KENLY, N.C. -- The trail through the tobacco heartland of America leads inevitably to this quiet little town in eastern North Carolina.
Half of the nation's annual harvest of cigarette tobacco, nearly 1 billion pounds, is grown within 50 miles of Kenly, and it is here that the state's tobacco farmers have built a museum to enshrine their values and culture.
The Tobacco Farm Life Museum is hardly a Smithsonian-level institution. But it is a good starting point for anyone following what might be called the Tobacco Trail in North Carolina, because the museum speaks to a way of life that's rapidly changing and, at least some farmers say, is even threatened with extinction.
It's not just the diminishing base of smokers in America and the constant attacks of anti-smoking activists. Nor is it higher tobacco taxes or the very real threat that the federal government may soon declare nicotine a drug, thus further restricting its use. It's all those, combined with the increasing competition from foreign tobacco, grown much more cheaply and in some cases of a quality that may soon approach the crop here, which is still generally acknowledged to be the world's best.
On the present course, some agricultural economists predict, U.S. tobacco acreage may fall by as much as 40 percent in the next five years. It's a prospect potentially devastating to farmers, and to the general economy of the tobacco belt as well.
But for travelers curious about the growing, harvesting, processing and manufacturing of tobacco -- whatever their personal feelings about the cursed weed -- it also provides an added incentive to visit soon, before museums become the only place to experience this way of life.
Today, we'll start in Kenly and then head to nearby Wilson, the largest tobacco market in the United States (the largest in the world is in Zimbabwe), and from there go on to the Duke Homestead and Tobacco Museum in Durham and other museums and institutions in the Raleigh-Durham region.
And, just as the trail inevitably begins in the tobacco growing belt, it ends at the manufacturing plant, with a tour of the Whitaker Park plant of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in Winston-Salem. In an increasingly health-conscious nation (and, some North Carolina farmers are saying, an increasingly politically correct one), this may be the only remaining public tour of a cigarette-making plant.
Memories are made of this
The Farm Life Museum provides an explanation of the often-used and, to an outsider, sometimes confusing terms "flue-cured" or "bright-leaf" that are applied to tobacco grown here and in a few adjoining states.
For decades, particularly before post-World War II mechanization, tobacco was indeed "flue-cured" in two-story barns. Today, it's generally cured with forced air, in metal-covered "bulk" barns heated by oil or gas. The effect is about the same, so the words "flue-cured" remain, as does use of the term "bright-leaf tobacco," which refers to the golden or orangy color of the cured leaves.
"Bright-leaf" and "flue-cured" tobacco are one and the same, in other words, and are used primarily for cigarettes, whereas burley tobacco is used in cigars, pipe tobacco, cigarette blends and other products. Burley is grown in western North Carolina, and particularly in Kentucky, but burley and other tobaccos are grown in as many as 25 states, including south-central Pennsylvania.
This and much more can be learned for a $2 entrance fee at the museum, which is located along U.S. 301, near Exit 107 of Interstate 95.
The Farm Life Museum covers the history of tobacco growing in America, from its export to England by the early 17th-century Jamestown Colonists to its evolution in the 20th century as a crop that "brought cash to the family -- money that was used to buy land, improve houses and send children to college."
Artifacts from family farm life -- hand tools, household goods, even cured tobacco leaf and antique tobacco tins once used to (( store the final product -- tell the story. We learn how tobacco was and is farmed and cured, and how manufacturing evolved from 2,000 hand-rolled cigarettes a day in the 19th century to the modern era, when one plant can turn out millions.
Just a few weeks ago, a traveler heading east of Kenly encountered Charles Wiggs, bundling the last of his tobacco crop in burlap for market, with the help of his two brothers and four seasonal migrant workers. "Health issues aside, if tobacco is a legal product -- and as far as we know it still is -- then the federal government should get off our backs and let us grow it and not regulate us out of business," said Mr. Wiggs emphatically.
"If you're going to say nicotine's a drug," he added, "well, so is caffeine. Then you'll have to regulate that, too. Where does it end?"
The same sentiment is echoed at tobacco auctions in the nearby city of Wilson, a natural as the next stop on the Tobacco Trail, since it is here that much of the locally grown tobacco is sold to manufacturers, right off the warehouse floor.
At the auction
Between July and October, guided tours of tobacco auctions can be arranged with an advance call to the Wilson Visitors Bureau, run by the Chamber of Commerce ( 237-0165).
At the Growers Cooperative Warehouse on U.S. 301, the floor -- about the size of five football fields -- was covered with mounds of golden-brown tobacco leaves. The air was heavy with the sweet -- and not unpleasant -- smell of cured tobacco.
To an outsider, the auction itself is a mystifying process in which perhaps a half-dozen buyers and the auctioneer walk rapidly down one side of a row of tobacco, with the warehouse representative and his crew -- the sellers -- on the other.
Using only eye contact and raised fingers or fists, the buyers indicate their bids, and the sellers their acceptance or rejection of same, while the auctioneer records the process in an incredibly rapid, sing-song cadence as the whole group marches down row after row of tobacco mounds.
What the auctioneer says is all but incomprehensible to an outsider's ear, but those around him, some with lighted cigarettes dangling from their lips, comprehend it in a split second.
