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Interview with Lucille S. (Skipper) Suggs

Suggs, Lucille S. (Skipper)
Newland, Frances L.
Date of Interview: 
Relationshipes with people and places; Then and now
Lucille Suggs talks about tobacco farming in NC.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Frances L. Newland interviewed Charlotte, NC residents to collect various stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
FN (Frances Newland): Good morning, Lucille.
LS (Lucille Suggs): Good morning, Frances.
FN: How are you?
LS: I'm fine and you?
FN: I'm fine, thank you. I'm going to, I want you to tell me a story Lucille that you remember, uh, growing up, or a story that you have to tell about when you were growing up, and I'll be asking you some questions about it. OK?
LS: All right.
FN: OK. Would you like to begin?
LS: Frances, I grew up in the little town of Roy, South Carolina which is about, uh, 18 miles from North Myrtle Beach. Of course back then we called it Cherry Grove. And one of the memories I have, uh, was on weekends my aunt and uncle would come from Red Springs, North Carolina and we'd go down to the beach cook fish. We'd go, they'd go down and the fisherman would bring the fish out and they'd be just a fluttering in the nets. And uh, mom and my aunt would, they'd buy the fish and then we'd go out to where, it was called the Nixon Old House back then. I don't know whether it's still standing or not. But anyway it was a great big old house on wooded areas around it. And there's a lot of picnic tables and places for you to cook fish. And I remember this house, big old unpainted house, it was real, real old because it was put together with pegs instead of nails. And we'd just have fun running around out there playing and then we'd go to the, back to the beach. We'd run up and down the sandhills. They'd been washed away. But back when I was a little girl we'd just had fun running across those hills and playing hide and seek. And I'll have to tell you about my life on the farm. Growing tobacco, it's a lot different now from what it was back then. But, I was the second child. I had two sisters, one older and one younger. And my sister, my older sister she never did have to work out in the fields very much because well her health just wasn't as good as mine and then Betty Lou was a lot younger than me. So, I was the one that had to follow Daddy because he didn't have any boys. And he always depended upon me. I even had to go with him to, when we would cure tobacco at night. He'd say, "Let's go Cille." And here we'd go. We'd have a lantern and I remember one night when I'd passed by the pack house. Daddy flashed a light over there. There was a big old rattlesnake and he said, "Run get me the pitchfork Cille." So I went and got the pitchfork and came back and he got that snake and killed him. And then he took the rattlers off, and hammered a nail on the back porch. And that's where we hung the, the, uh, rattlers off the snakes, off the rattlesnakes that we killed. Because we lived not far from it was just out of town but it was still, uh, in the edge Fox Bay. But anyway we had, we grew several, we grew a lot of vegetables. And tobacco was our main money crop. We had potatoes. Daddy never would grow cotton because he said when he was a little boy that his daddy grew so much cotton and they never could get it out of the fields before the September storms come. He said the old cotton freeze and his hands would be just picked with those old cotton burrs and said he never was going to grow a, a hill of cotton when he got grown. And he never did. But, uh, tobacco was the main money crop. And um, there's a lot of work that went into that back then. But things have changed about it a lot since then. I can remember when about in December we started fixing tobacco beds. You know, you had to fix beds usually in the woods, edge of the woods, and plant the seeds and cover them with straw and canvas. And then a few weeks from then you had to go start picking weeds. We didn't have things like weed killer back then. You had to pick them with your hands, use a spoon, or something. I remember we used to pull this, I later learned they were called, we called them flatweeds. But I later learned when I moved to Charlotte they were called creasy greens and they were actually put on the produce counter and people ate them. Well, I guess I pulled enough of creasy greens to send me through college and didn't even know that you ate the things.
FN: [Laughs]
LS: And, um, so but, tobacco after you planted those beds now the plants got up a little bit higher than your hand. You had to pull those things up and put them in baskets or boxes or whatever. And then you went to the field and you had an old hand transplanter. And you had to carry water to put in that transplanter. And you had somebody that was operating the planter. Somebody was dropping the plants and then you had, you know, to carry water that was put in the field in barrels you had to carry to the planters. And I was so little I couldn't carry a very big bucket. But never mind, Daddy found a bucket that would suit me. He got one of these Luzianne coffee buckets, and that's what I had to carry that water and pour that transplanter. And you know I had to make many trips to keep-. [Laughter] -To keep, uh, to keep them in water. And after that though got a little bit higher. Well you had to start keeping worms off of you. And you had to get up early in the morning and go out and Daddy would have big tubs, galvanized tubs of poison. And he fixed it with corn meal and Paris green and arsenic lead. We had a little old thin, uh, sort of like cheesecloth that, uh, you put the poison in. Then you'd have to go and shake it on each one of those tobacco plants and had to do that before went to school. I'd go to the house and get ready to go to school and I'd be covered in that stuff. [Laughs] It's a wonder I haven't died.
