On Tuesday, The Colin McEnroe Show will deal with the story of Connecticut tobacco. With that in mind, here from the vaults, is a 20-year-old story by some 40-year-old writer. All photos are Courant file photos.
All afternoon, the stiff May wind pours across the countryside around Windsorville, fluttering the apple blossoms, making dark lines in the grass, lashing the treetops. Nobody will plant tobacco on this day in mid-May.
In his station wagon, Emil Mulnite crosses the road that splits his office from his farm building. He is 86 and bent like a weed in the wind, his back curved forever into the stoop of the shade-tobacco farmer, the shape of life lived between the cloth and the soil.
That shape was, in some ways, the shape of life for miles up and down the Connecticut River when tobacco was in full flower. In 1950, tobacco was harvested from 19,000 acres in the state. This year, there will be more than 1,000 acres planted, but certainly fewer than 2,000.
With the nation embroiled in a furious, fast-paced debate over the growing and selling of cigarette tobacco, the cigar-supplying world of the Connecticut Valley seems curiously unruffled. Even last Tuesday’s fairly massive fire, which burned the Culbro Tobacco office and warehouse to the ground will not, apparently, affect the harvest by so much as a sprig of shade.
Most of the tobacco grown in the valley is, indeed, shade tobacco, a strange, finicky relative of the rough plant the Indians grew. Shade tobacco is a weed, and it grows like one. But it has to live under covers that trap the moisture it craves. And there are roughly a million things that can go wrong with it, prevent it from realizing its destiny as the unblemished golden-brown wrapper on an upscale cigar.
The cotton-cloth covers, actually, are gone. They yielded a few years back to polypropylene, which the shade farmers like because it won’t catch fire. The Fourth of July was a nervous time back in the days of cotton.
Mulnite lives and works right where he was born, in Windsorville, a crossroads in East Windsor.
“I must have been born under a tobacco plant, because I never left one of them for very long,” he says.
Mulnite does not smoke. He never has. That is not his connection to the strange life of shade tobacco. It has more to do, he says, with the years his family spent on the land and with the way the sheer obstinacy of the shade plant mirrors his own.
Why grow a plant that requires insane amounts of labor (1,500 person-hours an acre) and equipment for its tending, that must be picked three leaves at a time, sewn together to hang upside down like green bats in a barn, cured by fire, rehumidified, fermented in warehouses and shipped to Santo Domingo for sorting and grading?
“Because you like the . . . stuff,” Mulnite says. “It’s the most challenging crop in the world.”
And not without its rewards. If everything is done right, if the leaf completes the journey from greenhouse to field to shed to warehouse to boat to island with no blemishes, with the right texture, proper veins, good golden color, if, in effect, a miracle happens, the very best of Mulnite’s crop can sell for $30 a pound. Not much else can do that and not attract the interest of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Mulnite started helping his parents with the tobacco when he was 4. There is even a family story of little Emil’s being put to bed in his nightgown made from a Gold Seal flour bag, of his family’s thinking he was asleep and going back up to the barn to do more of the grueling harvest work, of little Emil’s sneaking back up to the barn with the dog to watch the work.
Mulnite’s parents, German immigrants, came to East Windsor in 1905, because his father was sick from working in a Torrington brass factory.
“He saw a doctor who told him, `You were born in the bushes; go back to the bushes and buy a farm,’ ” Mulnite says.
They did. The first year, they grew an acre of tobacco.
First was broadleaf
All through the 1800s, Connecticut farmers grew broadleaf tobacco, a less- subtle plant, for wrappers and binders (the less-subtle layer underneath the wrapper).
Shade tobacco came to Connecticut in 1900 from the East Indies island of Sumatra, which was beginning to dominate the world of cigar wrappers. The leaf had a light color, delicate texture and mild flavor that cigar lovers loved, so it seemed like a good idea to try to grow it somewhere besides Sumatra.
The artificial-shade concept had been developed in Florida in the 1890s. One history says that Connecticut experimenters tried it on one-third of an acre in Windsor in 1900, and the result was so good that farmers, in an un-Yankeeish burst of headlong passion, planted 50 acres in 1901.
The industry grew like tobacco — that is, fitfully. And woven into its life were the stories of the latest set of immigrants willing to work cheap in concentrated bursts. In succession, European immigrants, Southern blacks, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans trooped into the fields. Today, Puerto Rican workers, often living in western Massachusetts cities such as Holyoke and Chicopee, still are the largest part of the work force.
In the 1950s disaster struck in the guise of innovation. Somebody figured out how to make a pretty good cigar wrapper by chopping tobacco scraps and odds and ends to a powder and making a paper out of it.
