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History Harvest aims to preserve regional history of tobacco farming

JOHNSON CITY – This spring, the East Tennessee State University Department of History is sponsoring its first History Harvest, an effort to locate and digitally preserve documents, photographs, artifacts, and personal and family histories. The title of this year’s harvest is “Preserving Southern Appalachia’s Tobacco Heritage.”

From the early 20th century to the early 21st century, tobacco shaped the lives of the people of East Tennessee, Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia, according to Dr. Tom Lee, ETSU associate professor of history. Tobacco growing, or culture, set a rural rhythm of planting, harvesting and marketing that regulated work and leisure over 13 months, for by the time the wagons, and later the trucks, packed with tobacco rolled into warehouses in early winter, farmers were already preparing seed beds for the coming year.

The rituals of tobacco growing and sales bound together the interests of country and city, not merely in a pattern of work, but a pattern of ideas and of living. So integrated into the lives of the people of this region was tobacco that it became part of the culture, giving form to celebrations like the Burley Festival in Abingdon, Virginia; the Burley Cubs minor league baseball team in Greeneville, Tennessee; or Johnson City’s annual football kick off of the opening of the tobacco marketing season, the Burley Bowl. Come winter, city streets and stores filled with shoppers flush with cash from the sale of the crop, and bills unpaid through the year were settled so that a new season could begin. Tobacco, it has been said, paid for many a country youth’s college, cars, and Christmas.

By the late 20th century, Lee says, economic and legal forces reshaped the tobacco landscape, and by the early 21st century, many tobacco growers had stopped growing tobacco. The seasonal patterns had changed, the community celebrations had been halted or were to be renamed, and the lingering signs of what had once been such a potent economic and cultural force in the region had begun to fade.

For several years now, Lee has been researching Southern Appalachia’s tobacco heritage. A native of the Tri-Cities, he saw the transition away from tobacco beginning and initiated his work in hopes of capturing some of the memory of the region’s tobacco heritage before it was gone.

The first step leading to the new History Harvest was a course designed and taught by adjunct faculty member Kim Woodring during the fall 2016 semester titled “Digital History: Preserving and Presenting the Past Digitally.”

The goal of the course was to provide a hands-on experience intended to familiarize students with the increasingly important assortment of digital tools, new media and methods used by historians to preserve traces of the past.  The course is connected to ETSU’s quality enhancement plan through the INtopFORM fellowship program.  The History Harvest is also supported through an Instructional Development Grant, which provided funding for some additional digital equipment.

For the History Harvest, individuals and families currently or previously involved in tobacco farming who have tobacco-related stories, photos, tools, baskets, setters and more to share are invited to contact the Department of History by Feb. 28.  The department may be reached by email at [email protected], by phone at 423-439-4299 (leave a voice message), or by mail at History Harvest/History Department, Box 70672, ETSU, Johnson City, Tennessee, 37614.

Those contacting the department are asked to share brief summaries of their stories and descriptions of memorabilia.  Several of these will be selected, and those who submitted them will be invited to the ETSU campus in April, when history students from Woodring’s fall course will use the technology of the present to preserve these memories of the past.

Students will digitally scan or photograph documents, images and equipment brought to campus.  All original materials will be returned, and participants will receive their own digital copies of their memorabilia

Following this collection, the department expects to have students construct an online exhibit with the results of the History Harvest and possibly construct a physical, traveling exhibit that could help share the story in communities across the region where tobacco once played so significant a role.  Participants would have the opportunity to loan their tobacco-related tools and equipment to be part of such an exhibit.