Growing, Curing and Using His Own Smokeless Tobacco
Former Dallas Cowboys star Walt Garrison once was a TV pitchman for smokeless tobacco and his advice to viewers to put "a pinch between yer cheek and gum" became a popular catch phrase similar to one from the old lady who’d ask "Where’s the beef?" in her hamburger commercial.
Tobacco of all kinds has fallen out of favor since Garrison’s heyday back in the ’60s, but Henry Jones of rural Marengo County hasn’t let increased warnings about cancer possibilities get to him.
He even grows his own before curing and sweetening it with apple juice and other additives. Then, he puts "just a pinch" between his cheek and gum as he relaxes under a shade tree in the backyard.
"I don’t think chewing tobacco hurts you a bit," he said. "Now, cigarettes, that’s something else. I don’t like ’em. Never did."
The former paper mill welder doesn’t buy his chewing tobacco from a store. He just sits back and waits for his own product to age and then slices off what he wants at the moment.
At the age of 69, he’s happily married, retired and entering the twilight of his years enjoying his favorite hobby—growing and using his own tobacco.
He didn’t jump into it willy-nilly, either. He did his research first, using the family computer to check out the right way to grow tobacco on home soil.
Jones has plenty of that to go around—hundreds of acres of timberland to use for growing, harvesting and curing his tobacco.
He bought a tobacco-growing book, but it didn’t help much because it concentrated on producing the kind you light and smoke.
Eventually, Jones learned enough to buy the seeds he’d need and began to plant his first crop. That was about eight years ago. His first effort wasn’t anything to brag about, but, in time, he got what he wanted and has been happily producing what he set out to do.
"Mine was through trial-and-error," he said, as he discharged some tobacco juice onto the ground next to his favorite chair outside the house he and wife Margrie have enjoyed for several years. "I didn’t get much the first year, but it got better each year after that."
When he started, he planted six rows of tobacco. Then, he cut it in half and focused on producing the best crop available.
Jones begins the process by growing his tobacco in a bed before transplanting it into one of the rows he’s carved out between thousands of pine trees.
When the tobacco leaves begin to grow, there’s no stopping them until Jones picks out the best ones. By that time, many of the plants are taller than he is.
Tobacco leaves mature at the bottom of the stalks and when they’re ready to pick, Jones de-veins them. After that he washes, dries and treats the leaves before twisting them into the shape he desires. Then he inserts them onto bamboo sticks during one of the final procedures.
Before he’s ready to start chewing, though, Jones patiently waits for the tobacco leaves to dry and mature inside a metal curing shed he built himself near his house located about 15 miles of the county seat in Linden.
It’s a lengthy process, but he doesn’t get too antsy because good harvests provide him with plenty of twisty tobacco to slice off just what he needs.
His mixture of apple juice, sugar, honey, syrup and maple flavoring takes some of the bite out of his tobacco, but, even with sweeteners his chaw can pack a bit of a wallop. He calls the mixture his "sauce."
Alabama is known for its cotton production along with row crops, peaches and other agricultural plants, but tobacco has never been popular. Now and then some adventuresome farmer will try, but it rarely materializes into anything profitable.
Money wasn’t what Jones had in mind anyway when he undertook his tobacco project. It’s strictly a hobby for him and he plans to continue growing it until he takes his last chew and spits out his final juicy residue.
"I haven’t bought any chewing tobacco in years," he said. "One of the best things about it is the fact it’s chemical and tax-free."
After working nearly 40 years, including 10 years as a senior welder for paper mills throughout Alabama’s Black Belt, Jones is taking advantage of retirement. He likes to try his hand at a variety of things besides tobacco harvesting.
He’s a rugged man’s man and hunting is one of his passions. A big room in his house is testimony to his skills with a rifle and shotgun.
In one corner is a large, stuffed brown bear he nailed during an expedition to the wilds of the great Northwest. Across the room is a large black bear that’s been turned into a rug. Deer heads and antlers line the walls.
The dangers of tobacco have grown through the years, but Jones isn’t worried, even though some studies insist chewing tobacco can lead to tongue and lip cancer and be just as life-threatening as two or three packs of cigarettes a day.
"My daddy and granddaddy either chewed or dipped (snuff)," he said. "I had an uncle who died this year at the age of 97 and he chewed all his life."
Jones doesn’t like to smoke cigarettes or cigars and is turned off by pipes, too. His biggest enjoyment is sitting in his backyard easy chair and just chewing and spitting the day away.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) has stepped up its crusade against smoking in all forms and smokeless tobacco has been getting its share of criticism in recent years.
"All forms of oral tobacco have chemicals known to cause cancer," according to the ACS. "These products can cause cancer of the mouth, pancreas and esophagus."
The organization noted, although smokeless tobacco is considered less lethal than cigarettes, a cancer danger still exists "and it is not a safe alternative to smoking."
Henry Jones doesn’t spend his time reading reports from the ACS and he isn’t sharing his hobby with others.
"It’s for me," he said. "I don’t believe chewing is as dangerous as smoking and I’ve been doing it for a long time."
He underlined that contention by squirting some tobacco juice onto the ground near his chair.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.