After days and days of heat in the tobacco fields, farmers saw the real magic happen in the warehouses across Horry County.
Farmers would bring their bales of tobacco, which were lined up and down the warehouse. Auctions began at the end of July and closed in the fall.
“We had a hell of a good time,” said Jesse Hodges, former owner of the New Farmers Warehouse in Conway.
Buyers were bidding about half-a-million dollars worth of tobacco over a 2-hour period, he said.
Hodges liked to sell 600 piles of tobacco an hour. One pile of tobacco could go up to 250 pounds, but some could be lighter around 100 pounds. And $2 a pound was a “very good price,” he said.
Hodges never started down a row with an auctioneer if the row was crooked. Each sale depended on several key players: the farmers bringing the bales, the warehouse owner organizing the auction, the buyers from tobacco companies and, arguably the most important, the auctioneer and the ticket marker. The show could not go on without the auctioneer and ticket marker, who kept track of which bales sold for how much and who bought them. The ticket marker had to be sharp.
“During the battle, it was hot,” Hodges said. And not just the temperature in the warehouse.
Ahead of the sale, government graders would place a grade on each pile — a guarantee that the pile would sell for at least that grade, Hodges said. The grades included a number and letter.
“As you came up the plant, your quality increased,” Hodges said.
The plant is harvested in sections, with the top holding the most nicotine, and therefore the most expensive.
Warehouse owners held tobacco farmers’ livelihood in their hands.
Hodges referred to his career as a “high-speed broker.”
Buyers were trying to get the tobacco as cheap as they could. Farmers were trying to sell it as high as they could.
Buyers that would frequent the New Farmers Warehouse were from Imperial, R.J. Reynolds, J.P. Taylor, Philip Morris, Mullins Leaf, W.A. Adams and Export Leaf.
To put into perspective the names behind the brands: R.J. Reynolds’s tobacco is used in brands like Camel and Pall Malls and Philip Morris tobacco is used in Marlboro and Virginia Slims, according to the South Carolina Tobacco Directory.
Warehouse auction days in the 1990s, ‘80s, ‘70s and well before then were such a production. So much so that the local chamber of commerce would often bus tourists to the warehouse to see the experience.
“It was very much a sight for people who had never seen it,” Hodges said.
The warehouse days during the height of tobacco in Horry County not only filled the pockets of farmers, but it also paid the merchants in town — some of whom the tobacco farmers had bought items on credit to create a bountiful crop.
‘I miss everything about it’
Those warehouse auctions came to a screeching halt after the 2004 mandatory buyout.
It was a bittersweet time for tobacco growers — each would receive a yearly stipend for 10 years, whether or not they decided to continue to grow. But for warehouse owners, that was it.
“It would upset anybody to know somebody was going to take away your living,” Hodges said. “I miss everything about it.”
The Tobacco Transition Payment Program, stemming from the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act of 2004, ended the tobacco-quota program and caused producers to transition to the free market, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Farmers could continue to crop tobacco — but now had to turn to the private companies under contracts. It ended tobacco farming careers for many farmers, especially those who were already close to retirement age.
The TTPP also ended warehouse auctions,which shifted operations to receiving stations.
Farmers now bring their bales of tobacco during their appointment time and are given market value, instead of a sometimes higher-than-expected price they could have received at an auction.
The risings and declinings
At one point in history, tobacco became the salvation for the region as the price of cotton had fallen low. And before that, tobacco sold for its weight in silver in London.
“Tobacco for silver. Measure for measure,” said Dr. Eldred Prince, a retired Coastal Carolina University history professor and author.
But then came one expensive crop to grow that nobody else was growing: rice. At the time, mainly adult men were smoking — but everybody ate rice, Prince said. That’s when rice and cotton came into the region, and tobacco took a timeout.
As cotton became the king because it can grow almost anywhere, it actually didn’t become a lead crop in Horry County.
Specifically in the county, the area saw the rise and fall of the lumber and turpentine industries. But those industries didn’t last forever.
“Eventually the tree will die,” Prince said.
Around that same time, right before the turn of the twentieth century, cotton prices were falling. In Horry County, the trees being used for timber and turpentine were gone or dead.
