Dillon County’s Last Tobacco Farmers

By Carley Wiggins
Back in time, perhaps two hundred years ago up until the mid-nineteen hundreds in the South, agriculture was the chief means of people making a living by farming crops that people used for food and many other reasons.

Cotton was the main crop grown for many years. Cotton was used for a multitude of things, such as the making of clothes and many other products.
In the late eighteen hundreds, it was found that the Pee Dee area that we live in was very suitable for growing tobacco.
This story is about a family who farmed tobacco for most of their lives. As a matter of fact, they farmed tobacco up until this year when they decided to quit with tobacco. This is how they got started and farmed the crop for over seventy years.
Mr. Ernest Gasque and his family were living on the Jim Williams Farm between Mullins and Marion. They were sharecroppers as was many people back in that day. It was 1947.
Mr. Gasque was working at the Old Brick Warehouse that fall to supplement his income in order to provide for his family. There were four children at the time. It was there he met a Mr. McNeil who asked Mr. Gasque if he would like to move to his farm and oversee the farm for him. He lived in North Carolina. They moved to the McNeil Farm in mid-December, and they have been in that area ever since. Mr. Gasque and his two sons rode on a mule and wagon pulled by a mule named Jim.
The reason I mention the name of the mule is I found that my informant, J.W Gasque, remembered that from 72 years ago. But then, J.W. has a phenomenal memory. The Gasques did not have a car at the time. The mother and the two sisters rode in car driven by Granddad Will. They moved to a pretty nice two-story house that Mr. McNeil provided for them. The farm was over 1,000 acres, and there were ten sharecroppers on the farm.
Mr. Gasque was paid twenty dollars a month for looking after the farm. Ernest and Kate Windham Gasque had five children—three sons and two daughters
The oldest son was Harold and next was J.W. The Daughters were Sylvia and Ann.
The youngest son, Johnny Mack was born after moving to the McNeil Farm. In addition to being an overseer, Mr. Gasque planted six acres of Tobacco. By this time, Tobacco had become the money crop in this area.
In this day, Tobacco was a labor intensive crop. Everything was done by hand, there were no machines to gather the Tobacco. The leaves were taken off the stalk by hand when the leaves got ripe, this was called cropping. The Tobacco was taken to the curing barn in a drag pulled by a mule, perhaps Jim At the barn, the drag was unloaded and placed on benches.
The Tobacco was strung on Tobacco sticks with twine. This was usually done by women, there were two handers. One on each side of the stringer, the handers would usually hand two to three leaves at a time. When the harvest for that day was done, the Tobacco was hung in the barn on tiers, everything you did was important, the Tobacco needed to be ripe, not too many leaves on a stick, and hung just right in the barn. When the children were old enough, the whole family worked in the Tobacco. To keep from hiring help, one farmer would swap help with another.
Curing the Tobacco required a lot of skill; usually the father or an older child would do the curing. The heat had to be kept at a certain level, back in earlier times wood was used to cure the Tobacco then it was changed to heating oil. When the Tobacco was cured, it was taken to a “pack house” to be graded and tied into “bats”, there were usually four grades.
The Tobacco was taken to a Tobacco Warehouse to be sold; The Gasque’s sold their tobacco in Mullins, which became the largest Tobacco market in South Carolina. In the fifties, good Tobacco sold for about fifty cents a pound. The Gasque family became very good at growing Tobacco and in time would become one of the largest growers in the county. Mr. Gasque finally was able to buy a tractor which made their job a little easier. They began to grow more Tobacco as time went by; growing Tobacco was always a family organization with the Gasque’s.
The father died in 1970 and the older brothers Harold and J.W. took over the responsibilities of the farm. Johnny Mack was some nine years younger, but pulled his share of the load. Harold and J.W. both took outside jobs to supplement their incomes. Both worked at Dixiana Mills, J.W. worked there for twenty three years in addition to doing some farming. In 1975 Harold said they began to buy some land, the first being some land from Mr. Joe Reaves.
By this time, curing was done in Bulk Barns and harvesting was done with Tobacco Harvesters, Tobacco was sold in bales in time directly to the Tobacco Companies. Johnny Mack had two sons, Johnny Mack Jr. and Scotty; I found both of these young men to be smart business men, Johnny Mack Jr. went to Clemson and Scotty went to Florence-Darlington Tech. These men are pretty well in charge now and became the third generation of Gasque Farmers.
The Gasque’s have seen the price of Tobacco go from 35-50 cents a pound to over $2.00 a pound. I was told that at one time there were 500 Tobacco farmers in Dillon County and at the end of this Tobacco growing season the Gasque’s brothers will be the last. Last year the Gasque’s grew 160 acres of Tobacco, this year it was 80 acres. According to what the brothers told me, it was getting harder to deal with the Tobacco companies and they have decided to quit with the Tobacco.
They have 22 bulk barns and a Harvester that cost $135,000 dollars that they will take a great loss on.
The younger Gasque brothers have four Chicken Houses in addition to the other crops they still grow. The Gasque Brothers grew Tobacco for some eighty years and none smoke cigarettes. I think that is pretty remarkable, I was raised on a farm and even though we didn’t farm due to having a small family, but I worked in Tobacco and I know it can be a hard life. Back then nobody thought about Tobacco being harmful to their health.
It seems that even though there are many other things that are killing people, you don’t hear much about it, I never heard of anyone dying from an overdose of Tobacco.