Tobacco seems to have been stripped of its once great power over us

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By Steve Doyle


So the controversial tobacco tax sailed through the General Assembly the other day, landing as quietly as a feather on a still pond.

The governor had suggested this measure to generate revenue. Its organized opposition said in fact it would cost revenue. Farmers – the few who still had the energy – said, “It’ll kill us.” The health care and insurance companies said, “This might help us.” And the smokers said, “You already killed us.”

Yes, there were many sides to this debate, and each was argued quite eloquently and, well, quite quietly. I’ve heard louder disagreements in a church business meeting. There wasn’t even any name-calling that I heard.

Yes, the whole tenor of the discussion certainly was in a different key than it would have been just a few years ago.

Kentucky long has been the peerless protector of the tobacco industry, which ranked right up there with coal, horses and bourbon as the chief ingredients in the burgoo of our economy.

In fact, I’ve always found it terribly ironic that Kentucky, a place known for its God-fearing ways, always generated most of its revenue from smoking, drinking and betting. But that’s column for another day.

Today’s irony is about how the passage of this tax underscores just how dramatically our world has changed.

Shelby County, for those of you who know it as the saddlebred capital of the world, used to be the stalk of the burley tobacco universe. At one time Shelbyville was the third-largest market in the world (Lexington was No. 1). Some years, it was No. 1 in Kentucky, which probably meant it was No. 1 in the world in those years.

There were warehouses all over town, where farmers trucked their crops for sale each fall and winter. You could see those sprawling tin-and-block buildings on U.S. 60 just west of the high school, on Seventh Street near Clear Creek, on Washington at 11th Street and just behind the old baseball park, where there was a wonderful bang when someone lined a home run into them.

Equity St., between 11th and Magnolia, was a tiny canyon between a pair of them, which also served as the laboratory for more than one homecoming float and the privacy screen for more than a few high school students looking for a late-night haven to park and, uh, talk.

Yes, Shelby County was known for its tobacco market, and the sticky, green stuff fed and clothed just about every family who didn’t live on a city street and some, in fact, who did.

A boy or girl growing up on such a farm could schedule by the needs of the tobacco plants. You had to be ready to pick them and plant in late spring, to keep them free of weeds, insects and that cursed suckers during the heat of the summer, to cut them and hang them in the barn in late summer and then to take them down in the fall and strip away the leaves to be packaged for their day at the warehouse. There they would be sold to the highest bidder, a process watched with both reverence and fear.

If you were a student, any of those chores could earn you an excused absence from school, and a city girl sometimes found it sort of cute when a boy would invite her over for an evening at his stripping room and it really was about tobacco.

There was also cash to be made. The work was hard and dirty, but if you needed to earn some quick money, there were plenty of farmers who needed help.  And tobacco work paid better than putting hay in the barn.

Still, those young folks didn’t see the return on the investment of their time that their parents and grandparents saw. They did the work, but many of them found it far too difficult for the kind of money they made.

So when they were of age, some left the farms to their parents and fled to the factories to work. Some became accountants or real estate agents. Some became lawyers and even legislators.

But not very many of them remained tobacco farmers.

If they stayed on the land, then they used it for something else, like cows or soybeans or horses, or, better yet, subdividing.

And so Shelby County in particular and Kentucky in general changed.

Those who fed and clothed us begat those of us who never went near a cigarette because of a personal vendetta.

Those who smoked, as they said, to keep up the price of tobacco begat those who asked for the non-smoking section at TGI Fridays.

And those changes begat much more subdued discussions about effects in the tobacco industry. The fight was either abandoned or left to those older and wearier.

Those few young ones who stand by the crop seem to accept its fate as they ponder those options.

And even if you grew up trekking through those sappy, sticky, wet tobacco fields, dodging bumble bees and snakes on a 100-degree day and hated every second of it, you find it sort of sad.

Because a piece of the fabric that was your childhood is now frayed to threadbare and soon to be yet another heirloom on the memory shelf of your life.