And then tobacco was back.
What brought it back to South Carolina: cigarettes.
A new machine to roll cigarettes being made in Virginia, heavy advertising and cigarettes being addictive made the perfect trifecta, Prince said.
“It was perfect,” he said. “There was a need for a new crop.
“Tobacco was the perfect crop at the perfect time.”
During that time, tobacco was being shipped to Virginia and Durham and was selling for about 40 cents per pound, compared to the fallen prices of cotton at 9 cents per pound, Prince said.
“They looked at tobacco like ‘this is going to save us,’” he said.
In came the warehouses for auctions. All businesses were benefiting from the tobacco industry between about 1890 to 1910.
“Christmas in July,” Prince said.
Problems began again in the 1920s with overproduction. In many places, the price went down, which was similar to what happened years before with the cotton industry.
Then there was the Great Depression.
“And then they are really in trouble,” Prince said of tobacco growers.
From vogue to vice
As prices collapsed, the farmers didn’t stop growing, which made it worse, Prince said. It was a vicious cycle.
“The only way to solve the problem was to balance supply and demand,” Prince said, adding that the federal government was the only one that would be successful in that.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal helped.
The allotment program took historic production from previous years, averaged it and reduced it by about one third, Prince said. Farmers were then only able to farm the acres they were allotted by the government.
“It worked like a miracle,” Prince said.
Prices naturally rose afterwards.
“It was an excellent program and it saved the tobacco growers,” he said. “Good times roll.”
As farmers began to make money, some doubling their income, their allotments increased because of demand due to the war and more women beginning to smoke.
But then another slow decline began. This time for a new reason: tobacco’s links to health problems.
Prince said the medical field was starting to discover that tobacco smoking causes cancer and impacts pregnant women.
“At one time, smoking was thought of as like the cool, fashionable thing to do,” he said.
By the 1980s, smoking on airplanes and in restaurants began to be restricted.
It devolved from vogue to vice, Prince said.
At the same time, tobacco companies began to foster in other countries like Brazil, Asia and Africa because it could be purchased cheaper.
Both reasons — people quitting smoking and companies buying in other countries — were forces working against American tobacco farmers, Prince said. The decline didn’t happen overnight, he said, adding that it took about 20 years. Farmers’ allotments were cut. There was political pressure. And people began to ask why the federal government should support a crop that harms people, Prince said.
“Where’s the morality in that?” Prince said.
The final dagger was arguably put into the tobacco industry through the mandatory buyout program in 2004.
Keeping tobacco alive
Since the buyout, the government has been restricted from promoting anything related to tobacco.
In South Carolina, the Tobacco Board aims to support tobacco farmers and keep the industry alive. The seven-member board works with the South Carolina Department of Agriculture to support farmers.
“All of those seven members are producers or tobacco growers, said Katherine Helms, tobacco promotion marketing specialist with the SCDA. “Their main thing is they are there to support the tobacco industry.”
The tobacco board is grower-funded and 30 cents per 100 pounds of tobacco sold goes to the board, Helms said.
“With that money we collect, we do research with tobacco,” she said, adding much of the research is done through the Clemson Extension. The board funds research that helps the tobacco industry understand better leaf quality, better color and yield, Helms said.
Horry County has been a top tobacco producer in South Carolina. The county’s tobacco history can be seen in fields where old pack houses and tobacco barns still sit in the rural parts. And even in the cities where warehouses used to be, though other businesses use the warehouses differently now.
In 1952, according to the SCDA’s tobacco report, Horry County had eight warehouses. In Conway were the Big Planters Warehouse, Farmers Warehouse, Spivey’s Horry Warehouse, Spivey’s No. 2 Warehouse and West’s Warehouse. In Loris: Bells & Farmers Warehouse, Brick Warehouse and Lewis Warehouse.
The industry may have changed through the years.
But one thing remains the same: the sweet smell of tobacco and its unforgettable aroma.
“Good, ripe tobacco had a good pungent smell, delightful smell,” Hodges said.
To read more stories from the Harvesting History special project by My Horry News, visit www.myhorrynews.com/harvesting_history.