retired, he retraced his old auction route through south Georgia and eastern North Carolina, the border belt of Tennessee and Kentucky. “And when I went back to some of these small towns that had tobacco markets, and when these markets left they didn’t have anything left but a little town. They dried up. It’s sad to describe it like that but that’s how it was. You felt bad for ‘em.”

McDaniel, the curator and a descendant of one of Mullins’ founders, is steadfast. “We have a newspaper that was established in early days, and the motto on the front of the paper was ‘Pull for Mullins or pull out, no room for town knockers.’ So even though everything’s not perfect and flawless, we love our little town and it’s part of what we’re made of.”

The museum helps. One of Mullins’ last two remaining warehouses – a towering, cavernous space – holds an extensive antique mall. McDaniel praises the local cuisine at places like Webster Manor: “If you leave Mullins hungry it’s your own fault.” But for now, Mullins has more charm than visitors.

“The story of Mullins is the story of lots of small towns in the tobacco belt,” says Eldred Prince Jr., professor of American History at Coastal Carolina University in Conway and author of "Long Green, The Rise and Fall of Tobacco in South Carolina".

“Nobody – no sensible person – would lament the loss of tobacco as a substance. It has a lot to answer for in the illness that it has caused,” says Prince. “On the other hand, the culture that it inspired and created, there are some valuable things.”

To have entire towns working on the same thing, winning or losing together. And sharing work.

“We’ll go over and help you today at your farm and tomorrow you can come over and help us. 'Swapping work' it was called, it built neighborhoods like that.”

Of course, plenty of southern towns survived and even thrived after tobacco. They replaced tobacco fields with a Boeing plant or an auto manufacturer, or in many cases turned to tourism.

“We’re very much part of the sun belt here,” says Professor Prince. “But Mullins is still in the shade.” 

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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