When I was about 16, I went to work at Consolidated Cigar Corp. in Broad Brook, Conn. Shade-grown tobacco, under tent-cloth. I bicycled over there every morning in the summer. One of my first jobs in June 1957 was tying.
All the tobacco plants had to be tied up with a string, to a wire overhead, to keep them from flopping over in bad weather. There were about 30 plants in a “bent” that was 30 feet long. We got paid about 11 cents per bent, as piecework, so we got pretty good at it. Even the first week, I got up above 10 bents per hour.
The basic deal was to make a “lark’s foot” per the bottom of the sketch. Take the tail of the string, reach it around the stalk of the plant, and poke it into the loop. Then snug up the string, so the lark’s foot grabs the tail—and stand up and break the string as you rise. And make a quick clove hitch over the horizontal wire, as shown up at the top. Then, dive down low, making the next lark’s foot as your hands descend.
Repeat as needed—about 10,000 knots per day. With most kinds of cord or rope, a lark’s foot does not make a good grasp of the tail. But the string we used was so soft, it made a very stable and reliable knot.
And how did this string keep the tobacco plant from flopping over? The next task was twisting. We had to go back and spiral the string around the stalk a couple times, as it grew taller, so that kept it from being knocked down in wind or rain or heat.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
By my second year I was up to 18 and 20 bents per hour. In those days, $2 per hour was pretty good pay for a kid. We were very competitive about tying a lot. We figured out strategies to avoid wasting time.
For example, I would tie every even plant on the way up the row, and on the way back, I’d tie the odd ones. Sometimes I would use a small ball of string and pull the string from the inside, so I never had to throw the ball, but just let it lie there. I was very careful to avoid wasting string. Sometimes the straw-bosses would start to hassle me, but I never goofed up.
When you start on a bent, there isn’t much tension on the wire. Every time you add a string, the wire would sag a bit lower. We had to compensate for this sag and never let the strings get too tight nor too loose, even when the wire sagged.
By my third year, I could average 20 bents per hour for 7.4 hours. (They threw us out of the fields about 4:40 p.m. so we could get on the bus and go home.) There was one young woman, Sandra, who could tie about 19.7 bents per hour. For a slim gal who was an inch shorter than me, I thought that was a very gutsy performance. I was impressed. She, and many of the girls, had to put Band Aids on their fingers so the string wouldn’t cut them too much. But she never beat me, over a day.
Anyhow, after about three weeks of tying, we were in good shape but all worn out and ready for other tasks. I did about 40 different tasks on that farm. It really was quite educational. I did almost every task except plowing and transplanting. Those came too early in the season, when I was still in school.
And here’s something I found quite amusing that I only found out 45 years later. Our paymaster Helen was in her office one day, and two serious men drove up from headquarters in Wethersfield.
“We want to see about this Bob Pease who is cheating the company. Nobody can tie at 20 bents per hour,” they said. Helen shrugged and told them where we were working that day. She told them, “He really can tie 20 bents an hour. I see him do it every day.”
They went out and watched me. I was doing about 21 bents in an hour. I would have done an even better amount, but we had to walk 150 yards between fields. They went away. I never saw them or talked with them. I guess they were mollified.
I only learned of this a few years ago. I sure did laugh! So I tied about a half-million knots in my three years and never did tying again. But it was fun when we were doing it.
Comments invited! [email protected] —or: R.A. Pease, 682 Miramar Avenue San Francisco, Ca 94112-1232