Tobacco In Connecticut: A Story of Change

Once over 30,000 acres in the north-central valley grew tobacco, employing thousands of teenagers; acreage has declined over 90 percent.

Despite the best efforts of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, it isn’t often that an exact date can be established for the coining of a new word (or neologism) in the English language. Such is the case, however, with the word "entheogen," which was born in 1979.

Scholars of mythology such as Carl A. P. Ruck – a Boston University professor of classics and native of Connecticut – coined the term "entheogen" to describe psychoactive plants used in a religious context to bring about an altered state of consciousness. The term first appeared in Ruck’s book, The Road To Eleusis: Unveiling The Secret of the Mysteries, and was deliberately chosen to distinguish substances used ritualistically in a religious context from the recreationally used, mind altering plants and substances implied by the terms "hallucinogenic" and "psychedelic," which have strong connections to escapist pop culture of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Derived from two Greek words – entheos (meaning "full of god") and genesthai (meaning "to bring about") – an entheogen is a substance used in a ritualistic, religious context to bring about a connection to the divine within an individual or group of individuals. Such a substance was tobacco to the aborigines of Connecticut – the Native American Indian tribes who had once lived here in abundance.

But just like other substances such as cannabis and mescaline (which also had their origins rooted in a ritualistic, religious context) tobacco also became more popular for its recreational use than for its spiritual use. In fact, it soon evolved into a cash crop consciously cultivated for recreational use by the European settlers who supplanted the Native Americans.

"Tobacco Valley," a 61-mile stretch of land running from Portland, CT, to the Brattleboro, VT, area (see featured photo) has historically been and still remains an economic force in Connecticut.

Windsor is home to the Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum on 135 Lang Road in the Northwest Park section of town. Endowed by money from a trust fund established by Windsor resident John E. Luddy, the Connecticut Valley Tobacco Historical Society was founded in 1988 to preserve the history and artifacts of the tobacco industry in Connecticut. The museum itself consists of two buildings: one, a replica of a tobacco barn filled with implements and machinery used over the years; the other, an exhibition center used to exhibit photographs, advertising, and documents relating to the tobacco industry in Connecticut. By viewing the exhibits and reading the accompanying literature, one can arrive at a very good understanding of the history of the tobacco industry in Connecticut.

According to the museum’s curator, Jay Jackman of Enfield, when we talk about Connecticut tobacco, we are talking about tobacco grown exclusively for cigars. Wild tobacco – the kind used by the Native American Indians of Connecticut – still grows in places near the river. He described that as "harsh" tobacco that is mainly used as a pesticide. Revolutionary War hero Israel Putnam of Connecticut was the first to bring back cultivated tobacco from the Caribbean to the Nutmeg State in 1763. Since then various types of tobacco have been grown in the valley, but two types have historically predominated: broadleaf and shade-grown tobacco. Both types have been used for the outer two layers of a cigar – the binder and the wrapper. Jackman claims that Connecticut-grown tobacco used for binders and wrappers is "the best in the world."

Even Cuban cigars – supposedly the finest in the world – use Connecticut tobacco for their outer two layers; though trading directly with Cuba is prohibited by law, Cuba is able to obtain Connecticut tobacco "indirectly" from other countries.

Broadleaf tobacco is grown in direct sunlight and has been part of Connecticut’s crop since the early 1800’s. It constitutes about 60 percent of the tobacco grown in the state today. Shade grown tobacco, imported from Sumatra just over 100 years ago, must be grown under tents to flourish and is much more labor intensive.

One acre of shade grown tobacco – approximately 12,000 plants – requires 5,000 yards of netting, 50 cedar poles, 350 pounds of wire, and two tons of fertilizer! It costs about $30,000 per acre to grow. Shade tobacco constitutes about 40 percent of the approximately 2,500 acres of tobacco under cultivation in the valley. The first tent for shade grown tobacco was erected on River Street in Windsor in 1900.

Acreage devoted to tobacco production in the valley peaked in 1921 at 30,800 acres under cultivation. This year, between 2,000 and 2,500 acres grow tobacco in the valley. The "down period" for tobacco accelerated in the 1970’s to about 1995, coinciding with health concerns about its use. The recent popularity of cigar smoking, however, has brought up demand somewhat. Moreover, many thousands of acres of former tobacco land have been sold for housing developments in the past 40 or so years, as the value of the land as real estate often exceeded its value for growing tobacco.

Much of the land on which Bradley International Airport now exists had once been under cultivation for tobacco, for example. The Connecticut state prison in Suffield now sits on tobacco land once owned by the Markowski family.

