Tar River Lecture Focuses on Tobacco’s Influence in Region


W.W. Yeargin, Jr., an expert on the role of tobacco in North Carolina’s history and economy, talked about its influence in the Tar River Region during a lecture Wednesday, Dec. 2 in Benson Chapel on campus. His lecture, “Leaves of Gold: North Carolina Tobacco Culture,” was part of the Tar River Center for History and Culture annual lecture series.

Yeargin talked about the growth of tobacco farms in the region during the 18th and 19th centuries. “Many of today’s roads in eastern North Carolina and Virginia got their start as tobacco roads, a way for growers to get their tobacco to the ports,” Yeargin said. Tobacco was also an early form of currency throughout the mid-Atlantic.

The Tar River Region benefitted greatly from the Duke family, which owned the American Tobacco Company. In the late 1800’s and early 1900s, “tobacco warehouses sprung up all over the area,” Yeargin said, as American Tobacco supplied many U.S. cigarette makers. The Tar River Region was known for growing some of the nation’s best-quality tobacco, Yeargin said, until a tobacco blight called Granville Wilt forced growers out of the area. Many growers took their knowledge to Canada and other parts of the world to teach their methods to other farmers.

Although tobacco today plays a very small part in the economy of the region, there’s little doubt its influence lives on, Yeargin said. It can be seen in things as simple as radio station call letters. “There was a station in Wilson whose call letters were WGTM,” Yeargin said. “That stood for ‘World’s Greatest Tobacco Market.’”

The 2015-16 Tar River Center for History and Culture Lecture Series, “Agricultural Improvement in North Carolina and the Tar River Valley,” is made possible in part by funding from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Special thanks go also to AgCarolina Farm Credit, Franklin County and the Town of Louisburg.