FN: [Laughs]
LS: But I always got along OK. And then after, uh we got, sometimes you'd have to go pull what we call hornworms off of it. Those old worms, and they got bigger they'd actually have a horn. And, uh, we had to pull those worms and kill them, and then come a time about July that we started cropping that tobacco. And you cropped it once or twice a week until you got through. Usually you had about six croppings, five or six croppings. And you cropped the leaves that were ripe at the bottom of the hill. And this was before the days of the tractor now and you had a mule and drag. That you put the tobacco in the drags but usually, I never cropped tobacco, because usually Daddy had about four or five men that cropped the tobacco and put it in the drags and took it to the tobacco barn. But I always had to, and then you had to, to string it and put it in the barns and cure it. I can remember I had to hand tobacco when I was a little old girl. Had to get me an apple box and hand it. Then I couldn't quite reach it up to the string and I remember getting fussed at all the time because I couldn't get that tobacco those leaves, uh, you know, high enough for the stringer to reach it. You put about three leaves in, uh, uh, well it was big leaves, too. And it was small leaves, about three leaves in each hand that you gave the stringer. Well, then it took about a week to cure that out. You started on a temperature about 90, 95, you got on up to about 110. Then each day you got a little bit higher. And I believed you usually cured it out along about a temperature of 190. And, uh, way back when I was real little girl, uh, they didn't have tobacco curers like came in later. And I can remember that in the wintertime Daddy would cut wood to put in to the tobacco furnace. And you know what? Some of those big old pretty pine trees that they'd just sawed down and put in that furnace to, uh, cure that tobacco I thought about how many beautiful homes could have been made out of it. And probably today you'd sold that timber for more than you got out of the tobacco, out of the tobacco. But anyway, uh, after you got that tobacco cured and you packed it in the pack house then came the time that you had to grade and tie it. And, uh, I can remember I learned how to tie tobacco at an early age. But first started off having to tie a green one and a red one. There weren't very much of that. I mean you had to grade it and it was usually about the first grade and the second grade and then you trashed and then if there were any green or red you had to put that out. And so, my first time through, was either the green or the red. Daddy didn't think that had to be done so as well as the other. So that's what we started off. I can remember that's what I practiced doing. But my Daddy had to have everything so perfect he had to have every tie had to be exactly about the same. He'd say, "Eighteen leaves in the tie and no stems showing." And you had to tie that and then after we'd got it tied, we had to put it on the grading sticks. And I remember one time it was so hot and we had a big pile of it, was tied and stacked up beside the pack house wall. And Mama and Daddy had, Daddy had gone to feed the mules and Mama had to cook dinner. So I was going to get smart and pull that tobacco to the door so that, um, I could put it on grade sticks and not be so hot. I'd get a little bit of breeze from the, you know, at the door, more so than in the center pack house. And when I reached down and pulled that tobacco up I felt something that was cold as ice and I threw it down. And I had picked up with that tobacco one of the biggest snakes I have ever seen. And I'm telling you that snake was so cold.
FN: [Laughs]
LS: But uh-.
FN: It was so what?
LS: Cold. It was real cold. I mean it felt like you picked up a piece of ice.
FN: Uh-huh.
LS: And, uh, I threw it down and I hollered, "Daddy kill that snake." And then it was so big that all the neighbors started coming to see the snake I picked up. I don't know what kind of snake it was might have been a rat snake. I don't know. Anyhow it didn't bite me. And, uh, but I also remember a story that, when I was real small Daddy use to pick, uh, plant and every other row he planted field peas. And they would run up the stalks and make big old pretty peas. And we didn't live very far from town but between our, the farm and town there was a settlement of Afro-Americans. And uh, I started me a business. I'd go out in the field when I was a little old thing, I get me two buckets and I'd go in the field and I'd fill those things full of peas and I'd take off down to, we called it the bottom, and I'd sell them. And I'd come back to get two and I got me a good business started. And my daddy wondered where in the world was I getting that money from. Well I had to tell my Daddy that I was selling peas. So you know what? I did pretty well at that and later my Daddy took my business away from me. And I was about seven or eight years old when I was doing that. [Laughs] But-.
FN: Lucille, how old were you when you stopped working in the tobacco fields?
LS: When I graduated from high school-.
FN: Really?
LS: -That was the last.
FN: [Laughs]
LS: I used to, Frances, I can remember you know we didn't have sucker control back then. And uh, I'd have to you know the suckers came up between the leaves of tobacco and we'd have to go out and break those suckers out. And I had to start, uh, doing that when I couldn't reach the top of the tobacco hill. My daddy got the top and I got the bottom. You know I had to go around under those tobacco hills and get those suckers out. And then sometimes Daddy would be at the barn and Mother and I would be out suckering tobacco. And I'd, I hated it with a passion. And I ever time I'd go, I'd run across those tobacco, we'd do a row and instead of me subtracting those two rows we'd gotten done, I'd run across that tobacco field and count the rows again when I probably could have had another row suckered while I was doing that. [Laughter] And I used to say, "Dear Lord, if you just let me get out of this tobacco patch and get another job I promise you one thing I'll never lay out in the sun." And you know Frances, I have kept my word. I do not lay out // in the sun. //
FN: // It's not good for you. //
LS: // And to be 68 years old // I do have, I thank goodness, I do have a pretty good complexion.