Generations of young people in Connecticut got their first jobs working on tobacco when they turned 14, the minimum legal age for working on a farm. My aunt, Shirley (Cooper) Fuller, began working on tobacco for Allen Pascoe in East Windsor in 1934. Later, she worked for the Turners in South Windsor and was part of a lengthy feature article in Life magazine on October 2, 1941 – the issue with Gary Cooper on the cover (see photo). Most of the people that I grew up with in Windsor Locks worked tobacco all summer for $1.30 an hour for the Christian Brothers or for the Markowski family in Suffield. A beat-up looking former school bus painted blue would make the rounds and pick up the kids between 6 and 7 a.m. Everybody would take a lunchbox and thermos with them. The work was long and hot, but at least you were with your friends, and you’d get some spending money for the weekends and for buying new clothes for school.

School finally started back up after Labor Day, and your hands would finally lose their yellow tinge by late September. Oh, and there is one more point to be made: working on tobacco provided a mighty incentive to work hard in school and get educated so that you could get a good job and not have to work on tobacco again!

Notes, Sources, and Links

  1. To learn more about the tobacco museum in Windsor, click on this link:


  • Critical Mass Productions has recently produced a documentary film entitled "Entheogen: Awakening the Divine Within." Go to entheogen.tv to read about it. Also, a trailer of the film can be found on youtube.com.
  • For a discussion of the term "entheogen" go to the following: http://www.erowid.org/psychoactives/psychoactives_def.shtml
  •    4. On the day that I visited the tobacco museum in Windsor, a PBS filming crew was scheduled to arrive to film a piece on the history of tobacco growing in Connecticut for the network’s "America’s Heartland" series. Look for that segment in the future.

    Margaret Sheldon Bellanger March 24, 2013 at 06:16 AM
    Working on the Silverherz tobacco farm somewhere outside of Manchester, Connecticut in the summer of 1966 was one of the best experiences I had as a 15yr old teenager. This was the first time I had been away from home for any length of time, and I was spending the summer with friends from my high school. Busses drove us from our pick up location in east Tampa all through the night, until we reached the YMCA in downtown Manchester which was turned into a dormitory to house 125 girls and the staff of cooks. The first few weeks we began in the shaded fields and weeded the tobacco, the next couple of weeks we learned how to tie up the plants, and the rest of the weeks I spent as a sewer. I even met the inventor of the sewing machine as he visited the shed I worked in. We were very well cared for and supervised. The company planned outings every weekend for us at amusement parks, castles, Mystic Seaport, New York City and trip to Radio City Music Hall, ferryboat to Statue of Liberty, tour through Boston, shopping in Hartford for Bass Weejuns. I was very grateful to have had a job paying $1.00 and hour with an opportunity of making more if I managed to sew another bundle of lathes than the minimum number. I really never knew who I was working for and would be interested in learning a little more about the history of this company.
    Bill Carter January 17, 2014 at 01:09 AM
    First job I ever had was dragging tobacco leaves out of the fields in Connecticut, 1.10 an hour but we lived in a dorm and they fed us, golden days, on Google maps I found the dorm we lived in and the pond next to it, also the dairy barn behind it is still there, the seed tobacco area is still in the same place
    ellen hanna January 18, 2014 at 12:41 PM
    My Aunt, Anne Kradas worked for Thralls office for 30 years. she was happy there. I worked for Kendricks as a sewer, or whoever was hiring for 2 summers. My husband worked for 2 days under the shade nets when he thought of a 'better method' of picking and was fired. we needed the money.
    Vic Molek February 01, 2014 at 07:17 PM
    Great article and though I'm from Pennsylvania I worked in those fields for 3 yrs (1958,59,60). Picked for AST from Camp Hazelwood and attended church in Poquonock each Sunday. The people in tobacco valley were very friendly. I drove by there in 2010 but my old camp was gone and they were growing vegetables at that intersection.
    Dan J February 27, 2014 at 05:34 AM
    Worked at HC Thrall from 72 to 75 while in high school. The fields were located on Day Hill Road and Marshall Phelps Road in Windsor, They also had a field in Windsor Locks on Old County Road. Started at 1.38 an hour in 1972 and made 2.01 in my last year in 1975. The work was hard but learned a work ethic that still sticks with me today. Walked a 1.5 miles to the bus stop at Dexter Plaza in Windsor Locks with my jug of Kool Aide and bought donuts for lunch at the bakery next to the plaza. The work was back breaking. If you can hack that you could take anything that anybody wants to throw at you. Today, still working in private sector at a challenging IT job and my PT job at UPS at age 56. Came home every day and had to wash down in the shower for 10 minutes to get the tar out of my hair and body. My parents worked in potato fields in Maine in the 1940's respected my work ethic because I never quit. Do any local kids want to pick tobacco today?


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