The cultivation of tobacco has been in Canada for over 1000 years and was likely the earliest form of agriculture in North America, long before crops such as corn, beans, and squash. The plant was unknown to the rest of the world until Europeans saw it in the Americas. Indigenous People, who utilized tobacco in many different aspects of life for example: birthing ceremonies, courtships, marriage, death, and personal prayer. Natural tobacco has been an integral part of Indigenous culture across Canada for hundreds of years. The smoke from sacred tobacco is believed to be the pathway to the spirit world carrying thoughts, feelings, and prayers to the Creator. It is sometimes thrown in a fire but is more commonly made into a hand rolled cigar, cigarette, bundle, or pipe. Often it is not smoked, and when it is, it is not inhaled into the lungs. Tobacco was also used when hunting before and after a kill. It is presented with the left hand- as it is closest to the heart. And spread on the ground or on water, as an offering to the earth to ask for safe passage and a request for guidance. This practice gives thanks to the creator and the animal.
More specifically, in Southwestern Ontario, tobacco was cultivated by the Petun, Neutral, and Huron nations. These groups then introduced it to the Europeans, and it was soon after an important item of trade. The crop was grown abundantly by the Petun and Neutral Nations. They produced such a profusion of crop they traded the plant with the Northern nations for furs. Since we know the Huron had knowledge of transplanting pumpkin seeds, there is reason to believe the Petuns and Neutrals used the same method to sprout tobacco seeds. They may have even built primitive greenhouses to do so. These Nations cleared land by burning and planted their crops of tobacco and corn between charred stumps in fields. In time, when the Europeans came and disrupted the lands, nations were forced from their homelands, and lost control of their tobacco fields. Indigenous peoples were demanded to move to reserves and were stripped of their cultural practices. This caused the cultivation and consumption of sacred tobacco to plummet. Due to the Indian Act of 1895, Nations are not allowed to sell the tobacco commanding it illegal for Indigenous Peoples to sell products from their farms. This act drove the ceremonial practice underground. It is important to note traditional tobacco use is not to be confused with recreational smoking.
-Tobacco is part of the nightshade family-a common name for the Solanaceae plants and its genus Solanum. Several food crops belonging to the nightshade family are potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants. To get a better understanding of tobacco lets discuss the processes of growing the plant. The seeds of tobacco are sown in sterile muck in greenhouses during the first week of April. By late May early June, the seedlings are then transplanted to the fields. The average height the plants are topped off at is 16-19 leaves in late July. The average leaf is 23-30cm wide and 55-60cm in length. The leaves start maturing from the bottom upwards and are harvested in batches of 2-3 leaves per harvesting or priming, a week apart. The cultivated leaves were tied on slats with string by “tyers”, a job usually done by women. When the leaves reach the kiln, they are taken out and placed on a narrow table. Two “handlers” pass about 2-3 leaves to the “tyer”, who loops them on each side of a tobacco slat held on a tying stand or “horse”. Once the slat is filled, it is placed on a conveyor into the kiln where it is then hung. Kilns or curing barns are typically 22 feet x 24 feet wide and about 14-16 feet high at the eaves. The interior of a kiln is a network of poles of “hangers” spread apart to load the tobacco slats. A standard kiln will hold around 1,200 sticks, each stick holding about 90 leaves. Gas or propane furnaces can be seen on the outside of some kilns and are used for flue-cured leaves. Air-cured tobacco is commonly cut by the stalk and hung on sticks to dry naturally. The final product after this process of drying is a brown colour. Before the invention of the furnaces, tobacco farmers would light a fire in the center of the curing barns to speed up the drying process. The curing process leaves the leaves a golden brown colour. The final product after this process of drying is a brown colour. Once the leaves are fully dried, (which is determined by checking the stems as they are the last part of the plant to dry), the fires are shut off and the leaves are allowed to cool down. The doors of the curing barns are often opened to allow moist air to soften the leaves. The average farm has 1 kiln for every 5 or 6 acres of field. This means that the kilns must be promptly emptied and refilled until the crop is harvested. During the end of harvest, once the last leaves are arranged in the kiln, the harvesters get together and throw a celebratory party for the final night. Usually having a bonfire, drinks, and music.
