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Mike Watson: Tobacco as a cash crop

Tobacco has played a major role in Adair County's economy - and Adair County tobacco products were especially prized by buyers, fetching superior prices. Mike Watson traces the history of early tobacco production here and in neighboring counties with notes of innovations by local growers and the coming of the tobacco warehouse system, writing, 'Many early records mention Adair businessmen who bought and sold tobacco by the hogshead and waited for the water to rise enough on the Green River to launch a flatboat bound for New Orleans. John Field was one of the Columbia merchants who regularly bought and sold tobacco. Later, tobacco warehouses were erected Greensburg and Campbellsville, these came with construction of better roads. In time, tobacco could be hauled to more distant markets, such as Lebanon, Springfield, Bowling Green and Louisville'

By Mike Watson
Adair County Historian

The natives of the Americas cultivated tobacco long before the European re-discovery of the New World. It was a major product, important in every-day life and in ritual. With the coming of the Europeans, tobacco found a new life. In a few short years, the importation of the "weed" into Europe became big business. Jamestown Colony settlers found the plant to be the salvation of the colony. When problems with the native population became intense, the streets of Jamestown were plowed over and planted in tobacco. A true cash crop was born from the scrawny plants of that day. John Rolfe and others crossbred varieties to develop a larger, milder product. Tobacco, then, will be the salvation of many early Americans.


By the time Kentucky was in the settlement phase, tobacco was a major commodity. We learned early to ship tobacco down the various streams and rivers, to the Ohio or Mississippi, then to New Orleans where traders waited impatiently for some of the best of the product grown anywhere in the Americas. For a time, years after the first introduction of tobacco into Kentucky, we were among the largest suppliers to the smoking, chewing, snuff-using world.

Tobacco warehouses were built on major waterways throughout Kentucky, some as early as the 1780s. Beginning with specific Virginia legislation in 1783, these warehouses managed the tobacco transportation and, thus, the sale in the far-off New Orleans markets. The warehouses were little more than log or rough-sawed timber buildings used to house tobacco in a central location, until enough was available for transportation by flat boat to market. Many believed that tobacco grew best in virgin soil, so the industry helped clear much of Kentucky's woodland in the early days of the state's history.

Tobacco inspectors were appointed by the county court to examine the product as it came into the warehouse. The law was to burn inferior product. Inspectors charged ten shillings per hogshead for examination and storage. A hogshead was a large wooden barrel into which product was tightly packed and sealed for shipment. The unscrupulous dealer in tobacco might pack inferior grade leaf, foreign objects, even rocks, into hogsheads if he thought the inspector might not have time or interest in close examination. An average hogshead of tobacco weighed 1,200 to 1,300 pounds.

In 1790 New Orleans showed one-quarter of a million pounds of tobacco had been registered there. Most of this was Kentucky leaf. Product that had sold for $2 per hundred pounds in Kentucky was selling for $9.50 to $10 per hundred in Spanish New Orleans. Prices dropped as years passed. By the end of the War of 1812, tobacco sold at New Orleans and other markets for only seventy-five cents to $2.50 per hundred pounds.

However, in 1817 "...superior produce of Adair County [Kentucky] brought about $8.00 per hundredweight." The French buyer of this Adair County product paid even higher prices in the coming years. Within a few years the production of tobacco had been firmly established in Adair, Barren, Christian and Logan Counties, KY. [Adair County quote from: Kentucky & Tobacco: A Chapter in America's Industrial Growth, The Tobacco Institute, Washington, DC, 1972, 4th edition]

Adair Countians utilized a number of tobacco warehouses in the early 1800's, until markets for tobacco opened here in the state. Warehouses were erected on the Green and Cumberland Rivers at early dates. The earliest and best-known Green River warehouse was the Page or Page and Kirk or Kirk Warehouse, owned by James Page and John Kirk.

Other Green River warehouses included: Lyon's Warehouse, owned by John Lyon; Tebb's Warehouse, located on the road leading from Columbia to Campbellsville, 1828; and Hatcher's Warehouse. Mention is also made of Zimmerman's Warehouse on the road to Greensburg, in 1844. Warren's Ware-house was near Grider's Ferry on the Cumberland River and was used by many in the southern portion of the county.

Creelsboro, on the Cumberland River, was also widely used by Adair Countians as a point from which to ship tobacco. In its infancy, Creelsboro was in Cumberland County and the Columbia-Creelsboro road passed through what is now Russell County and along the river for some distance to the thriving river town founded by the Creel Brothers, Green and Adair County merchants of note. A negro slave (unfortunately his name is not recorded) owned by Thomas White, of near Tabor, was part of the labor force used by John C. White on two trips to New Orleans on tobacco boats in the mid-1820s.

Many early records mention Adair businessmen who bought and sold tobacco by the hogshead and waited for the water to rise enough on the Green River to launch a flatboat bound for New Orleans. John Field was one of the Columbia merchants who regularly bought and sold tobacco. Later, tobacco warehouses were erected Greensburg and Campbellsville, these came with construction of better roads. In time, tobacco could be hauled to more distant markets, such as Lebanon, Springfield, Bowling Green and Louisville. - Mike Watson


This story was posted on 2013-05-22 03:50:37
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