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Mountain Home Magazine

Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar...

Jun 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Chris Espenshade

Who knows where Sigmund Freud purchased his cigars, but, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they may have been, at least partially, a product of Tioga County, Pennsylvania. Say what? No, that can’t be right. Tobacco is from the South, red clay fields worked by enslaved African Americans or, after the Civil War, by tenant farmers. Small, log barns. Cash on the stem. I grew up near Winston-Salem; I know tobacco. I inhaled the sickly-sweet smell of cured tobacco as our high school bus passed the R.J. Reynolds cigarette factory each morning.

Not long ago, I Google-stumbled onto a state website—Agricultural Resources of Pennsylvania, c. 1700-1960. There’s a map in the section titled “River Valleys Tobacco Culture, 1870-1930” showing these post-Civil War/pre-WWII tobacco farms in Tioga County. The text states, “In Tioga County, it [tobacco] was grown in the Cowanesque and Tioga River valleys and along some of their tributaries, for example Crooked Creek, Marsh Creek, Seeley Creek, and Elkhorn Creek.”

For the census year 1900, Tioga County had 1,785 acres in tobacco, yielding a crop of 2.8 million pounds. This was not Grandpa growing a couple of plants for his pipe. Instead, most Pennsylvania tobacco was used as filler leaf or binder leaf for cigars. This tobacco was air-cured, as the heating systems associated with Southern flue-cured tobacco were not found in the tobacco barns of Tioga County.

Looking again at 1,785 acres of the crop in 1900, it is important to note that is not a few large farms. Instead, many farmers each raised a few to a dozen acres of tobacco. This limited scope per farm was due to the back-breaking labor involved in the proper raising of plants. For example, in Tioga Township in 1899, twenty-eight farmers grew one to fourteen acres each of tobacco. The average acreage per farm in tobacco was only five.

The work required was balanced by the money to be made. For most farms, family labor was invested in their small plot of tobacco, it being the most reliable of cash crops available. There were some tenant farmers working on shares, but they only represented eighteen percent of the Tioga farms raising tobacco.

As for profitability, the 1883 history of Tioga County estimates yields of 1,500 to 2,500 pounds per acre. At ten cents per pound, tobacco provided the greatest return on investment for any crop. The average five-acre plot would have yielded $750 to $1,000 annually (that’s $23,000 to $30,000 in 2024 dollars). The seed was not expensive; most of the investment was in labor.

In his 2018 history of Pennsylvania tobacco, David Latzko reports “the year of 1899 was the peak year for tobacco farming in northern and north-central Pennsylvania. Tioga County produced 2.8 million pounds, Bradford 1.7 million pounds, and Clinton 1.2 million pounds. The tobacco-growing region extended into the southern tier of New York, with Chemung County producing 2.9 million pounds of Big Flats tobacco in 1900.”

The surviving markers on the landscape are limited to tobacco barns. These are generally large, rectangular, two-story structures with features needed for good ventilation. Tioga County tobacco barns are not the small log barns (typically 16-by-16-feet) found in the South, nor are they banked (built into a hillside) like many other types of Pennsylvania barns. Indeed, the Tioga barn type is relatively nondescript, to the point that many readers have probably passed them by without a second thought.

Tioga Borough was a hotbed of tobacco farming in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The 1903 Sanborn Fire Insurance map (the company made maps from 1867 through the 1990s to help insurance companies assess the risk of fire loss) for the borough shows two side-by-side tobacco drying barns, each 150-by-30-feet and two stories tall. These did not survive, but a similar tobacco barn exists about a quarter of a mile west of the main intersection in Tioga. The surviving example shares the same dimensions, and the barn features numerous hinged vents on all its walls. These would have allowed for cross-breezes to help dry the leaves.

With the area’s embrace of tobacco, the farms were joined with other tobacco-related enterprises, including warehouses (Knoxville had two) and small-scale cigar manufactories in many hamlets, boroughs, and cities. For example, Wellsboro had two successive cigar factories. The earliest, Grand Master Cigar Company, was on Main Street from 1872 to 1895. The factory employed close to 100 hands at its peak.

Its successor, the Wellsboro Cigar Factory, was located on the north side of Queen Street, just east of Kelsey Creek, where Packer Park sits today. It is shown on the 1895 Sanborn map. The proprietor was Milford N. Stebbins, and his cousin Melvin Stebbins was manager and salesman. The 1897 History of Tioga County says the factory produced 400,000 cigars in that year. Based on surviving advertising and packaging, the Wellsboro Cigar Factory began with Rattler brand cigars, and in 1910 they added the Rural Home brand.

Tobacco farming in the region had essentially disappeared by 1930. Tobacco agriculture depleted the soils, such that by 1929 farmers had to use 600 pounds of high-grade fertilizer per acre for a successful tobacco crop. The Great Depression caused a significant decrease in demand for cigars. When demand again increased in the 1940s, Pennsylvania production was focused on large family farms of the Amish and Mennonites in the Lancaster area. According to the 1929 soil survey report for Tioga County, “In 1899, cigar-leaf tobacco was grown on 1,795 acres; by 1919 only 181 acres were reported.”

So, yes, Dr. Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But it’s also a reminder of a survival strategy for the region’s early farmers.

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