Connecticut Valley Tobacco Historical Society
The Connecticut Valley Tobacco Historical Society operates a museum to preserve the history of
cigar-tobacco agriculture in the Connecticut River Valley and educate future generations.
The Connecticut Valley Tobacco Historical Society was formed in 1987 to help preserve historical evidence of the cigar tobacco agriculture, educate the present and future generations, operate a museum, and serve as the museum’s governing body.
This society was the beneficiary of a trust fund set up by John E. Luddy who earned his money from selling shade cloth and other items needed by growers. The Connecticut Valley Tobacco Historical Society in turn made a grant to the Town of Windsor to be used for a tobacco museum at Northwest Park.
The resulting Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum consists of two structures. First, an existing tobacco curing barn was moved and remodeled to accommodate exhibits of early and modern equipment used to grow the crop. Second, a new, year-round facility was built to serve as an archive exhibit photographs, writings, and other documents about the crop. The museum is open seasonally, for three days a week, between March and December.
The soils, climate and the know-how of the farmers produced tobacco that was excellent for the manufacture of cigars. The area of cultivation began as far south as East Haddam, CT, following the Connecticut River northward on to Massachusetts and the lower tip of Vermont. Tobacco sheds have been found outside of the Connecticut River Valley in New Milford, CT as well.
The settlers from Europe learned about tobacco from the Native people of North America who used tobacco in pipes. There are two varying myths regarding how cigars began the popular alternative to pipes in New England. The first tale is that the concept of smoking leaves rolled up into a cigar was brought to New England from the Caribbean by General Israel Putnam about 1763. He thought that the cigars were a better method of smoking and better-tasting so he had tobacco transferred up to Northeast America via ship and donkey.
The alternative tale is that cigars are invented in 1803 by a woman named Sally Prout, a farmer’s wife. This was the era of Napoleonic Wars and Yankee tin peddlers. There was a shortage of tin due to the war making exporting tobacco challenging. Legend has it that Mrs. Prout began rolling tobacco lengthwise and sealing it with a damped outer leaf. This smoke-able form did not require tin to be sold. Both of these American tales conflict with each other. The true history may be somewhere in between.
Cigars were truly invented by South Americans. When Europeans arrived in the Americas in the late 15th century there was widespread use of smoking rolled-up tobacco as a recreational activity.
In the Connecticut Valley, farmers have grown tobacco for the two outside layers of cigars - the binder and the wrapper, since the early 1800s. A type called Shoestring was replaced by Broadleaf and Havana Seed leaf. In the late 1890s a fine-grained type imported from Sumatra began to replace the wrapper from the valley. Researchers matched Sumatran leaf by creating a hybrid plant and making shade tents of cloth to cut sunlight and raise humidity. The shade first tent was put up on River Street in Windsor in 1900.
From that beginning to the present, the shade-grown leaf from the valley has been recognized as the finest cigar wrapper in the world. The growth of this crop had a very strong effect on the economics of the valley towns. It brought in millions of dollars and provided a source of work for thousands of young people fourteen or more years old. At its height in acreage in 1925, there were 30,000 acres of tobacco in Connecticut alone.
In the 1940s, the local labor force was not enough to harvest the crop. This was the era of war and demand for tobacco surged. American men were at war and women had stepped into factory jobs so legal foreign labor was required to harvest tobacco. During the WWII and post-war era, the Connecticut Valley required large numbers of workers from (in order of proximity to the Valley region) Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Puerto Rico, as well as foreign British West Indian tobacco agricultural workers.
To deal with the influx of workers, in 1941 the Connecticut Valley Shade Tobacco Growers Association was established. Mr. Ralph Lasbury, the Farm labor Coordinator for the Connecticut Valley Shade Tobacco Growers, drew up a code for housing and sanitation in response to the appeals of Connecticut growers and workers for sanitary work conditions. By 1942, with these standards set in place, Ralph Lasbury secured a thousand recruits from the British West Indies to work on Connecticut tobacco farms. Girls from Florida, boys from Pennsylvania, and adults from Jamaica and Puerto Rico came to the valley to work the shade tobacco crop. Many of the adults stayed in the valley, becoming part of the Connecticut community.
After the Second World War, the tobacco farms once again needed to acquire a workforce to do stoop labor. Stoop lab or, or any lab or associated with back-bending agriculture, was becoming considered an undesirable job for some local Americans. British West Indians, currently known as Jamaicans, had been commonplace in Connecticut Valley for tobacco farms and for apple orchards. In the early fifties when Puerto Rican workers were first hired for tobacco work, there was still a population of about 1,100 Jamaicans in the area who worked in tobacco warehouses through the winter months.
In order to supplement the local day-haul lab or, tobacco growers would annually set up youth camps for teenage and college boys and girls brought into Connecticut from other states, and the camp program was somewhat enlarged the same year that the Puerto Ricans connection was established in 1953.
Local Valley teens and non-local camp teens had their first exposures to the workplace via the tobacco farms for the past one hundred years. They and the current migrant workers experience the process that involves planting, cultivation, removing the worms off the leaves, hoeing, cutting it down, passing, stringing. Carrying and hanging it up in the sheds to dry. Workers then fire it and take it down again when the farmers went to sell it. All tobacco workers in the past and today know that it is a formative experience.
The decline of tobacco began in 1953 when a new invention called the homogenized cigar wrapper had a profound effect on the need for valley leaf to bind and wrap cigars. The wrapper is finely ground up tobacco was mixed with an adhesive and made into a thin, paper-like sheet. The first use was as a binder and thus the Broadleaf acreage rapidly declined. Adjustments to the method eventually made the product useful as a wrapper.
To learn more about the history of New England's cigar tobacco agricultural in modern history, and your place in it, please visit our museum in Windsor, CT.
Newspapers and researchers: Please credit The Connecticut Valley Tobacco Historical Society when using this brief history.
Staff & Board of Directors
Jill Fahey, Curator
Brianna Dunlap, President
Nancy Taylor, Secretary
Jackie Lapinski, Treasurer