Kentucky: Tobacco Farms

Child Labor in the American South:  Kentucky Tobacco Farms

Jackie Ham

    Kentucky became the fifteenth state to join the Union on June 1, 1792, and its economy flourished through the production of tobacco, which was the state's main cash crop. By 1820, twenty percent of the production of tobacco for habitat utilization was coming from Kentucky. Up until 1833, a large portion of tobacco that was grown in Kentucky was sent out to New Orleans where it would then be taken for foreign consumption.  Although the economy of the state was flourishing, it was at the expense of individual tobacco farmers being suppressed and exploited through factors such as crop lien-system, children not being able to receive a proper education and working long hours, and being exposed to diseases such as hookworm and pellagra, which many children were infected with and died from.
    Tobacco was the most valuable component for Kentucky's economy. Unfortunately, those who were involved with farming or agriculture for a living were susceptible to exploitation. One way farmers were exploited by tobacco was through the crop-lien system. The crop lien-system allowed farmers to buy the materials they needed to grow the tobacco on credit instead of paying upfront with cash. The stores often charged more for the credit price than the cash price. In The Politics Of Despair, Campbell states, "Farmers had to purchase more goods, obtaining even more credit, while worrying about all the dangers associated with tobacco culture, such as insects and rainfall."  Tobacco farmers were trapped in a vicious cycle and found it hard to pay back the stores who had lent them the credit and by the end of the year countless farmers were left with little or no money.
    Tobacco farmers sometimes formed groups to go on strike or to carry out protests. In September 24, 1904, about four thousand tobacco farmers gathered together in Guthrie, Kentucky to protest against the monopolization of the country's tobacco, which they believed was the reason for the low tobacco prices. Back in the 1870s, tobacco farmers formed a group called The Greenback-Labor Party who supported a more supple money distribution. Campbell explains, "The core of the Greenback program was an attempt to restructure America's economy in order to relieve the tremendous financial burden placed on debtors and to provide easier access to credit."  Shortly after the Greenbelt Program started, some of the local storeowners compromised with tobacco farmers to make it easier for them to purchase items on credit without it being such a burden on them. There were also the Grange stores that bought items in bulk for a discounted price. The Grange stores would then sell the items for a cheaper price to the farmers. The problem was that the Grange stores only accepted cash and not credit. No matter how cheap an item may have been, many farmers would not have been able to purchase the item with cash. Tobacco farmers were riddled with problems because they were living a life producing a cash crop that produced continual debt along with destitution and barely any income.
    In addition to making little or no money, growing tobacco was labor intensive because everything needed to be done by hand. In a picture taken by Lewis Hine's on August 19, 1916, six-year-old Amos and four-year-old Horace were helping out their father John Neal who was a renting land and growing tobacco in Warren County. Families that rented land from the landowners barely made any type of profit because most of what they earned went straight to the landowners. Both Amos and Horace worked everyday, all day suckering and worming the tobacco. Continuous attention had to be given to weeding the spoil for the fear of flea beetle, hornworm, and budworm, which would ruin the crop. The young boys depicted in Lewis Hine's photograph on Daniel Barrett's farm in Henderson County range from ages ten to fourteen. The caption for the photograph, which was taken on September 13, 1916, states that the school the boys attended, Bluff City School, opened two weeks ago but that the young boys are not expected to go to school for other couple weeks because they need to tend to the tobacco plants in the field. In The Politics Of Despair, Campbell states, "Many children in the tobacco regions spent a good portion of their young lives tending the crop."   Small children would often times work ten hours a day on tobacco farms in the grueling sun.
    Ed Bentley's children Hayward and Harry who are sixteen years old and eleven years old respectively, have not been going to school for two weeks because they were needed on the tobacco farm as well. The caption for the photograph of Hayward and Harry out on the tobacco field taken on September 13, 1916, states that both the boys have already missed two weeks of school and that they will be able to attend Bluff City School in about three weeks. The living conditions these young children and their parents were living in was everything but extravagant. The home of Ed Bentley seems to be made out of thin wooden slabs. There are no windows except for the one doorway that is shown in the front of the house. The caption of the photograph, which was also taken on September 13, 1916, explains that Ed Bentley is up the river cutting logs and that he is only able to be home part of the time. Ed Bentley's daughter is attending school at the Zion School but the boys are needed on the farm to cultivate six acres of tobacco by themselves. It is not surprising many young children are needed on the large acres of tobacco farms while their parents are tending to other matters. As a result, there were more children working out in the tobacco fields than in schools receiving an education, which in turn neglected children of educational opportunities.
    The health of the children who worked on tobacco farms was greatly affected. In The Economics of Child Labor, Basu and Van states, "There are children who work in hazardous industries, risking accident and injury; there are other working in conditions that take a slower but definite toll on the children's health."  The regions in Kentucky that heavily revolved around the production of tobacco exhibited poor health records. When the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission examined children in Kentucky, they found that more than thirty two percent of the children had hookworm. Hookworm, which was also known as the disease of laziness, thrived in sandy areas and often penetrated the children's bodies through the bottom of their feet because many times the children were barefooted. The infection caused by hookworm's permanently debilitated children's mental and physical growth. Pellagra was another deadly disease that was caused by a vitamin deficiency due to a poor diet. Campbell states, "The illness rapidly became known as the disease of the four d's: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death".  In Kentucky by the early 1900s, the rate of mortality for children who died from pellagra was more than forty two percent. Malaria, which were periodic fevers, was also a common disease adults and children suffered from. Female Anopheles mosquitoes transmitted malaria and the breeding place for these female mosquitoes was places with clear stagnant water. Some of the symptoms caused by Malaria were anemia, shortness of breath, fever, nausea, flu-like symptoms, coma, and death.
     The economic system of the south left the farmers and their families in a devastated state and caused many young children to miss out on educational opportunities. The tobacco culture in Kentucky was harsh and would not have survived if the family members had not worked together and helped each other out. The children played a vital role on the tobacco fields and it was just unfortunate that they were infected or died from endemic diseases such as hookworm, pellagra, and malaria. Campbell states, "‘to tenant farmers,' Elizabeth W. Etheridge writes, ‘tight credit was but a prelude to illness the next spring.'"  In many ways Etheridge's statement was true for the people who lived a life that revolved around raising tobacco plants. Till this day, it seems that tobacco is still the number one crop for farmers to grow in Kentucky. Kentucky remains as one of the biggest tobacco industries bringing in about five hundred million dollars for the state's economy each year.


Amos is 6 and Horace is 4

Group gathering tobacco on Daniel Barrett's farm

Group gathering tobacco on Daniel Barrett's farm

Home of Ed Bentley

Hayward and Harry Bentley suckering tobacco