“Snuffing Out” Tobacco in Southern Maryland

Tobacco’s 17th Century Beginnings in the Colonies

English_Settlers_Harvest_Tobacco_1Maryland’s tobacco growing farms date back to the 17th century. Upon their arrival in 1634, Maryland settlers quickly hopped onto the tobacco bandwagon which the Virginians had started at the beginning of the century in Jamestown, Virginia. Borrowing seeds from my 11th great grandfather, Captain John Thomas Rolfe’s (1585-1622) now famous sweet-scented variety, they busily cultivated Maryland’s “tidewater area,” (geographic areas of southeast Virginia, northeastern North Carolina, part of the Atlantic coastal plain, and portions of Maryland facing the Chesapeake Bay).

Colonists quickly found that tobacco was the highest paying crop per acre. Colonial agriculture was primitive but exceedingly profitable. The annual tobacco crop brought in as much money as all the other American exports totaled. Family farms grew into plantations. Indentured servants were slowly replaced by slaves from Africa and the Caribbean.

And, the tobacco market wasn’t without its periods where sales slumped; e.g., the Revolutionary War Period (1775-1783). Yet, it still maintained and stimulated the growth of Maryland and other states throughout the colonial period. Tobacco farming became Calvert County’s main cash crop and the family farms grew rich through the generations.

Maryland’s Tobacco Farms in the late 20th Century

20th century tobacco barnIn fact, in the late 1990’s, southern Maryland tobacco generated 70% of farmers’ incomes, even though it occupied only 5% of their acres under cultivation. Scattered on small plots on almost every farm, the crop was a laborious and a year-round occupation–one of the reasons in labor-strapped southern Maryland that it was not a bigger crop.

Actually 24 years ago, when my husband, children, and I moved to Calvert County, we would see farmers in late summer harvesting tobacco leaves, turning over their hand cut leaves to others who would string them onto sticks and then hang them in their barns for curing.  After a couple of months, when the farmers were sure the leaves were completely dried, we would sometimes see them hauling their crops to a local tobacco warehouse for auction.  In our case, northern Calvert’s tobacco was either taken to the Hughesville Barns in Charles County, or the Upper Marlboro Tobacco Barns in Prince George’s County.

About seven years later, (1999), tobacco crops became almost extinct. I believe the tobacco farm on Mount Harmony Road was one of those that started growing soy beans instead of tobacco.   A late-1998 $206 Billion settlement by the nation’s largest tobacco companies and the 50 states brought the tobacco industry to a halt.  Life-long Southern Maryland tobacco farmers (whose average age was about 65), had been around long enough to see that the tobacco industry was dying. Their embrace of the wholesale buyout was both eager and sad. They were paid as much as $20,000 annually for 10 years to keep their farms and to replace their tobacco crops with other vegetation. This put about 1,100 Maryland  farmers out of the tobacco business.  

Parris N. Glendening was Maryland’s governor in 1999 when the tobacco settlements began to be paid out.  Governor Glendening vowed to use part of Maryland’s share of the windfall to close the book on “Maryland’s history as a tobacco state.”

Even so, about 100 Amish tobacco farmers refused to accept subsidies from the government.  They just changed their brand of tobacco leaves to “burley,” which was in demand in Europe.   And, some farmers sold off their farms to land developers and subdividers instead of accepting a financial settlement that would lock them into their farms for 10 years.  This decision by the farmers, might help explain the State’s third largest housing boom and population growth (nearly 20 percent increase in population) in Calvert County that took place between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

The tobacco crops may have disappeared but, the Calvert County Flags that had tobacco leaves on them can still be found.

Calvert County Flag CollageReferences:

  • U.S. Census Bureau:  U.S. by County Population & Housing Patterns: 2000 to 2010″End of an Era For Maryland Tobacco,” By Philip Rucker, Washington Post Staff Writer, Thursday, March 1, 2007
  • “Snuffing Out Tobacco is No Easy Task for Maryland Farmers,” By Melissa Healey, Times Staff Writer, August 15, 2000

  • “Maryland Pays Farmers Not to Grow Tobacco,” World Net Daily “WND,” August 23, 2000

  • “Pulling up roots : Maryland move discourages tobacco,” Michigan Daily, February 1, 2001




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