By Joann M. Ringelstetter
In April of this year, after spending over a week in North Carolina, we crossed a small section of Virginia on our way to Mabry Mill. It was a beautiful sunny morning in the mountains and we had been photographing some of the area’s tobacco barns, which are quite different from the tobacco barns we’re used to seeing here in Wisconsin.
As we came around a corner, we saw a well-kept log tobacco barn beautifully lit by the morning sun. It was one of the nicest looking tobacco barns we had seen, so I pulled the car off the road into a tractor lane near the barn. As I was taking my camera equipment out of the back seat, a car pulled up on the road and the woman driving rolled down her window and said, “I was just checkin’ if y’all was havin’ car trouble.”
“No, we’re fine,” I said, “but maybe you could answer a question for me. Pointing to the tobacco barn, I said, “That’s a tobacco barn, right?”
“Yup,” she said, “it’s ours.”
“Well, what is that piece of equipment with the funnel that’s sitting on the side of the tobacco barn?”
“That was used to plant corn,” she said (mistakenly, because we later found out from her husband that it was used to fertilize tobacco). “You poured a bag of fertilizer into the funnel along with the corn.”
“Do you know what year it’s from?”
“No, but my husband could tell you. He’s ill with emphysema, so he doesn’t come out of the house, but he’s sittin’ on the porch. Why don’t y’all go up and talk to him.”
I then introduced myself and she told me that her name was Pauline and she would really like us to stop and visit for a while. I told her that I didn’t want to distract her from where she was going, but she insisted we come to the house to chat. We’re sometimes hesitant to get side-tracked from our mission, but I knew we would enjoy these folks and learn something in the process.
So we followed her back to the driveway next to their house and she took us into the porch and introduced us to Clayton, her husband. Clayton was sitting in a chair on the porch and, although he struggled to breathe, he had a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes.
Clayton gave us all kinds of information about tobacco growing methods in Virginia and he reminisced about his childhood and his life as a tobacco farmer. He explained the piece of equipment with the funnel, calling it a fertilizer distributor and listing plow. When we asked what “listing” meant, he told us that just meant preparing the ground for planting by producing furrows and ridges. He said some people call them ridgers.
That discussion clarified a big question we had about the tobacco fields we had seen that had ridges from one end of the field to another and were ready for planting or had just been planted. As we talked, Pauline got to thinking that they had a couple things in the garage that we might be interested in. So we followed her to the garage. Clayton, who barely had enough breath while sitting in the porch, couldn’t resist coming out to the garage to talk some more with us.
They showed us an antique tobacco basket and Clayton explained that the tobacco farmers would take their bundles of tobacco to the auction and they would pile their tobacco in the baskets, which would then be inspected by the buyers. They also showed us an old grain cradle scythe.
Then I asked Pauline if I could take a picture of an old outhouse that was down the hill from the back of the house. Pauline was entertained by my desire and said, “Sure, if you really want to.” As she walked with me towards the outhouse, we came upon the most beautiful view across the mountains. She said, “Just look at that view. It’s always been my favorite view.”
In the meantime, as Pauline and I headed towards the outhouse, Clayton was telling Ruth about an old friend of his that came down to see the Smoky Mountains. Towards the end of his trip, he came to visit Clayton and Pauline. After seeing Pauline’s favorite view, he said, “I should have known you’d have the best view right here.”
I set up my tripod to photograph the weary outhouse that seemed to defy gravity. It leaned heavily to the right, as if it wanted to lie down on the cool mountain soil. And then Pauline said, “That poor old thing. I just can’t bear to take it down.” As I turned away from the outhouse, I noticed a very colorful building in a field next to the house. Pauline explained that it was the tobacco packing house.
We visited with Clayton and Pauline for over an hour and then told them we had to get going because we had a lot of ground to cover yet that day. We thanked them for their kindness and then Pauline insisted that we take along some drinks from their refrigerator on the porch. As she opened the refrigerator, the following conversation took place.
Clayton: “I wish we could offer you something more…” (Chuckling) “…like maybe some moonshine. You know, tobacco may have been the main source of income, but I think moonshine ran a close second.”
Pauline: “You know, I grew up in the mountains…over there.” (Pointing off in the distance). “When Clayton and I were courting, some of the people around here thought that Clayton was too good to marry a mountain girl. And when we got engaged, they said to Clayton, “Well, Clayton, looks like you got yourself a moonshine girl.”
As we were leaving, we asked them for their contact information. Pauline had already written it on a piece of paper for us and then she said, “I don’t know why but I keep feeling like I know you from somewhere.” We kind of felt the same way. Moonshine girl or not, Pauline and Clayton were our kind of people. And we wish Clayton a return to good health.