Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Lauch Faircloth, July 16, 1999. Interview I-0070. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

History of agriculture in North Carolina

Faircloth narrows his focus to North Carolina's agricultural history in this excerpt. He cites the decline of cotton, thanks to the boll weevil, and the development of the cigarette rolling machine as two significant events in the creation of a tobacco economy in the state. He also describes a growing demand for fresh produce as the standard of living has risen and cotton's move West, where drier climates prevent boll weevil propagation.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Lauch Faircloth, July 16, 1999. Interview I-0070. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JM: Tell me about the specifics of the North Carolina farm economy as you were busy here in the late '40s, early '50s. [What do you recall about]1950s tobacco? LF: Well, you have to go back to the North Carolina farm economy, which made another major transition. North Carolina and most southeastern states were cotton states prior to World War One. Now, immediately after World War One -- 1921, exactly, it got to North Carolina -- came the boll weevil. The boll weevil practically eradicated cotton. For all intents and purposes, it became impossible to grow. We saw a movement of agriculture. The counties that had grown tobacco in North Carolina, you don't even think of as agricultural counties today. They were Guilford, Forsyth, Granville, Person, Wake, Durham. These were the counties that grew tobacco. The eastern counties grew cotton. With the invention of the and the great improvement of the cigarette machine, which was the thing that made smoking popular and picked up more than fifty percent of the [smoking] population in women--. No matter how bad you wanted a cigarette, in 1912 it just wasn't very exciting to get out a piece of paper and dump some tobacco in it and lick it and twist the ends together and start smoking. You might have been in an unsophisticated business, but that wasn't a very elegant way to approach something. That's the way you smoked a cigarette if you wanted one. You got that paper out and poured the tobacco in it and licked it and twisted it and had a cigarette. Golden Grain and RJR, that was the tobacco business. But all of a sudden with the cigarette rolling machine--. It was, I think, invented in Switzerland but dominated by Duke. He controlled the machine and the use of it and the manufacturing and everything else. He acquired all of the tobacco companies in the world. Literally, all of them. [It is] not an overstatement. He had them all. So all of a sudden, instead of getting out a little sack of tobacco and rolling a cigarette, it became very elegant to bring out a very well designed pack, and all you had to do was light the end of it. If they'd never had invented the cigarette rolling machine and everybody had to roll a cigarette by hand, you'd have never heard the furor over tobacco because, hell it took so long to roll one, nobody'd have ever smoked any. In fact, it may be a southern saying, but a vernacular that we used on cigarettes for many, many years, you've probably never heard. They were never referred to as “cigarettes.” They were known as “ready rolls.” A “cigarette” was something you made with your hands, and a factory made cigarette was known as a “ready roll.” But anyway, that's what the tobacco industry [did]. So then the eastern [part of the state] having more desirable agriculture land and this massive demand for tobacco, it just exploded with the cigarette machine and the end of World War Two. Tobacco replaced cotton. Tobacco came in just in time. The explosive use of tobacco supplemented and then took over cotton [farming]. Certain sections of North Carolina all of a sudden got into the produce business pretty heavily. It’s hard to realize but fresh vegetables and produce sections of stores were an unknown item forty years ago, fifty years ago, sixty years ago. A grocery store carried a few in-season, locally-grown produce. If you wanted some in the winter, you canned it. Except for a very, very few, very, very wealthy people, that was produce. Maybe three percent of the population or one percent, more likely, had access to vegetables and fruit other than in the immediate season that they lived. At the turn of the century and on into World War One, fresh vegetables were unknown. The fruit and vegetable business really began to pick up after World War Two. People had traveled. The standard of living [improved]. They came back and they were not willing to go back into farming. They went to colleges by massive amounts and took jobs not related to agriculture. So all of a sudden there was a demand for produce, which has continued to grow to this day. So many types of produce that used to be strictly local items, all of a sudden -- even in the last twenty-five years -- have become nationwide and highly accepted and highly sought after. That business has grown throughout the state and particularly in this area. There will probably be fifteen thousand acres of bell pepper here [this year]. It's going out by the truckloads [and] trainloads every day. The same thing's true with all sorts of cucumbers and corn and that type of thing. You've got a whole new market. Then there's a different type of produce that the state has grown in rapidly. Leaf vegetables, sweet potatoes, collards, [these] used to be absolutely a redneck, welfare dish. There is a farmer here in the county that has twenty-five hundred acres of them on a continuing basis and cannot supply the market. I noticed very elegant restaurants in New York have them. They use the French word, choux, for them. It's actually a French vegetable [that was] brought here by French settlers. Sweet potatoes, it used to be you could not give one away north of Richmond. Today it's a highly accepted health food and distributed nationwide. So we've seen the growth of that. Now cotton moved to the west to Arizona, California because they did not have the boll weevil, and the boll weevil could not survive [there]. The boll weevil requires continuous moist ground to hatch. The eggs are laid in square drops on the ground, and it's the moisture of the ground keeps it alive, and the heat hatches it, and you've got another boll weevil. Well in the deserts of Arizona and California, you watered the cotton once every ten days and when you cut the water off, there was no chance for a boll weevil to survive until you watered again, and he can't hatch in one day. It takes about ten days so there were no boll weevils. There were massive amounts of free government water. Massive amounts of free government water pumped into that whole southwestern area. So now we come back, the boll weevil has for all intents and purposes been eradicated. Now, this area, this county--. This is true all over, you can just multiply it twenty-five or thirty times. It went from absolute no cotton to this year, it's going to have one hundred thousand acres in this county. Raising it’s cheap. It's the ideal country to grow it in. [There’s] no irrigation, dry falls, two, two and a half bales to the acre, better than California or Arizona. But now the pressure's on there for the vegetables and the land and water for recreational and other uses, so they will eventually get out of the cotton business. It will move back here.