Arts and Culture 2011

Amy Holtcamp

SOUTH CAROLINA INSIDER

 

Museum of the Week – S.C. Tobacco Museum

Posted 9/25/2011 10:15:00 PM

“I want you to smell this,” says Reggie McDaniel, executive director of the S.C. Tobacco Museum as he picks up a beautiful vintage humidor. He opens it and I take a whiff; the elegant box has an enchanting perfume.

“It smells like incense, but it comes from the wood; then that flavors your cigar.”

McDaniel leads me through the museum, stopping to point out some highlights. There’s the collection of unopened cigarette packages from all around the world dating back to World War II, a bevy of national print ads, tobacco tins and even a 1940s-era automatic cigarette lighter to sit on your dashboard. Press a button and a fully lighted cigarette rolls out, allowing you to smoke while keeping your eyes on the road.

For many, these tobacco-related items are right where they belong: in a museum, considering what we know about the health effects of smoking and chewing tobacco.

But the S.C. Tobacco Museum is about so much more than smoking, or even tobacco itself. The museum is really about a way of life.

In this part of the state, near Mullins, where the museum is located, tobacco was an institution. It was the crop that provided a living for the area’s residents for more than 100 years. The Tobacco Museum looks at the rural life in the area before 1950.

As we travel through the displays, we leave the vintage cigarettes and lighters behind and enter into the area dedicated to farm life. There’s a blacksmith’s shop where McDaniel lets me hold a 200-plus-year-old sump pump. He hands me a shovel made of iron and smiles when the weight of it pulls me toward the floor.

“Couldn’t just run out to the Home Depot for a shovel back then.”

He explains that the people of Mullins survived the Great Depression because they knew how to take care of themselves: they made their own clothes, raised their own livestock, cultivated their own vegetables and even made their own lye soap.

“No one went hungry during the Depression because people took care of each other,” he adds before picking up a worn piece of muslin from a display.

“This is probably the most poignant item we have in the museum,” he said while holding a pinafore, made with care by someone’s mother out of a flour sack. “No one would make fun of her wearing this because everyone else would be wearing the same thing.”

The Tobacco Museum paints a picture of a rural life centered on tobacco. Nowhere does this come into clearer view than in the Living History video produced by the museum.

About five years ago the museum collected interviews with local residents who had grown up living or working on tobacco farms. Their stories put a human face on the tobacco industry and yield some unexpected stories, like one man’s description of a tobacco auction as a circus, complete with a Medicine man, guitar players and peanut vendors.

That festival atmosphere was recreated in Mullins earlier this month, when the town held its annual Golden Leaf Festival.

The S.C. Tobacco Museum is open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $1.