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Broadleaf Tobacco Road

Story and photography by Scott A. WilliamsApril 08, 2015

It’s late summer in the Connecticut River Valley. As I ride narrow back roads past small farms that dot the region, the early morning air is heavy with a dense, sweet aroma that’s both familiar and pleasant. The distinctive smell is broadleaf tobacco curing inside tobacco sheds, slowly developing into natural leaf wrappers for cigars.

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Full disclosure: I don’t like cigars. When they come out around a campfire, I move upwind. But tobacco sheds are part of the rural landscape in the Valley, and as a lifelong resident of the region, I understand that the tang of curing broadleaf in the air signals the approaching end of summer.

Once ubiquitous in these parts, tobacco sheds, where air curing takes place, have decreased in number. Changing habits, increased taxes and overseas production have made growing broadleaf tobacco less profitable for farmers here. Much land once devoted to cultivating broadleaf now supports crops like pumpkins, potatoes and Christmas trees. A friend built his home on land that was once a tobacco farm.

Hanging broadleaf tobacco turns to brown as it air-cures in a shed in Whatley.

Hanging broadleaf tobacco turns to brown as it air-cures in a shed in Whatley.

As their numbers decline, tobacco sheds represent examples of working history, akin to covered bridges or lighthouses. Riding to see them and take in that certain smell provides opportunities to explore country lanes and dirt roads of the Connecticut River Valley from just north of Hartford up through western Massachusetts.

My ride begins in Massachusetts, east of the river, and winds south into Connecticut. I pick up State Route 190 as it edges the Shenipsit State Forest. Just east of Somers, I turn north in favor of country lanes that run roughly parallel to the state road. Four Bridges Road soon delivers me to a roadside tobacco shed. On this crisp September morning, every slat and door is open wide. Sunlight bathes the leaves, now mostly brown, having begun curing several weeks ago when they were deep green. This sight is seen with decreasing frequency and two old ladies, perhaps reminiscing about times past, pull over to take photographs. “Doesn’t it smell so good?” one of them says to me. (Yes, ma’am…until someone lights it!)

Land once devoted to raising tobacco now produces crops as varied as pumpkins, Christmas trees and sunflowers.

Land once devoted to raising tobacco now produces crops as varied as pumpkins, Christmas trees and sunflowers.

A cut-through town and a straight shot south on State Route 191 finds me at Jarmoc Farms. The sign says tobacco has been grown here for generations. I pull up alongside a truck with the state-issued license plate CIGAR and introduce myself to the driver. Steve Jarmoc explains that there’s an art to air-curing tobacco leaf wrappers and the most important tool is the shed.

8N tractors aren’t the only old Fords still working at Fairview Farm.

8N tractors aren’t the only old Fords still working at Fairview Farm.

Connecticut River Valley tobacco sheds are single-purpose agricultural buildings designed to promote warm, humid conditions that facilitate controlled drying (curing). The shed’s signature design element is side walls that open. Every other vertical slat can be propped open to allow in sunlight and airflow. Some sheds have slats that open on hinges like tall, slender doors. Farmers open the side walls on dry days and close them for rain or strong wind. Fog can be a help or hindrance, depending on the current state of cure. Many sheds also have a network of propane burners on the floor, which can be fired to maintain desired conditions.

Beside a recently harvested shade tobacco field, bundles of shade cloth await removal for off-season storage.

Beside a recently harvested shade tobacco field, bundles of shade cloth await removal for off-season storage.

Continuing south, I fork right at Town Farm Road, turn left on Simon and right on N Road (State Route 140) and cross the Connecticut River to Windsor Locks. Winding north and west to Suffield, I slowly pass a field where another cigar wrapper crop, Connecticut shade tobacco, has recently been harvested. Shade tobacco is grown beneath translucent cloth, which reduces exposure to direct sunlight. Growing and processing shade tobacco is highly labor intensive, and since the market has tended toward the stronger character of broadleaf, fewer Connecticut Valley farmers still grow the milder shade tobacco.

While most tobacco sheds have tilt-out slats, some, including this one, use hinged panels that swing to the side. They’re closed here.

While most tobacco sheds have tilt-out slats, some, including this one, use hinged panels that swing to the side. They’re closed here.

Two-lane blacktop delivers me to Congamond, the small chunk of Massachusetts that juts down into Connecticut, supposedly to keep Massachusetts from sliding off into the Atlantic. Along College Highway, I pull into the Coward Farms store and say hello to John Coward. Back in the day, he says, farming broadleaf was good money, but with today’s market pressures he devotes just 17 of his 80 acres to tobacco. On the other 63 acres he grows crops including spring flowers, feed corn, mums, Christmas trees and lots of pumpkins. As we chat, John’s son drives off to deliver a truckload of pumpkins to a nearby microbrewery for its pumpkin ale, an Oktoberfest favorite.

Steve Jarmoc has the state-issued vanity plate that the other tobacco farmers want.

