Tobacco Heritage at the Lee Regional Fair

— Written By Mitch Williams and last updated by
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It’s that time again, the annual Lee Regional Fair is just around the corner. The fair is an opportunity for fun and games, but also a chance to learn about and experience a former way of life for many residents of Lee County. Just take a look around Lion’s Field and you can see many lifestyles represented. You’ll find a blacksmith shop, with demonstrations of how essential tools were once hand forged. You’ll find a country store, representing the small stores where all the essentials were once available. You’ll see the sawmill, and cutting boards that could be used to build new homes, stables, businesses, and more. You’ll find a variety of antique equipment, and just inside the gate, you will find the (newly built) Tobacco Heritage Museum and the tobacco barn.

Minda shows kids how to use the equipment

The tobacco barn offers something different from other attractions. Most fairgoers will walk by the barn. They may smell the harsh smoke of the fire, the sweet smell of cured tobacco, and maybe even take a look through the door and see the tobacco hanging in the barn, then move on to the next exhibit, with a live action demonstration. But, what most don’t realize is the amount of action going on right there inside that barn. The chemical reactions that are taking place as the tobacco cures, a transformation from yellowed leaves to bright oranges and reds. Most fairgoers will not take time to notice the care and time that goes into monitoring the flame to carefully control the temperature and humidity inside the barn. Some understand these processes, but to those who did not grow up around tobacco farming, it is hard to even imagine how much is actually going on inside that barn. Understanding what it takes to fill a barn with tobacco, and the process that occurs after those leaves are taken out of the barn is just one step, but it is critical in understanding the history of Lee County and of North Carolina.

4-H cloverbuds on the lions field tractor exhibit

Those steps are where fairgoers have a chance to learn and get a hands-on experience of a part of our local heritage, through the looping and tying contest at the Lee Regional Fair. On Wednesday, September 14 at 6 p.m., the Tobacco Looping Contest will be held. It is a chance to get an experience of history and take home the first prize money awarded at the 2022 Lee Regional Fair. This year the event will begin with registration at 5:45 p.m. A load of tobacco will arrive straight from the field, graciously donated by Steve Thomas Farms, and the fun will begin. If you have never looped before, don’t be shy. There will be plenty of opportunities to learn. Experienced loopers will be present and willing to teach anyone interested, even if that person may give them a run for the money once the contest starts. Once everyone has had a chance to practice, the contest will begin. Awards will be given based on the fastest time and number of hands looped onto each stick. Teams consist of two handers and one looper, and this year there will be prize money for both adult and youth teams. The event and prizes are made possible by Carolina Farm Credit. Don’t run off after the event, we won’t leave until the barn is full, so even if you don’t take home the prize money this year, there will be a chance to practice for next year!

As the fair enters a busy Sunday on September 18th, the tobacco in the barn will be cured and ready to come out. Registration begins at 3 p.m., so be there when the gates open to get a chance to experience the next step in the process with the Tobacco Tying Contest. Before the bright leaf tobacco heads off to the market, it needs to be tied into hands. Those of us who have worked with tobacco know, that the cleanest and best looking hands will fetch the most money at the auction. This contest aims to find the person in Lee County who will fetch that premium, only, in this case, they will be awarded a fair premium instead of the biggest check leaving the warehouse. Again, if you have never tied tobacco before, this is your opportunity to learn. The best of the best will be there, and willing to teach anyone who wants to give it a try. Each contestant will tie as many hands as they can in a set amount of time, and then choose their best hands of tobacco to be judged by our experts. Based on quality and appearance, the person who ties the best hands will be awarded the title of best in Lee County and take home the prize, thanks to our event sponsor, Carolina Farm Credit.

We look forward to seeing a great turnout this year for both of our tobacco heritage events. However, if you are unable to attend either event, be sure to stop by the tobacco barn or the tobacco heritage museum during the fair and take a look. A member of the Central Carolina Antique Power Equipment Club, or C-CAPE for short, will be nearby. Be sure to ask a few questions and take time to enjoy the tobacco barn as one of the many sights and smells of the Lee Regional Fair.

Mitch Williams was the 2021 Agriculture Agent – Field Crops and Livestock, for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.

Article updated by Pam Kerley, August 2022