Burley Blindness-a story of two cultures

There was a young preacher who lived in Winston Salem. He was a firebrand. He loved his work and he loved people. Each month he’d travel to a small town on the Blue Ridge called Jefferson and preach camp meetings. Each time he brought the message of hope to the people there. They loved him and he was always welcomed with food and hospitality.

The old days

Now Jefferson used to be a tobacco community. Its rich soil grew flavor and its elevation required it to be burley. In the old days warehouses were full of tobacco and the sound of auctioneers stung the fall mountain air. Burley farming was common. If a person had an extra acre, it was often covered with the cash crop. For some, it paid for Christmas. Others paid for college for their children. Still, some made small fortunes. Everyone’s kids helped cut and put up tobacco. They gained a good work ethic and a little pocket money by helping their neighbors. It kept department stores open and filled offering plates. Times were simpler and in some ways better.

Big Tobacco

Tobacco used to be lucrative. Farmers made money but tobacco companies got rich. Cities like Winston were built by Big Tobacco. The demand drove the prices high and eventually, government regulations drove it even higher. Big Tobacco became influential in DC and eventually used its lobbies to control tobacco supply (farming) so they could manipulate the prices for their greedy benefit. Big Tobacco ruled North Carolina and the separation between the companies and the government was indistinguishable. They all got rich.

Winston Salem built high rises, fancy restaurants, and became a metropolitan destination in the east. The money overflowed into her population. Whether you worked for tobacco or not, if you lived in Winston you benefited from it.

Don’t get me wrong. People back in Jefferson kept growing it. They kept getting paid. But, as the regulations increased, the profit decreased. Unfortunately, many people there had come to depend on that extra cash. The cost of living had risen with the price of tobacco, so what was once a good way to add to your steady income became necessary to pay the bills. The worst was yet to come though.

Bad Tobacco

There was a time when most everyone used Tobacco. Some chewed or dipped snuff, but most people smoked. People became addicted to tobacco. It was well known but mostly ignored that heavy tobacco use was unhealthy. Then it happened. It was determined that tobacco use was a leading cause of cancer and heart disease. Slowly, but within a generation, people’s attitudes about tobacco changed. Tobacco was hated by the culture. What was once cool became evil in their sight. They demanded change. They hated tobacco and tobacco users were offensive to them. Finally, the government declared war on tobacco and after a while, tobacco farming became a thing of the past.

The fallout

That was years ago. Farmers suffered. Communities that once celebrated burley in the fall had to find something to replace that yearly influx of money. Warehouses closed, were repurposed or sold. Jefferson, and a hundred places like it, had to struggle but eventually made it. Now the grandchildren of those burley tobacco farmers work in town. Many sold their family farm or developed it into a nice subdivision. The life of their grandparents is foreign. Its as if it never happened, a childhood memory at best.

Riding high

Winston was fine though. The tobacco money of the past had made her attractive to other industries and companies. On the back of tobacco, Winston had built an empire in which tobacco became just another part. Winston thrived and her people enjoyed all the luxuries of the metropolitan experience. She soon forgot what had built her schools, restaurants, libraries, and sports complexes. The business folk there didn’t remember how the tobacco money made it easy for the banks to fund their enterprises. The educated elites wrote out of the history books Winston Salems dirty past.

Finger wagging

Her hospitals treated smokers with COPD and lung cancer and blamed farmers. Boys who used snuff were scolded and blame was cast on baseball players. Medical treatment and addiction relief was costly. City taxes went up and revenue went down. The residual effect of tobacco hit Winston where it hurts. Someone had to pay! A cultural sin had been committed. People were suffering as a result of the sins of the past. As the metropolitan society of Winston was in chaos about this sin, they looked to the west for the culprits, the descendants of burley farmers.

Left behind

Back in Jefferson, the folks didn’t know what to think. Sure, they’d readily confess that tobacco was unhealthy. Maybe their grandparents should’ve known better but back then, no one cared. What good does it do to blame their dead grandparents? Even if they were culpable, the blame wasn’t entirely theirs. They had developed plans to help their own people that suffer because of tobacco but this idea of residual and generational oppression due to people’s parents addictions 100 years ago was hard to comprehend. So was the idea that their great grandparents had rigged the system for their future prosperity and privilege. None of this was entirely clear or definitive.

Time for a change

That young preacher from Winston had enough of the people of Jefferson and their unrepentant attitude. His neighbors in the city were hurting and the people in Jefferson seemed to have no compassion. They continued their everyday lives, ignored Winston’s cultural shifts, and even voted for a governor who sympathized with them. How dare they!

Off to Jefferson he went, Bible in hand singing Battle Hymn of the Republic. He held nightly camp meetings. He wrote editorials, held television interviews, and met with the town council. The activist preacher demanded they tear down their statues of tobacco farmers and change the names of their streets and schools from Burley and Allotment to less offensive names.  The clergyman from Winston preached repentance, even to the cancer victims and addicts there. Still, they weren’t moved to repent. Even though all of ‘history’ pointed to them as the problem, after all of his preaching, speaking, protesting, and blogging, they rejected him.

Burley blindness

He couldn’t understand. Weren’t these the people to whom he preached the Word clearly? Hadn’t they embraced the Gospel? They always seemed to be faithful followers. He supposed he was wrong about them before. He began to treat them as unbelievers and condemn them.

They stopped listening to him. Some heckled him. There were a few who came only to demonstrate at his meetings. One guy made fun of his fancy suit he purchased at a downtown store back in Winston. Another fellow egged his Cadillac his church bought him at a discount just beneath the old RJ Reynolds building. “Who gave you that goatskin Bible”, hollered another, “RJ himself?”Instead of reconciliation, people had been enraged.

The backlash

They would not give up their farms. They would not allow their children to be taught half truths about the past. The monuments to their grandparents would stay and they would fight to keep them. The dream of unity had faded and more division seemed inevitable. But the supposed disunity between the victims of tobacco and tobacco farmers had turned into the disunity of the people of Jefferson and the people of Winston. Even those churches were divided. The preacher was beside himself.

Finally, after he went back to Winston, the people in Jefferson erected a new sign in front of their church. It read: After years of farming to provide for their families, our grandparents built this church. Some time later, it was determined that the burley they grew was harmful to some so eventually the money dried up and they quit growing it. A young pastor came often to remind us of the harm Tobacco does. Apparently unbeknownst to him, one of the side effects of burley is blindness. He suffered as we all do, but he never saw it.

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