A typical auctioneer can easily sell a quarter-million dollars worth of tobacco in an hour, said Lloyd Hines, of Vanceboro, the auctioneer this day. After a day or so in farm country, the Tobacco Trail can lead west to Raleigh, the state capital, or perhaps to Durham.
Less than five minutes' drive west of downtown Durham is a popular gathering spot named Brightleaf Square -- some 19th-century brick tobacco warehouses converted into antique shops, galleries and restaurants. The aroma of processing tobacco comes from the nearby Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co. plant, still making Chesterfields after all these years. (The Lucky Strike water tower and brick smokestack still loom on Durham's horizon, but the American Tobacco Co., which erected them, has moved out of Durham.).
Nearby are the east and west campuses of Duke University, whose principal benefactors were the Duke tobacco family. A statue of Washington Duke, who started the small, family-owned tobacco company after the Civil War, sits at the head of Campus Drive on Duke's east campus. Another of his sons, James (Buck) Buchanan Duke, who built the American Tobacco Co. into an empire that controlled 92 percent of the world's tobacco trade by 1911, stands near Duke Chapel on the west campus. While there is no mention that the Duke fortune was made in tobacco, there is at least a clue -- a fat cigar -- between two fingers of Buck Duke's left hand.
Duke's east campus boasts an impressive Museum of Art, its west campus the beautiful Duke Chapel and other Gothic-style buildings.
From east campus, a 10-minute drive out Guess Road leads to the original Duke Homestead, a museum now run by the state. The small log "factory" where Washington Duke first began putting bright-leaf tobacco in bags with the words "Pro Bono Publico" -- "For the Public Good" -- on them is still here. So is the original family home, a modest frame dwelling that is the only Duke family home remaining in the Durham area. (Doris Duke, the late tobacco heiress, was Buck's daughter but "never even came here to see where Buck was born," said Joni Burke, a homestead guide.
Of particular interest in the museum are old radio and television advertisements that preceded the 1964 U.S. surgeon general's warning about smoking and health -- ads subsequently banned from the airwaves. At the push of a button, you can hear Johnny calling for Philip Morris, or learn that Chesterfields "satisfied millions."
Over in Raleigh, there's even more to keep a Tobacco Trail traveler busy -- not just a tour of the Capitol, but also the nearby North Carolina Museum of History and, in particular, the North Carolina Museum of Art on the outskirts of the city, which boasts a collection of art and antiquities. Observant visitors to either museum will note the Reynolds name here and there; the family and corporate tobacco millions touch everything from art museums and sports arenas to universities, churches and medical centers.
The final leg of the Tobacco Trail takes us west to Winston-Salem. The R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. has its home here now (but announced last month that it is moving its international tobacco headquarters to Geneva) and operates one its largest manufacturing centers, Whitaker Park. Before taking the free plant tour, detour to the nearby Reynolda House Museum of American Art -- once the country home of Richard Joshua Reynolds, founder of the tobacco company, and his wife, Kate.
As mansions go, Reynolda House, built in the years 1914 to 1917, appears relatively modest. But the inside is elegant and spacious, and includes such features as a bar and lounge, a swimming pool, bowling alley, squash courts and shooting gallery. One comes here, however, principally to enjoy the American art, in one of the finest public collections in the south.
Adjoining the Reynolda property, on part of the original acreage of the Reynolds family estate, is the campus of Wake Forest University, which -- like Duke -- has benefited from money made in the tobacco business.
The final product
The Tobacco Trail could easily extend farther west -- it could go right around the world, for that matter -- but it ends today with the Whitaker Park plant tour, where the cured, aged and blended tobacco meets machine, paper and filter and emerges as a product that can be smoked.
While the tour and small museum at its conclusion provide fascinating insights into tobacco manufacturing, a visitor cannot help musing that it must also be the true anti-smoking zealot's worst nightmare: Tons of tobacco shooting through pneumatic tubes and into huge hoppers. Chest-high piles of material used to make filters. Miles and miles of cigarette paper in rolls. And cigarettes slipping into Winston packs with such speed that it's literally impossible for the eye to follow any particular one -- over 400 packs a minute just from one machine, explained its operator.
The plant has a manufacturing capacity of 275 million cigarettes a day, said tour guide Virginia Spriggs.
When a retiree from Indiana asked her which cigarettes have the mildest tobaccos, she seemed momentarily stumped by the question. But her answer drew chuckles all around.
"The mildest? I honestly can't tell you," she said frankly. "I don't smoke 'em!"
If you go
Best time to visit: Tobacco auctions are conducted in the peak harvest period, August and September, although both the harvest and auctions can start as early as mid-July and run into October. Museums are open year-round.
Staying there: Most chain motels and hotels have facilities in the Raleigh-Durham area, or elsewhere in Eastern North Carolina. For a list of accommodations or information on museums or other tourist attractions, contact: Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 849-8499; Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 446-8604; Wilson Visitors Bureau, (800) 497-7398, or Greenville-Pitt County Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 537-5564. Those traveling to Winston-Salem can contact that city's Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 331-7018.
Information: For more information on traveling elsewhere in North Carolina, contact the state's Division of Travel and Tourism, (800) 847-4862.