Tying is a lost art in the tobacco industry.
When automatic tying machines were introduced 50-60 years ago, stringing tobacco to sticks by hand – tying as they called it – was phased out.
But it’s not a forgotten skill – you can still find people in the Norfolk-Oxford-Elgin area who remember hand tying, and some of them still compete at the Langton Fair. This year four teams vied for the fair’s 2018 Tobacco Tying title on Sept. 19, sponsored by Norfolk Tobacco Leaf Company.
Each team of three – two leaf handers and one to tie – was timed for two sticks of tobacco, tying 26 bunches of three leaves each per stick (which rested on a ‘horse’), which ‘back in the day’ would have been hung in kilns.
Jeanet Barrett, tying, with handers Annie Van Louwe and Margaret Andries was first to be timed, placing second overall at one minute and 10 seconds (1:10). It was a repeat of the last several years as the team was runner-up to Anita Geysens, Rosann Smith and Jean Donck.
“We’re getting better,” Barrett laughed, noting the time difference varies from year to year. One year a few years ago it was only a couple of seconds, and this year just five seconds.
“We just try,” said Van Louwe.
“Just tried our best, that’s all,” nodded Andries.
“That’s all we can do,” said Barrett.
Unlike some sports, tobacco tying is not a competition of luck. It’s a skill-based competition that requires speed, precision, focus and consistency – both tying and handing.
“One fumble and you’re done,” said Van Louwe, noting the difference between winning and losing could be that one minor ‘fumble.’
“Just one little bobble,” Andries nodded. “That’s enough.”
Despite the pressure, the teams come back year after year.
“It’s a lot of fun,” they all agreed.
Geysens, Donck and Smith, with an average age of 74, have been hand tying most of their lives, although these days it’s only at the Langton Fair. They won 2018 event with a time of 1:05.
“It’s because we’ve been doing it since we were teenagers,” said Smith.
“It’s just a skill you never lose,” said Donck.
With that skill comes rhythm, getting the leaves into neat bunches of three, no matter whether the tobacco is wet, sticking, a complete leaf or occasionally broken.
“It’s the rhythm,” Donck nodded. “That’s what does it.”
“As soon as you fumble, you lose time,” said Geysens.
The team of Mick Francke, Florence Francke and Shirley Barker, representing the Little Belgian Bar and Grill in Delhi, finished fourth.
Third place went to the team of Richard VanDeWiele, Margaret Vandendriessche and Irene Andries (1:19).