Saturday, August 8, 2009

Tobacco Time in Wisconsin

by Ruth A. Ringelstetter

The tobacco plant is beautiful, and seeing the rows of bright green tobacco in late summer signals the beginning of autumn. Autumn happens to be our favorite time to go shunpiking, so August always gets us excited about the fall color viewing that is to come.

One year, we were parked beside a tobacco field, and Joann was taking close-up pictures of the tobacco plant. I leaned out of the window and commented on how much I enjoy driving around looking at the tobacco fields, but hate the smell of it. “You can smell the tobacco?” Joann asked. When I said “Yes, and it stinks,” she stopped and sniffed, and finally noticed the smell. This is another example of her being so in the zone when she’s photographing that she’s oblivious to the sights, sounds, and smells around her!

In Wisconsin, tobacco is harvested by hand. The plants are cut with a special axe by workers in the field and laid flat. Then they are pierced with a spear and tied to lath boards, which are loaded onto wagons.

The wagonloads of tobacco are brought back to the tobacco barns where the tobacco is hung by the lath boards to dry. Special vents along the sides of the barn are opened to help with the drying.

When these vents are closed, it is sometimes hard for the casual observer to distinguish a tobacco barn from a shed or other outbuilding. But looking closely, you will see rows of hinged boards on the long sides, which are opened when the tobacco is hung for curing. You also might notice rows of vents along the top of the barn instead of the usual one or two. These vents sometimes look like little metal smokestacks.

Tobacco barns are as distinct as the areas in which tobacco is grown. The tobacco barn above is the typical style of most Wisconsin tobacco barns, which are spread throughout the southern part of the state. Commercial tobacco growing began in the 1850s here in Wisconsin. At its peak around 1920, there were 47,000 acres of tobacco. Today, there are only about 1,000 acres grown. In our backroads travel, we’ve seen the most tobacco fields around Stoughton and Edgerton. If you’re in the area and you see barns with open slats on the side, slow down and take a whiff. Chances are you’ll smell tobacco.

Although we do not in any way advocate tobacco smoking or chewing, tobacco growing is a significant part of Wisconsin’s agricultural history. Therefore, we honor and respect the tobacco growers who toiled long hours in the tobacco fields to support their families.

Happy Shunpiking!


  1. Great article about Wisconsin's agricultural history.

  2. Thanks for this very interesting read. It is a delight to see this cultural heritage kept alive through a wonderful, well photographed document.