– It was not until the year 1800 that tobacco was commercially produced in the counties of Kent and Essex. In the early 19th century, money was sparce and much of settlers’ produce was bartered. Tobacco was cultivated to try and strengthen the cash income. In 1854, tobacco from the United States was allowed to enter Canada for the first time. Virginia, North Carolina, and Mississippi are some of the leading tobacco States, that make up the U.S. tobacco belt. A name given due to an area with a large quantity of tobacco farms and warehouses. This action of importing caused Ontario’s production of the crop to virtually cease due to the product being duty-free. The Civil War interrupted the production rates in the U.S. tobacco belt, and lead to an increased production in Southwestern Ontario. Canadian tobacco was shipped down the Mississippi River to New Orleans during this time. Subsequently, as the Civil War in the States came to an end in 1865, the output of tobacco in Ontario dropped again as the U.S. resumed regular production levels. In 1870, production was approximately 400,000 pounds, 10 years later however it dropped to 160,000 pounds. In the census of 1870-71, it stated that the production of tobacco in all of Canada was 1,595,932 pounds. 399,870 of which were grown in Ontario and 1,195,345 produced in Quebec.
– Until around 1920, burley tobacco was the primary grown type in North America. Flue-cured tobacco was introduced in Ontario in the early 1900s and today is the main type grown in Canada making up 95-98% of tobacco. 90% of which is grown in Southwestern Ontario. Burley, an air cured leaf, slowly fizzled out as the First World War came around. Soldiers popularizing cigarette smoking gave rise to the cultivation of the ‘Virginia’ or ‘bright’ leaf, a flue-cured type of tobacco. The increase of cigarettes put a high demand on a new tobacco type that could be mechanically assembled. The United States developed a machine that rolled and packaged cigarettes in sealed packages. This fad quickly caught on in Canada. A new system had also been discovered in the Southern United States that turned dark air-cured leaf to a golden brown. This revolutionized the Canadian tobacco industry and Virginia leaf production rose. The Virginia leaf was not air-cured but rather flue-cured and used ducts to conduct heat from a furnace to the leaves during the curing process. This meant soil conditions that were previously deemed almost worthless in Southwestern Ontario were ideal for production and became some of the highest priced soil in the region. This region has the perfect soil to grow bright leaf tobacco as the soil consists of four layers. Fine gray/brown sand, yellow/golden brown sand, brown sticky sand, and silt and clay. This ensures that the soil will warm up early in spring, hold nutrients and water, while staying well drained. Due to Lake Erie, the climate stays mild. Little chance of frost after the first week of May and staying held off until near the end of September allows for perfect growing conditions. Essex and Kent had been the center of commercial tobacco growing since 1800. The ‘sand plain’ along Lake Erie continued to produce air-cured leaf.
-In 1959, the Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Growers’ Marketing Board was established. Soon after they erected 3 warehouses in Tillsonburg, Delhi, and Aylmer. At these warehouses tobacco would be auctioned off to buyers. The Dutch Clock system was used to replace the old system of selling tobacco straight from the farms. By 1971, Aldborough Township had 215 tobacco farms which produced 3100 acres of tobacco crops. Canada is among the 12 highest ranking tobacco producing countries and grows 5 major types: Flue-cured, for example, Virginia leaf, and Air-cured, including burley, cigar, dark, and pipe leaves. The first tobacco to be exported was probably from New France (now Canada) and was carried in dunnage bags on Cartier’s ships. Later it would be exported by explorers and fur traders from Upper Canada during the 1500s. There is no commercial record of the exporting of tobacco by the early settlers, though it is likely to have been transported. With the introduction of flue-cured tobacco, Canada became less reliant on imports and by 1931 was exporting the leaves in large quantities. From 1934-1938 the exports amounted to an annual average of ~6.9 million pounds, 6.8 million of which was exported to the UK. Since then, the amount has gradually increased. In 1955, Canada stood fourth among the world’s tobacco exporting countries.
Thank you for reading this week’s episode on the tobacco industry! If you have photographs or documents about tobacco farming in Southwold, Dunwich or Aldborough Township we would be interested in learning more at Backus-Page House Museum. Also we are not encouraging anyone to take up tobacco use for recreational purposes. Tune in next week for a very festive episode, Christmas in the 1850s!