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Memories of a Tobacco Auction by Dr. Will Webster

I am pleased to reproduce here an article by Fairmont native Dr. Will Webster. He wrote this after viewing a Facebook video of a tobacco auction that I posted a few years ago.

To begin, these are recollections of the past, from my growing up in the heart of "Tobacco Land," as it was called. The time was like no other, a gold rush, bonanza, millions of dollars exchanged hands every fall. With an insatiable curiosity, I absorbed everything of interest around me, I was surrounded by all things tobacco.

Showtime! The tobacco auction would begin with the auctioneer, buyers and sale support gathered at the first stacked, pile of golden tobacco offered for sale on an enormous warehouse floor. It looked to me, the lines of tobacco in rows, stretched for longer than a football field, and row after row almost the same width. Sunlight filtering in through skylights, with a few bare bulbs in the ceiling, provided dim illumination. The auctioneer would begin his melodious chant with buyers nodding, giving hand signals for their bids. The sale went at a very fast stroll, with the auctioneer walking backwards, facing the knot of bidders, walking up and down every long row of tobacco at auction. The crop; raised from seeds then seedlings, transplanted, harvested, brought from the fields, barned and cured, prepared for sale, transported to market, processed at the warehouse; an entire year of farmer's hard work... was offered to a few seconds of bidding. In a couple of hours, the warehouse floor, row upon row had been sold and would soon be on the way to the buyer's "prize rooms."

Fairmont is in the heart of what was known as the "Border Belt" tobacco market. This area, bordering North and South Carolina, is said to produce some of the finest flu cured tobacco; where the freshly picked tobacco leaves are dried, in a barn, by carefully controlled heat from a wood burning fireplace, originally, and later by oil fired burners. Curing, causes the starches in the tobacco leaves to convert to sugars, and the controlled drying enhances the leaf burning properties for smoking and turns the tobacco leaves from green to the color of gold.

Cigarettes and smoking tobacco products are a blend of many tobacco varieties and flavoring agents. Flu cured tobacco comprises the largest volume of tobacco in cigarettes because of its burning properties, allowing the cigarette to stay lit, and for the high nicotine content. Other tobacco varieties like burley and Turkish are called aromatics and added to flavor the smoke.

With four sets of buyers, Fairmont was advertised as one of the largest tobacco markets in the world. Farmers came from all over the Eastern Seaboard to sell their crop because Fairmont had the reputation of higher prices and good service from the local warehouses. Four sets of buyers, representing all the major tobacco companies and most smaller ones too, meant that four auctions, in four different warehouses, could go on simultaneously.
My Uncle Leo was a tobacco auctioneer, and before school started in the Fall, he would take me with him and pay 50 cents a day to set up tickets so the ticket marker could easily grab them. Preparation began hours before the auctioneer started his sale. Farmers would bring their tobacco, on trucks or by mule and wagon. The tobacco ties were unloaded and stacked in "piles" on flat, numbered, square baskets, usually around 200 pounds, weighed by the weigh master, a receipt given, then rolled away, and put out in rows for the auction sale.

A tobacco warehouse floor was said to cover more than an acre, with rows, longer than a football field, of bright gold tobacco piles. There was usually an adjacent floor of the same size where tobacco was lined up and covered with burlap, waiting for the next sale.

At this time, green tobacco was hung in the barn tied to sticks 'til cured and then taken to the pack house where it was kept until it "came in order" by accumulating enough moisture from the air so it didn't flake apart when handled. It was then stripped from the tobacco sticks in handfuls and a supple leaf was used to tie the handful by the stem end into "hands" or "ties". The ties were brought to the warehouse and arranged for sale on baskets with the heads pointing out

A tobacco sale is like a dance, a ballet if you might imagine, with many characters playing their part. The king is the auctioneer, he wields power with his chant. The other actors are moving rapidly in and out of the scene, each performing their role with a precision, almost faster than the human eye and ear can perceive. The farmers and their family gather near their offerings, encouraging the buyers to bid a higher price. Around the activity of the sale, the floor crew is preparing to move the sold crop out, sort by buyers and move baskets for the next sale on to the floor.

There were also unseen plots and counter plots. Daily and sometime, hour-by-hour, classified information, top secret, would come down to the circuit riders, company executives, that would be driven from market to market by chauffeur in a black or dark blue limousine, always a Buick because Cadillac seemed ostentatious. The circuit rider would ride from sale to sale and meet in private with his buyers, giving them the grade and amount of tobacco to buy; their plans and market strategy to beat the competition.

The auctioneer plays a very important part in the sale. Each company has their own specific grades of tobacco that goes into their cigarette recipe and a designation for each grade. The auctioneer needed to know the individual company grade of every pile of tobacco and price point. As the sale moved from pile to pile, he would keep the chant going until it reached a reasonable price, he would, during his chant, encourage the company buyers to step up and bid for a particular lot if it was one of their special grades. In all of this were "speculators" or "Pinhookers" that would buy a pile if they thought the price was too low and that they could resell it later for a better price. At times the warehouse proprietor would also follow the sale and bid if he thought the price was too low, or for customer relations.

As the sale went by, a buyer would grab "hands" of tobacco from the center of the pile. As you can imagine, a pile of tobacco presented an opportunity for shenanigans and sometimes the best tobacco was put on top for viewing and lesser quality underneath. The buyers would pull samples from all around to check for uniformity. Rarely, someone would see something not to their liking, the sale would stop and the pile was re bid. At the end of bidding on each single pile of tobacco, the auctioneer would chant out the selling price and what company won the bid, the buyer would call out his grade designation and the ticket marker grabbed the ticket, held it on a board that looked like a small artist's paint palette, and wrote the price, grade and company and threw it back on the pile, all within the time it took to take a single step. The American Tobacco company used an auctioneer's chant in advertising, the chant ending with "...Sold American."

As the sale started, runners would take copies of the sales tickets to the office and the loud clicking and clacking of enormous mechanical calculating and adding machines would start, the machines would click and clack on and on to give the results we have today in less than the blink of an eye. The figures were tallied and what was sold, to whom and what was owed the farmer was totaled up. At the end of a tobacco season, millions of dollars had passed locally, through those offices, more than the domestic product of a small country.

As you watched with all the attention you could muster; the auctioneer and buyers, the bidding, assigning the winning bid, and marking the sold pile; occurred almost too fast to comprehend. For two months of the year, Fairmont air was electric, unbridled excitement was everywhere. The economy was seasonal and we had made it through another cycle. Life in the golden age of the golden leaf is long gone, but the memory still enchants.

Dedicated to Miss Betty Baker, who in second grade taught me to express my thoughts in words.


Will Webster, 2017


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