Tobacco: An Unlikely Mennonite Crop and a Source of a Memoir Excerpt

Tobacco: still growing in Lancaster County fields

“Stop,” I cried. “I need to take a picture of that.”

My dear husband turned the car around and allowed me to jump out long enough to take the photo above. It brought back some vivid memories.

One of the earliest stories I wrote when I started my memoir concerned my early career as a tobacco planter, weeder, whacker, and stacker. Herald Press has turned it into a short excerpt in the ad they created for The Mennonite.

“Look at this big fella!” my father said. We all turned to see him take off his Eby’s Feeds cap, exposing his white forehead in contrast to the dark red of his cheeks. Dangling from his other hand was the plumpest neon-green tobacco worm I had ever seen. It was about three inches long and half an inch wide. As it writhed in Daddy’s hand, I felt the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. We all made faces.

I could tell that Daddy was expecting more reaction, so I briefly considered letting out my best scream but instead decided to try another tack. I pretended to take a scientific interest in the little black tentacles under the accordionlike sections of the bright green body. Daddy looked at me observing the worm, so cool and calm. Then he did something rare. He spoke spontaneously, recklessly.

“I’ll give you five dollars if you bite this worm in two,” he said.

The story of the tobacco worm occurs in a chapter called “Dueling with Daddy.” The story focuses more on my relationship to my father than on the subject of tobacco. Tobacco itself, however, was one of the paradoxes of Mennonite life because it was the only reliable cash crop sufficient to help pay down a mortgage. So, despite the preaching of revivalist George R. Brunk, who convinced some farmers to rip out the plant from their fields, my father persisted in growing the weed.

He smoked cigars, also.

But never in the house.

Boundaries. Always there were boundaries.

Herald Press ad for The Mennonite

It’s harder to find tobacco in Lancaster County than it used to be. The new cash crops are large animal operations. Have things improved? In some ways yes. In others, probably not.

72 Days Until Launch

Here in Phoenix, the weather is even hotter (110 degrees!) than that scorching day in the tobacco fields long ago. None of the Mennonites I see around me are smoking.

Just like the the preacher in Ecclesiastes says, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” and “All is vanity.”

I’m off today to embrace my brothers and sisters at the convention of the Mennonite Church-USA.

My New Beginning: to walk around the block near the convention center several times. And to drink lots of water! This may be a very good place to finish shedding a few pounds.

What’s your New Beginning? Please log it here. It’s easy.  I LOVE reading what you are up to. Yesterday one of you consciously chose a new item on the menu because she wanted another New Beginning.



Shirley Showalter


  1. Joan on July 2, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    That’s a great paradox now. At the time nobody knew the true danger that tobacco packed. Just drove down through North Carolina. Still lots of tobacco growing there, but this time noticed wheat growing in the fields for the first time. Though to some wheat is also a hazard, some folks are listening to the truth about tobacco and smoking.

    • shirleyhs on July 2, 2013 at 5:54 pm

      True, Joan. It’s hard for people living now to remember the Madmen era either of smoking or farming. And this crop had the advantage of being very communal. It kept a family busy for winter months as well as spring, summer, and fall.

  2. Marian Beaman on July 2, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    I love how your Dad outwitted you in the tobacco worm story, perhaps unwittingly.

    You know all about my parents’ switch from tobacco to tomato farming and my Uncle Landis’ cigars in my “Tomato Girl” post. But you don’t know about the smokers on the Martin side of the family.

    Uncle Joe nearly burned his fingers with a match lighting his pipe as he talked about the world going up in smoke. Everybody worried about Communism then. The dangers of smoking? Not so much.

  3. shirleyhs on July 2, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Ha! You have a great comic spirit, Marian. Of course, today in Phoenix, I can observe that it’s smokin’ hot.

  4. diane on July 3, 2013 at 9:59 am

    reminds me of a conversation about marijuana at a colorado church coffee hour. a woman of advanced years says, “i don’t use the stuff, but i don’t see why we couldn’t grow it as a crop.”

  5. shirleyhs on July 3, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Diane, that woman must have grown up on a farm. 🙂

  6. Sherrey Meyer on July 3, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Growing up in TN, I fondly remember the Sunday afternoon drives daddy used to take us on, and I can see the fields of the green tobacco plants. You need to know daddy was a two-pack/day smoker. What I couldn’t believe was that something that looked so nasty came from such a beautiful plant! Now, we know that plant had some nastiness unidentified in the early 1950s. Loved reading your story of your daddy and the tobacco worm, Shirley.

    Enjoy your conference and time with your Mennonite brothers and sisters. Although not quite as warm there, Portland is experiencing 90+ days and early on even a smarting level of humidity. The days are improving!

    My new beginning today is to not complain about the heat and dry weather we’re having when so many are losing so much in other areas of our country.

    • shirleyhs on July 3, 2013 at 2:20 pm

      Tobacco is beautiful, isn’t it? No wonder it was a sacred plant to the native Americans. I love the way all the rows in the picture above go back to a vanishing point at the end of the field. I remember how long these rows were when we weeded and suckered every plant by hand!

      Thanks for the good wishes. You have such an obvious compassionate heart, Sherrey. I really appreciate all your comments.

  7. Marilyn N. on July 15, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    I learned my multiplication tables in the stripping room not far from your farm!

    • shirleyhs on July 16, 2013 at 9:04 am

      Stripping room, isn’t that a great name? One could write a whole book on tobacco farming and its positive impact on family life, despite its obvious other deficiencies.

      Paradoxes everywhere!

      I like to think of two little girls growing up without knowing each other but with really similar influences. I always enjoy your comments.

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