Windsor (Google Maps Location)
April 7, 2007
2018 Update: Oof. I cringe at these super old pages… anyway, this page used to combine the tobacco museum, now named the Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum, and the Northwest Park Nature Center. I’ve separated the two which makes for a somewhat clunky page.
CTMQ (né Connecticut MuseumQuest) co-founder EdHill moved to Washington DC in mid-March 2007. I vowed to continue the quest despite this rather consequential blow. I would drag my family and other friends along with me to spread the fun of learning about Connecticut history and miscellanea. Then a funny thing happened; EdHill insisted on making museum visits with me as much as he could. He was/is so dedicated, in fact, that he drove the 350 miles or so on Easter weekend in order to learn about the rich history of tobacco farming in the fertile Connecticut River valley at the Luddy/Taylor Museum in Windsor! EdHill, in a word, rules.
Luckily for him – because he really wanted to hit this particular museum. Seriously, after I soloed the Edward E. King Museum of Tobacco and Aviation, he mentioned that he wanted to be sure to see another tobacco museum in the state.
And so here we are – Damian and I, just a few weeks later back at Northwest Park in Windsor.
Ok, let’s learn about tobacco farming! We were once again greeted by the same sweet curator who seemed quite eager to give us the tour. She didn’t care that we had a one year old with us; we were going to get the full explanation no matter what. One is never too young to learn about the rich history of Connecticut’s relationship with shade tobacco, right?
Right. The woman’s name was Marian Nielsen and she was wonderful. The Luddy/Taylor Museum was more or less hers to run and keep up, and her pride was evident at every display. The one room museum area had multiple displays tracing tobacco farming from colonial days through today. Way back in the colonial days, farmers here grew nasty ol’ broadleaf tobacco plants, which was fine for smoking back then I guess. Then one day, someone noticed the plants grown on Sumatra were much nicer so they planted those seeds in the fertile CT River Valley.
When they grew, the leaves got sunburnt and thick and veiny and the tobacco wasn’t good at all. Hmmm, what to do. Someone thought to cover the plants in cotton cheesecloth after noticing the growing season in Sumatra was cloudy. Voila! Not only did the covering protect the plants, but it raised the humidity under the tent and kept out bugs – basically mimicking Sumatra without the pests. The plants grew beautifully and the leaves were supple and perfect.
The Connecticut shade tobacco industry was born on River Road in the Poquonock section of Windsor. John Luddy made a fortune selling the cheesecloth for the tobacco farms and even got a museum partially named after him. A museum that EdHill, Damian, and I were enjoying very much. Who knew there was so much to learn about tobacco farming?
The rich valley initially stretched from Portland, CT up to Brattleboro, VT, but over time the size has diminished greatly. The process to grow this stuff is very costly (about $30,000 per acre) and labor intensive. And yet, even today, CT shade is still considered the finest wrap tobacco in the world, fetching up to 4 times more money than the next best type. Today in Connecticut there are still about 2000 acres of tobacco farmland left – as any visitor who flies into Bradley Airport can tell you. All around the airport in Windsor Locks the signature billowing white tenting can be seen from high above during late summers (it’s synthetic today, but the principle remains).
While Ms. Nielsen schooled Ed on the various immigrant and child labor classes that have come and gone to work the CT fields, I tried to occupy and entertain Damian. He was being very good and took to reading some magazines – and what one year old doesn’t enjoy a nice issue of “Cigar Aficionado?”
None that I know of, that’s for sure:
We all learned about the incredibly tedious process of tobacco farm tenting. The plants themselves are incredibly easy to grow – tobacco is a weed. The seeds are nearly microscopic and the rate of growth is simply amazing. These plants can grow up to 4 inches a day when conditions are right – they go from an inch or two high to 10 feet in a matter of 3 months or so. The tents are still put up by men, and each individual plant is still tied up by men. They must be spaced perfectly and protected from everything from hail to bugs to sunlight to dryness to people touching the leaves.
I can’t think of a much worse job in the world to be honest with you. Marian went on to explain more about the harvesting and the evolution of the implements used to do so. I tuned out at this point and wandered off with Damian for a little while. I found a little anteroom which housed the Francis M. Lutwinas Memorial Book Collection. Apparently this Lutwinas character really enjoyed books about tobacco, because that’s all that was there. Geeze, talk about a specialized interest.
In the same room was a little TV and VCR set up. We could have watched a 30 minute video about the Windsor area’s tobacco farming. No thanks, I think Marian is doing a mighty fine job of it. Hmmm, I wondered what Ed was up to out there? (I could still hear the tour fine, mind you.) “Gordon Taylor ran the Agricultural Experiment station in town and in his retirement helped to prepare the displays at the museum which opened to the public in 1992,” Marian was explaining. Ah, so now we’ve learned the second identity of the Museum’s namesakes. Good, that question was eating me up – and I know you as well.
There was a display of so-called tobacco flannels in the little library room, which were put in cigar boxes 100 years ago or so to lure more woman buyers. It wasn’t until later that tobacco companies learned that children is where the real money is I suppose. Speaking of kids, Damian was getting fidgety so we returned to the tour and enjoyed an old humidifier, as well as some old cigar rolling tools which Marian described as, “I have no idea how these things work.” That’s fair, a person can’t know everything!
As we wrapped up the first part of the tour, we learned some of the cigar brands that use CT shade tobacco today. I wouldn’t know one from the other, of course, but I’m sure it’s an impressive list. “The best in the world,” we were told. Which reminds me… Anyone who thinks for some reason that Cuban cigars are somehow better than say, Dominican cigars is nothing more than a sucker for the cache of the illicit nature of Cubans. They are grown in the same exact climate on the same exact soil type people! And besides, the good Dominicans use CT shade, so stick with what’s legal anyway.
We made our way over to the drying barn which was filled with old and new farming tools and machines. The Luddy/Taylor Museum is very well put together and much, much more varied and interesting than I’d ever thought. Marian showed us how the barn had side flaps built into it that allowed a breeze to help dry the tobacco leaves – a pretty cool trick I thought.
There’s only so much that can be said about old farm equipment so we quickly made our way through the barn. Not that it wasn’t impressive – it was! But it wasn’t heated and Damian was starting to get a little fussy at this point. And what do we do with Fussy Gussies? Why, we pull them in sleds and call them Li’l Tobacky Leaves, that’s what:
The shed had some real tobacco drying but it was from last summer. In other words, it crumbled to the touch, but it was neat to see the process and to learn that a working shed would be filled floor-to-ceiling with the giant drying leaves. The best part of the barn section was when Ed’s brother text messaged him asking about his whereabouts. Because, y’know, he lives in DC now and was up to see ostensibly see the family and all. “Where are you?” asked Kevin. “At the tobacco museum,” Ed texted in reply. This, of course, caused Kevin to reply, “LOSERS,” and that was that. Am I the only one who detects a hint of jealousy? After all, this was highly fascinating stuff, just look at Ed learning about some rickety old tractor thing:
Don’t believe me? Using the latest technology, I zoomed in on Ed which shows just how fascinated he was:
Once done, it was almost as if Marian didn’t want us to leave. I will never not appreciate how much these museum-folk care about their collections and thrive on passing their knowledge along. That left only one question: So Marian, do you smoke? “Nope, never in my life.” That’s nice, but unfortunately, she did such a good job and her tour was so informative and entertaining that she convinced one participant of the smooth pleasurable enjoyment of a a nice Macanudo: