This was to be a different type of trip – it didn’t involve a letter and it didn’t involve a hotel. Rather, it was more based off a memory of my Mother’s – that she had visited a tobacco field with her Father when she was a little girl. She thought it was in Connecticut, but a little known fact is that in Western Massachusetts, tobacco is also grown. In particular, Broadleaf tobacco is the type of tobacco that is grown in Massachusetts. It appears that the humidity around the Connecticut River, south of Greenfield and into the northern part of Connecticut, creates the ideal growing situation for this type of tobacco. This tobacco also seems to be mainly used as cigar wrappers. I started off by googling “tobacco farms in Western Massachusetts” and found a 2018 Hampshire Gazette article about tobacco farming making a return in Hatfield (https://www.gazettenet.com/Tobacco-farming-a-family-tradition-in-Valley-19592674). Since the Hatfield Historical Society was mentioned, I emailed the director to see if she could help point me in the right direction. In the same search, was an article also detailing a fall foliage tour in the Connecticut River Valley and the tobacco sheds (https://www.providencejournal.com/article/20131103/LIFESTYLE/311039906) I also reached out to the authors of that article and they did respond to my request and recommended the two books that they had published on the topic of tobacco sheds. I did purchase: Tobacco Sheds: Vanishing Treasures in the Connecticut River Valley and the book did supply me with a little information on tobacco sheds in various towns.
Originally, I had planned on doing this trip on Monday, September 30th as I had the day off from school. Another part of my thinking was to visit the Tea Guys in Whatley, who make some great teas. However, they are only open on the weekends and after several weeks of really long work days, I decided it was perhaps best to take it slow instead on that day. Do some more research. Go through my 1936 book on Massachusetts. Read more about tobacco sheds. And during my research, I found a newly published article from the Greenfield Recorder, published on September 15th, titled The valley has rich history of growing tobacco (https://www.recorder.com/History-of-tobacco-in-Pioneer-Valley-27429701). This article mainly focused on the tobacco history of the little town of Whatley (same place as where the tea was made), so suddenly instead of wandering around trying to find the tobacco sheds I decided to focus on Whatley and on the farms mentioned in this article. From my 1937 Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and People, Whatley was described as: “(pop. 1133, sett. 1672, incorp 1771), named by Governor Hutchinson for Thomas Whately of England. Although primarily an agricultural community, a variety of articles have been made here from time to time, including machinist tools, brooms, spinning wheels, and pottery. Today the chielf products are tobacco and onions.” (p. 564). The 2010 population of Whatley was 1496. Folks in Whatley had been growing tobacco since 1771. Right before the Civil War, there were 97 tobacco barns in Whatley and right after the Civil War ended, there were 300 acres of tobacco crops. The article also mentioned two current tobacco farms: Westbrook Farm and Fairview Farm. I googled both locations: I found really nothing on Westbrook Farm, but for Fairview Farm, I was fortunate that it had both a website and a Facebook page. It was interesting though that both sources mentioned growing annual flowers and tomatoes and neither mentioned tobacco. On the website, there was a contact form, so I wrote the following message:
Message: Hi, as part of a research project that I am doing on my grandfather, who was a tobacco salesman, I would love to learn more about this crop. My mother remembers visiting tobacco farms in Western Massachusetts in the 1930s. I am traveling out to this area this coming Saturday and I learned of your farm in an article in the Greenfield Recorder, and would love to learn more. Best, Susan
I sent it out and got excited about my upcoming trip on Saturday – which I now was calling “The Tobacco and Tea Tour.” Taking this day to do more research was a great decision as I felt more prepared going forward with this trip.
On Saturday morning it was rather chilly, a stark contrast to my last trips where shorts and a tank top were my usual attire. It was the type of morning that it actually felt good to pull on my favorite green Gap sweater, comfortable pants, and yes, a light parka. I had not heard from Fairview Farm, but I had its address, so I figured I would go there, then to another potential Whatley Farm, the Tea Guys, then off to Hatfield to the Hatfield Historical Society, the Hatfield Farm Museum, and then end up in Amherst, where I had not been since Christopher graduated from Amherst College in 2012. At 7:20 a.m. Sage and I pulled out of the garage, a cup of hot tea replacing the usual stop at a Dunky for an ice tea and we headed west on Route 117. The route out to Whatley would be partially familiar as I would be following Route 62 through Sterling, Princeton, Hubbardston, and into Barre (the official end of Route 62 on the western side). From there, I would head Route 122 through Petershalm and onto Route 202, a road that I was quite familiar with since that was the way to Amherst. And then, the backroads to Whatley would begin, traversing through Shutesbury, East Leverett, and Leverett, before intersecting with Route 116 in Sunderland. From there, I would cross over the Connecticut River on the Sunderland Bridge and look for Pine Street that would lead me to Long Plain Road in Whatley. Despite the cold temperatures, the sun was shining and the sky a brilliant blue as I headed west. The intersection of Route 62 and Route 31 in the picturesque town of Princeton has a stunning view of the valley. Heading towards Barre, there are rolling hills and Barre Falls Dam area on your left. Barre Center is also a quinitentisal New England Center. Heading west on Route 122, I passed Stone Cow Brewery, the eastern end of the Swift River, and several beautiful ponds that were circled with changing trees and that a morning fog gave them a mystical appearance. My 8 mile segment on Route 202 was familiar as much of what is on that stretch of the road had not changed since I had last been there seven years ago. Turning right onto Prescott Road, I got that feeling of once again being off the beaten trail as I passed through small hamlets, stretches of just green, and rolling hills. On Bull Hill Road in Sunderland, I thought I passed a tobacco barn, but kept on going and I was shortly on Route 116, where I was quickly brought back into the feel of being in a college town. I saw the first Dunkin Donuts since Stow, plenty of traffic lights, and a funky looking hill that stood out in front of me. The Sunderland Bridge is a pretty bridge that crosses over the Connecticut River. There were several tourists on the sidewalk taking a selfie of themselves, the river and the funky hill. I passed through several more sets of traffic lights before turning left onto Pine Street, which then turned quickly into Long Plain Road. And very quickly on that road, there was a tobacco shed on the left, surrounded by truck trailers. I pulled over and grabbed a quick photo, as I was feeling pretty confident that I might find one further down the road that might still have some tobacco in it.
And I was right. Just a stone’s throw down Long Plain Road, mixed in between some sort of industrial area, complete with the Whatley Town Offices and an animal eye care facility, sat several of these tobacco sheds, complete with tobacco hanging inside. Excitedly, at 9:20 a.m., after 75 miles, I pulled over on Sandy Road and jumped out of the car to check it out. A series of tractors stood guard to the side of this barn and a truck said “Fairview Farms”, so I knew, I was at an actual farm that still harvested tobacco. The tobacco shed/barn is a very interesting structure. These barns are very long – I think I read somewhere that they could be up to 100 feet in length. On the sides are openings with slats that look like they can cover the openings. There are also propane tanks outside the shed and smaller heaters inside the shed.
The tobacco itself was hanging from racks that went the entire length of the shed. While it was mostly a brownish-tan color, there were still pieces of a bright green on parts of the plant. What also struck me was the odor of the plant. It had a very pungent, earthy odor to it. I am not a cigar fan, but I was wondering if this is what a cigar smells like when it is first made.
I went back into Sage and drove a little to the turn around at Sandy Road when I thought I should take a picture of my Grandparents. If my mother remembers visiting a tobacco farm, I was sure that my Grandmother had also been a part of that road trip. So, I went to the shed that was behind the first one to do their photo. On the ground was a lonely tobacco leaf. It is a large leaf. According to a seed site, these leaves can get up to be 26 inches in length and 13 inches in width.
Getting back into the car, I knew I was going to look at another farm on Christian Lane, before heading to the Tea Guys, also on Christian Lane. Continuing south on Long Plain Road, I came upon a field on the left that had been tilled and thought it was probably where those tobacco plants came from. Across from that field sat many greenhouses and trailers, which served as the office for Fairview Farm. Christian Lane was not too far up; however the other farm didn’t look to be more than than a small farmstand, so I didn’t stop there. The Tea Guys Factory Room was just up the road, but it wasn’t going to be opened for another 25 minutes. Needing a bathroom break, and perhaps an ice tea, I decided to head back to the Dunkin Donuts in Sunderland to do a little writing and refueling before heading back to the Tea Guys.
When I arrived back at the Dunkin Donuts, there was a long line of mostly college students there to get their morning coffee. Standing in line, I went to check my email on my phone. And there it was…from Fairview Farm. A message that said, “Hi Susan, Give me a call on my cell…..Alan”. That Alan was the owner of Fairview Farm. I got my ice tea and excitedly rushed back to my car to call him. I told him I was right down the road in Sunderland and could I meet up with him to learn about his tobacco farm. Graciously, he said to come on and meet him at the Fairview Farms office (where I had just been). Since I knew exactly where I was going, it was an easy ride to get back there. Pulling in, I noticed that Sage was the only non-pick-up truck in the dusty parking lot. I got out of the car and headed towards one of the pick-up trucks. Alan Sanderson and his dog got out of the truck. We shook hands and I told him about my project. He asked if I would like to see the operation and I replied “absolutely”. He offered to take me in his truck, but I thought I would just follow him in Sage (keeping in mind to not get into cars with strangers!). We crossed the road, and headed towards Sandy Road, but instead of heading down the road, we veered onto a dirt road, where Sage would experience her first off-roading adventure. We kept going way to the back field that I had spied when I was there earlier. We both got out of our cars, along with his friendly dog and headed towards the shed.
Alan shared with me that his son was now the 9th generation farmer and that his family has been farming since 1680. While there are many Polish immigrants who settled in this area, Alan’s family is not one of those families, but probably more like his family moved here when Massachusetts was being settled in the 1600s. His son is continuing the farming career which when talking to Alan later, he feels grateful that he has his son to continue the family business. Alan works with his brother as well. Their dad died in 2012. Alan was explaining to me that dairy farms have hit on really hard economic times and many dairy farmers don’t encourage their children to go into that type of farming.
I had the opportunity to learn first hand about the manufacture of tobacco. In April, tobacco seeds are planted and grown in the greenhouse. These seeds are very small and get coated before planting. After about two months, the plants are transplanted to the fields, where it stays for another two months before it is harvested. This next few parts seems to be really labor intensive. Alan and his family have a crew of Jamaicans that work on the farm for ten months of the year. Many of these workers have been at this farm for a number of years. When the plant is being harvested, the whole plant is cut. This is done by hand because it is really important that the leaves not be damaged or the plant is not really usable for cigars. Once it is cut, each stalk is roped together and hung on a board with nails that sits across a trailer. The trailer use to be pulled by a horse, but now is pulled by a tractor. The boards and the plants are now pulled to the tobacco barn, where they are hung five stories high and take up the whole length of the barn. There are also propane heaters in the barn, because as Alan explained to me, the tobacco needs to dry at a consistent pace. During this process, the sides of the barn are open to keep it damp, but the slats can be closed in the rain. After about two months, the tobacco is taken down. The whole crew participates in this task and it takes about a day to get all the tobacco down. Once it is down, they are put into a pile and then all the leaves are stripped from the stem. Again, this process needs to be done carefully as it is important not to get any holes in the leaves. The leaves are boxed into 33 pound boxes and sent to either the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, or Ecuador to be made into cigars (which are cured over a two year period).
We had a very interesting conversation about the impact of the 2008 Recession on the tobacco industry in Western Massachusetts. Before this happened there were seven local farms, but afterwards, there were only two tobacco farms left in Whatley. In 2010, they had grown a huge crop, that was valued at about $1.25 million dollars. However, the bottom had fallen out of the tobacco market and he only received $250,000 for that crop. Fairview Farms went from 34 tobacco barns to only six tobacco farms. After that, they decided to add some additional crops. They grow a million mums for a company based in Sudbury and grow greenhouse tomatoes that they sell to local markets through January.
I asked Alan about that funky hill that was protruding from pretty flat ground. He told me it was Mount Sugarloaf and that I should ride up to the top to get a good perspective of where the farms are located in relationship to the river. He also graciously brought me into the office and showed me pictures of his family through the years. I was beyond touched by his willingness to tell a perfect stranger his story and wondered why the Greenfield Recorder only went off a story from Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture’s website (https://www.buylocalfood.org/local-hero-profile-fairview-farms-inc/) . This was an awesome moment during this little research project and I am grateful to Alan for his time and his tour of their tobacco crop.
After this great tour, I was excited to learn more about another product made here in Whatley: tea. I was first introduced to Tea Guys tea at Brothers Marketplace in Weston. They had many really unique flavors and soon, I was buying boxes of their tea to enjoy both at home and at school. There is a small store here in Maynard that also sells some of their products. Since I like loose tea, I started ordering from them recently and have been pleased with the quality of the tea, the cost of the tea, and the timeliness of receiving the order. But since it is actually made in Massachusetts, I was hoping one day to get out to the actual location to purchase my tea. And on October 5th, I finally did get there.
Tea Guys is located in a wooden long building on Christian Lane in Whatley. It was really easy to find and there was plenty of parking available. I am new to being a Tea Guys fan, but according to information that they had at the store, they have been hand blending teas since 2002. According to the young woman working at the counter, the company has five full time employees that do all the hand mixing of the teas. The actual tea comes from either China or Japan. The teabags are also environmentally friendly as they are biodegradable. Inside the tasting room/factory store are lots of different teas – so many in fact, that it was at first easier to just walk around to see all the different teas before settling in on one particular type of tea. An interesting type of tea sold in the store was the Congressman McGovern Mix. The box featured the congressman with signs saying “End Hunger Now!”, “Stop Food Waste”, “Food is a Right!”, and “Support Our Local Farmers”. Also on the box is a description that one of McGovern’s favorite projects is to help stop hunger in our communities. I am not sure if the Tea Guys do other projects like this one to promote supporting local food banks, but it gave me even more of a reason to keep supporting this local tea crafter, who proudly proclaims that the tea is “crafted with care in Massachusetts”. After purchasing a variety of loose and bagged teas, I headed back to my car. It was really interesting to learn about two products, produced about one mile away from one another and both starting with the letter “T”.
After Alan’s suggestion to go up Mount Sugarloaf to really get a good perspective of the river and the tobacco fields, I decided to forgo my visit to the Hatfied Historical Society and Hatfield Farm Museum. My time with Alan would be far better than going to a museum that may have a little bit about tobacco, so I headed back out to Route 116 and took a quick left to enter Mount Sugarloaf State Reservation. Since it had turned out to be a gorgeous day, there were a lot of people hiking up the narrow, twisting road, in addition to a lot of cars coming down the mountain, which made it for a tight ride.
Towards the summit, the road became one-way. As I rounded a big corner, the Connecticut River valley appeared on my right. It was a stunning view of the meandering river, surrounded by fields of green and white steeples in the background. I reached the parking area and headed towards the summit of what is South Sugarloaf Mountain, which is 652 feet high. North Sugarloaf Mountain is slightly higher at 791 feet. There are hiking trails that connect the two mountains. Mount Sugarloaf is a butte type of mountain. According to Wikipedia, a butte is “an isolated hill with steep, often vertical sides and a small, relatively flat top.” The 360 degree view from the summit was spectacular. I could view where I was earlier with Alan – the tobacco sheds were still visible from this vantage point. The Connecticut River snaked through the green valley, while in the background were white steeples and turning leaves. Alan said that between the humidity of the summers and the cold winters, it made this area prime for growing tobacco. After spending about 30 minutes on the summit on this brilliant fall day, I decided to really throw my plans in the air and go to a place I had always wanted to explore: Montague. One of the mini-regrets of my trips this summer was not allowing myself time to explore different places. Today, I decided not to follow a “plan” and be more spontaneous.
I had long heard and read of this little book store on the banks of a river in Montague. In my Guide to Massachusetts book, it only states that at one time, Montague had one of the largest hydro-electric plants in New England and that there was also a large fishing tackle plant located there. I was heading for the Montague Mill,
which sits on the Sawmill River. It was a pretty quick and pleasant ride and heading down a steep, winding hill, there was the equally winding brick building. I knew of the book store and thought there was a cafe, so I was even more surprised to find a variety of shops and restaurants on the site. I saw seating down below the bookstore, so asked in the bookstore where the restaurant was located. They pointed me to a door on the left, which led to an intimate dining area that overlooked the river. I went up to the counter, looked over the menu and immediately, the special of the day – a Kielbasa, Brie & Chutney Panini stood out to me. The Lady Killigrew also had an interesting selection of iced teas (as well as other beverages). I decided to order a Hibiscus-Tangerine Iced Tea to go along with my sandwich. I was asked if I was going to eat outside or inside and I said outside, how do I get to the seats below. The counter person said those tables belonged to a different establishment and their outside seating was in the alley. Initially, I was disappointed until I found a spectacular table, perched high over the river amongst the grape vines. While I waited for my food, I admired the brilliant blue sky set against the brick red sides of the old factory. My food and drink arrived and was absolutely delicious.
After eating, I ventured back into the Book Mill – advertised as “books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.” This two story bookstore was full of all sorts of books and many nooks and crannies where you could curl up and read, or write while looking out over the river, or meet with others on long wooden tables. The store also holds musical events throughout the year. I loved the feel of this establishment and could easily see this as being someplace that I would love to come again and curl up and read and write. With modern GPS, the store was really easy to find!
I parked my car right outside of a cute little art gallery, Sawmill River Arts. You can access this gallery either from the street side or from a fire escape stairway from the alley below. Once inside, there are many beautiful local artisans who display their goods there. You could find paintings, photographs, beautiful cloth, jewelry, cards, pottery, and other really unique items. I was looking for a gift for a friend and there were so many ideas, that I had to circle around several times. One little piece caught me eye – a little watercolor of the ocean and clouds with a cairn in the middle. But the cairn was actually made out of small polished stones. The little card said “Cairn: gives reassurance to the hiker of being on the right path; memoriam to the deceased; meditation for those seeking balance.” There was many other items by this artist, including a lot of scenes with little owls. I decided to buy this little painting for myself and went to purchase my item and my friend’s gift. When I went to check out, the artist at the register was painting little owls on stone. I showed her my purchase, which was she also did. Her name is Tracy Jordan, and these items are described as “watercolor backgrounds with mixed media foregrounds with elements lovingly collected from beaches, rivers, meadows or forests and then transformed into owls, cairns, sailboats, seals, swans, and laundry lines.” We enjoyed a delightful conversation for about 30 minutes. It was such a lovely ending to a lovely day in Western Massachusetts, which was full of wonderful “finds”. I am glad that it didn’t work out to go on the 30th as this day was pretty much picture perfect from start to end.