Eastern North Carolina’s tobacco markets and festivals were once the highlight of the social calendar. As the 1992 markets ramped up, N&O writer and Wilson native Dennis Rogers remarked on the weight the tobacco market still carried.
The dusty song begins anew today as it has each summer for longer than anyone has been alive.
At 9 a.m. in sweltering warehouses across the flat lands of Eastern North Carolina, the sweet chant of tobacco auctioneers will rattle tin roofs. The old refrain will bring joy and prosperity to the few and will leave many others cursing the sweat they’ve shed.
You’d best save your anti-tobacco crusades for another day, pal. Forget nit-picking over restaurant seats and social niceties of secondhand smoke. These people are talking money, big money, as the 1992 tobacco market opens in the heartland of North Carolina. It is -- hallelujah and praise Jesus -- payday at last.
Between now and the cool weather of October, $156 million will change hands in this one sleepy town. And 91 million pounds of brightleaf tobacco, so delicious and pretty it is the envy of the world, will move through 15 warehouses that slouch across this town 45 miles east of downtown Raleigh. Close to 3,000 people work every day in the industry that has, for more years than anyone can remember, secured Wilson’s claim as the World’s Largest Tobacco Market.
You cannot overstate how much this day means in a tobacco town like Wilson. Take the city’s two leading radio stations: WGTM stands for “World Greatest Tobacco Market.” WVOT stands for “Wilson’s Voice of Tobaccoland.” Old tobacco money built the mansions that line the broad streets west of downtown, far from the toasty, acrid smell of flue-cured tobacco.
“Tobacco is still an important part of the town’s business, “ said John Harris, director of the Wilson Tobacco Board of Trade. Harris, 75, came to this market in 1934 and stayed.
“It is not like it used to be. Back in the old days, a sharecropper with a few acres of tobacco would sell his crop and go straight to the stores and buy clothes and shoes for his children. Now most of it is sold by people who lease their allotments from other people. It’s a big business now.”
But that doesn’t mean the sale has changed one whit from the horse-and-wagon days. Some things are too perfect to fiddle with.
Once farmers lined the city streets all night with their fragrant fortunes, waiting to get inside the warehouse to unload. Those steamy summer nights often turned into parties as bootleggers, grifters, drifters, con men and whores plied their trade. The local cops tried to keep the worst of it in line and winked at the rest.
Although farmers have appointments for their sale day, once the tobacco is unloaded and arranged on the floor in rows so long they disappear into the perpetual gloom of the huge buildings, the old ways take over.
The auctioneer starts down the aisle and begins the lyric chant that is nonsense noise to the outsider as he keeps an eye on the 10 buyers who trail in his wake, pawing the leaf. A nod or a flip of the hand and a buyer has agreed that his multinational company will take a pile of tobacco at the auctioneer’s price.
If the farmer likes the price, fine. If not, he turns the recorded price tag over and pulls his tobacco from the floor to roll the dice another day.
“It hasn’t changed in a hundred years,” Harris said. “We’re using computers in accounting, and that’s about it.” -- The N&O 7/21/1992