Steve Jarmoc has the state-issued vanity plate that the other tobacco farmers want.

By Southwick I’m ready for another regional favorite—twisties—and ride west on Massachusetts Route 57 through Granville Gorge and on toward the hill towns. At New Boston, State Route 8 snakes north. Decades ago, this curvy stretch along the Farmington River was among the first roads that made me say “Yeah!” inside my helmet, and it still delivers smiles. By Otis my stomach gauge reads empty, so a stop at the Farmington River Diner and Deli is in order. After a late breakfast, newly paved State Route 23 carves the hills back east to Russell. U.S. 20 West, called Jacob’s Ladder Trail out here, winds gently through Huntington and then twists intensely as it gains elevation beyond Chester. A right at Becket puts me back on Route 8 North.

Exploring farm country has its advantages, including just-picked pie ingredients at a roadside stand.

Exploring farm country has its advantages, including just-picked pie ingredients at a roadside stand.

In Hinsdale, the Skyline Trail provides another country two-lane delight, with deep forests and hilltop vistas. There are several farms along the ridge but no tobacco sheds, since the soil up here is not suitable for broadleaf as it is down in the Valley.

In Huntington, I pick up State Route 112, a meandering two-lane that parallels the Westfield River, Sykes Brook and Little River. At the Knightville Dam, I stop to see what kept the Army Corps of Engineers busy from 1939 to 1941. South of Ashfield, State Route 116 has among the best stretches of twisty blacktop in Massachusetts, all the way to South Deerfield.

Slats tilted out and broadleaf air-curing in neat tiers, tobacco sheds are slowly vanishing from the rural landscape of the Connecticut River Valley.

Slats tilted out and broadleaf air-curing in neat tiers, tobacco sheds are slowly vanishing from the rural landscape of the Connecticut River Valley.

Now back in the Connecticut River Valley, I play “Wonder where that road goes?” and find myself on Long Plain Road in Whately. There are tobacco sheds on my left, and a sign that says Fairview Farm on my right. I stop at the office and meet Judy Hunter, the greenhouse manager.

In talking with Judy, I learn that the farm has 23 acres, 13 tobacco sheds—and a working fleet of 27 antique tractors. Most are Ford 8N’s, small and robust machines produced from 1947 to 1952. These vintage Fords are still preferred because they’re low enough to fit below a shed’s cross beams, which makes loading four tiers of tobacco stalks easier.

For a closer look at the sheds and tractors, I ride out on the farm road. Right away I’m glad to be on my 450-pound Kawasaki Versys instead of my 725-pound Honda ST1300; a Suzuki DR-Z would have been better yet. A shed labeled FF10 is open to the sunshine. I pause downwind to let the rich aroma drift my way. With more sheds across the field and Sugarloaf Mountain as a backdrop, this scene could only be in the Valley.

When Long Plain Road ends, two left turns put me on River Road. Yes, the river is right there. Up a ways, I pull into Sobieski’s River Valley Farm, fill my panniers with strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, and resume the zigzag north thinking how good that pie is going to taste.

Staying east of Greenfield, I cross the Connecticut River at Turners Falls. A loop to Northfield and back rolls through dense state forest lands. The road winding south from Wendell Depot to Locks Village has long been a favorite, and at Shutesbury a right turn delivers sidewinding curves down the hill to Leverett. Another round of Wonder where that road goes? lands me in Sunderland.

Turning south, State Route 47 hugs the eastern shore of the Connecticut River through farmland dotted with tobacco sheds. This stretch of 47 is where I first experienced that aroma of air-curing tobacco, that harbinger of summer’s end, many years ago. A couple years back, a tornado lifted a shed off its piers and dropped it onto 47 in a pile of shattered slats.

Across a field I notice several more sheds on a back road and make my way there. The farmer is on an errand, but his neighbor says it’s fine to have a look. These sheds have the less common hinged door slats that must be opened and closed one at a time rather than several at once as the tilt-out variety allows.

The highway department let the pavement end to discourage through traffic, but I raise some dust and head on to Hadley. I wave to the gent at the controls of a John Deere tractor and ask if I can take a look at his tobacco sheds. He says sure, just don’t expect to find any tobacco in them. Stanley Kokoski describes himself as a former tobacco farmer. His father loved to grow tobacco, and when he retired he sold the farm to Stanley, who kept growing it for a few years. Reduced demand drove him to change crops; on this day he is harvesting potatoes.

With no broadleaf to cure, Stanley’s tobacco sheds took on new duty: garage space for his farm equipment. Some farmers rent their sheds as off-season storage for boats, he explains. And some sheds, particularly those built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, get dismantled for their chestnut timbers, which are prized for post-and-beam framing and hardwood flooring.

From here, there are countless options for linking back roads through farm country to reach my home in the burbs, but as I move farther east of the river the tobacco sheds disappear. Someday they may disappear entirely. But on this sunny September day, a few farms along the Connecticut River Valley are still giving off that dense, sweet aroma…the smell of summer ending.

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