Tusculum history major to study burley tobacco’s impact on Greene County’s economy and identity

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GREENEVILLE – For a century, burley tobacco played a prominent role in Greene County’s economy and identity.

Young woman smiling

Samantha Nelson

That changed significantly in the early 2000s, when the U.S. government ended federal support of tobacco farming through a buyout program. The glory days for tobacco production concluded, leading Greene County residents to seek other revenue sources to help drive the economy and farmers to adjust. Tobacco cultivation in the county had been falling prior to the government’s change in policy, but that federal action accelerated the decline.

This summer, Samantha Nelson, a Tusculum University freshman history major, will revisit and highlight burley tobacco’s impact on East Tennessee, focusing her efforts on Greene County and the Horse Creek community. She will receive financial assistance for her research as a member of the 2021 class of Ledford Scholars, a prestigious program of the Appalachian College Association.

“In this research project, the overall question is: How did burley tobacco agriculture shape the land and the people of East Tennessee and Horse Creek specifically in the 20th century?” Nelson said. “I want to understand why farmers in Greene County – and Horse Creek specifically – embraced burley tobacco farming. A goal of mine is to learn how this cultivation of tobacco shaped not only the land but also the people in these areas. And finally, I want to research the tobacco buyout program and how that affected farmers in the East Tennessee region.”

Nelson will glean the answers to some of her questions through transcription of interviews Tusculum faculty members conducted with residents of Horse Creek, which lies in the Southeast section of Greene County, in the 1980s. The Tennessee Committee for the Humanities funded that project, and Nelson said the interviews in part provide insight into the way tobacco farming served as a foundation for the community.

Her research will not be limited to Horse Creek, however. Her project consists of looking at the entire Greene County tobacco culture and the way it influenced people’s lives. Nelson will examine how tobacco production fit within the larger context of agriculture and rural life in Greene County.

Dr. Peter Noll, associate professor of public history and museum studies, said tobacco was a major reason Greene County did not lose population in the 20th century. He said that retention in population ran counter to the trend for rural counties in the United States.

In her initial research that led to her being named a Ledford Scholar, Nelson discovered tobacco arrived in the Appalachian region through early settlers but did not become a major crop in Greene County until a man named Clisby Austin brought burley tobacco here in the 1880s. By the early 1900s, the county produced more than 1 million pounds of burley tobacco a year, creating economic growth. Later, Greene County became the epicenter of burley tobacco production in the Mountain South, she said.

Nelson said burley tobacco grew well in this area.

“Burley tobacco acclimated nicely to East Tennessee due to the region’s climate, and the short growing season for this crop aligned with the weather patterns of this area,” Nelson said. “Silt loams and clay loams were most suited for this tobacco, and the average rainfall of about 50 inches allowed the tobacco plant to never be dry.”

She also detailed the major effect on Greene County and Horse Creek of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of the 1930s. This federal act limited the amount of acreage in a tobacco farm but set a minimum price for tobacco below which sales could not fall. It also provided an incentive for farmers to remain in the region instead of seeking employment elsewhere.

Nelson will examine how the federal government became involved in the tobacco markets, how the U.S. programs changed over time and what the implications of those revisions were.

Noll said Nelson’s research will be a valuable endeavor.

“Samantha’s project will help people more fully understand the longtime connection of tobacco to this region,” Dr. Noll said. “Her work will successfully examine more than just the economic influence of tobacco but the product’s effect on the whole community dynamic. Samantha has demonstrated quality research skills in her studies at Tusculum, and I am confident the results of her examination will elicit fruitful information that will shed light a major part of Horse Creek’s and Greene County’s history.”