Homogenization, it was called. It chopped Connecticut tobacco growing, too. As demand fell, farmers found it ever more attractive to plant something else or sell their land for development. Another form of homogenization, the eruption of suburbs in the 1950s, drove that process to manic levels, so that today the valley is sprinkled with subdivisions where the names of streets sometimes call back eerily to the nearly lost past, as in “Harvest” or, more poignantly “Bent” (the area encompassed by one set of poles in a shade field).
What didn’t go to subdivisions went to corporate use. Some of the land in northwest Windsor appears to have been colonized by office buildings from outer space, lowered down on burning rockets so that they sit incongruously in the middle of flat, featureless fields.
Up to Mother Nature
Four days later, and the weather has settled into a dull rhythm of rain in the morning and clouds in the afternoon.
“You can do everything right, and Mother Nature isn’t cooperative,” sighs Kathi Martin as gray clouds roll indecisively around the sky. “We’re wanting to get the plants in the fields. There’s a relatively small window of opportunity.”
Nothing to do but sit there and feel the seedlings growing in the greenhouses, watch the Weather Channel, wait for the sun, hope the plants didn’t get so big that the transplanting hurts them.
“You get storms. It doesn’t take much. It’s very easy to blow over or twist the leaves, break the leaves.” Martin’s voice is dreamy, like a chant, like a litany of the things that can wreck you. She moves on, to hailstorms smacking the covers, to witcheries that can descend upon the leaf, with names like “pole sweat” and “frog eye.”
“It isn’t just a job. It’s your way of life,” she say. “You don’t delineate between work time and playtime.”
Martin represents the sixth generation of her family, the Browns, to grow tobacco in Windsor. She has a baby son, Pierce, who may be the seventh.
“My grandmother’s still involved in the farm. My father supported his family off this land. His brother supported his family too,” she says, fumbling to explain the bond. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
On the other hand, there are development pressures, the ever-fluctuating status of cigars themselves, the vast challenge of assembling and managing a low- paid labor force to do a job that requires skill and care.
And those clouds just won’t leave.
“We don’t know if we’re going to be doing this next year,” she says.
Last of the growers
There’s another reason shade farmers hang on. They’re the last. In Connecticut, there are basically 10 independent shade farmers.
Barring a reawakening of interest in tobacco by casino-rich Indians, nobody will ever go into the shade business again. Just the cost of, say, building a shed at today’s prices staggers the imagination, says Lawrence Palombo, vice president of Culbro Tobacco. Land, equipment . . . if you don’t have this stuff already, there’s no way you’d want to get it now just to coax a Sumatran plant out of the ground, both Palombo and Martin say.
It’s like a poker game in which the pot has grown too big.
“The people who are in it are the people who stayed in,” he says.
Palombo says Culbro, a division of General Cigar, will grow a little more shade tobacco this year than last. The other nine farms, which function together as the Windsor Shade Co., apparently will stand pat. One difference is that Culbro’s tobacco tends to end up on the company’s own American cigars. The Windsor Shade tobacco is more likely to be smoked by someone in England or continental Europe.
The demand for premium cigars seems to be up a little, Palombo says. A new magazine, Cigar Aficionado, has been helping to build a mystique around high- end stogies.
“And it could be that as people are smoking less cigarettes, maybe they’re having the occasional cigar,” Palombo says.
The people who grow shade tobacco know that these are strange times to make a living from such a crop. Martin says parents of Windsor teenagers sometimes seem a little perturbed by the idea of their kids’ working on a crop so demonized.
“I’m proud to grow a crop that’s such a specialty . . . and that ends up in the finest cigars,” she says.
The growers say their plant is a far cry from cigarette tobacco, but you don’t hear them condemn the cigarette industry either.
“I’m not against smoking,” says the smokeless Mulnite. He cackled watching the CEOs of the tobacco giants face Congress at the recent hearings.
“You can’t fight multibillion-dollar corporations. Our senators couldn’t touch them,” he says.
Martin doesn’t smoke cigars. Her grandfather did. He lived to be 92, she says. But that’s not even the point, she says.
“It’s just something that’s in you,” she shrugs.
In trouble now
Mulnite takes his visitor up to the greenhouse. He pulls a seedling from the flats, brings it back down to the office, puts it in a pot, adds some soil.
He goes to a can full of water and begins scooping out handfuls, placing them on the plant in a way that is oddly tender.
He hands the potted seedling to his visitor as they walk out into the strange, twirling wind.
“Now you’ve got a tobacco crop,” he says, laughing. “Now you’re in the same trouble I’m in.”