FN: Uh-huh.
LS: But I'll have to contribute a lot of that to my mom, because she wouldn't let me go out in the field without sleeves on my arm and a hat on my head. Of course, I didn't always wear that hat, especially if she was not around because I hated that hat, too. And it got in my way when I was pulling those suckers out of the tobacco patch. But, uh, you know, now then tobacco farming is so different, um, they have tractors. Back then when I was living on the farm, it was just about at the, right at the, you know, before they started having tractors and, uh, well tobacco setters did come in just before I got away from the farm. Of course I still have a farm, uh, down in, uh, just out of the city limits, Taylor city limits. And I still have a tobacco acreage. Of course you know, the government, uh, you got an allotment from the government and they tell you how much to plant. And it's been cut so much, until I don't get very much out of it, // but I still have the land. //
FN: // You still have your family's farm? //
LS: Yes, I have, um, it's Hoyt's family farm. And by the way, uh, this was given to Hoyt's, it came through Hoyt's mother's family. And we have a, had a land grant from the Kind of England. And Hoyt's cousin had it until just a few years ago. And he always kept it in a safe deposit box in the bank. And one day, folded up. And one day he decided nobody can see this here. I'm going to put it in my house. So he had it framed and put it in his living room. And about three years after he did that it burned and he lost that land grant that he had you know had, had all these years. And he had it had somebody to fix it so because it was real brittlely you know it was real-.
FN: Uh-huh.
LS: -Fragile. And uh, then when he had it fixed and framed, his house burned and he lost it.
FN: That would have been something to see.
LS: Yes.
FN: Now, where would your daddy take the tobacco to sell?
LS: Oh, they had warehouses back then. And, uh-.
FN: Would it be like an auction?
LS: Yes and by the way, uh, Channel 14 had a story on tobacco here while back and it said that the government was taking the farm back, uh, taking land back from the tobacco farmers. And I heard that and I knew the story was not correct at all. In fact, a couple of stories that Channel 14's put on here lately that were about farming that was not correct. And uh, I heard that until I couldn't take it anymore. So I called Channel 14 and I told them. I said, "The story about government taking the land back from the farmers is wrong." I said, "The government never gave the tobacco farmers an inch of land. I think the story that she'd trying to tell is the allotment that, uh, the government issued farmers, uh, you know we had the farmer and then we had the government and then tobacco buyers." And what is happening now that the government is trying to, um, get out of tobacco altogether. See they had a support price on it before and, uh, if it didn't bring, they had graders, tobacco graders that went along and graded tobacco and if it didn't bring what the government graders said it should bring, the government bought the tobacco and sold it back to the companies at a later date.
FN: Uh-huh.
LS: Well, they still do that but, uh, in fact I rent mine out. I don't really know. I just know I get a small amount. Not a lot, uh, money from the farm from rent each year. But, uh, they, uh, have their assigned certain warehouses now I understand. They didn't do that when I was a child because I remember going with my daddy to sell tobacco. But uh I'd call Channel 14 and I told them, you know, I told them they'd had their story wrong. And I didn't hear them anymore. [Laughter] They didn't tell those stories any more. But I told them that was entirely wrong. And sometimes I wonder where they get their, their information from because just a few weeks ago I heard them say tobacco fields, tobacco fields are going up in smoke. They have this new disease called Blue Mold and I thinks to myself, "Blue Mold? That's been around since I was a kid." I can remember having to spray beds, uh, dust the tobacco for Blue Mold with a black dust called Furmay. And I said, "That's nothing new." But usually it's on the tobacco beds, um, before you set it out. And I don't know how the fields are going out in smoke because right along now is the time of year that you set tobacco out-.
FN: Uh-huh.
LS: -For you to transplant it from the tobacco beds to the field. And um so I, I sometimes wonder where they get their stories.
FN: Thank you, Lucille. That was a great story.
LS: [Laughs]
FN: Thank you for sharing.
LS: Well, I probably left a lot of it out. But I can tell, sometimes I think about, uh, writing a book about my life on the farm because I did leave a lot out. I can remember you know, back before the tobacco curers and all that. But one of the professors at Carolina Coastal College, uh, wrote a book about, um, life on the tobacco farm and when I read it, I thinks to myself, boy could I add to that. [Laughs]
FN: You definitely could. Thank you for sharing.
LS: You're so welcome.