An Abbreviated History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Chapter Seven: Agriculture, Trade, and Industry

By Maud Carter Clement, Chatham, Virginia, ca. 1952.


Tobacco in the Colonial Era 1750-1775

The story of agriculture in Pittsylvania is largely the story of tobacco in southern Piedmont, for Pittsylvania has borne a distinguished part in tobacco history. In colonial Virginia tobacco was used for money, therefore it was grown of necessity. The early settler cleared the forests and planted tobacco without delay.

The Plant

Tobacco is a sensitive plant, quickly responding to its surroundings. When grown in the rich loams of Tidewater's low grounds the texture was coarse and the flavor strong. When settlement reached southern Piedmont much of the soil was found to be of a light grey sandy quality. The tobacco grown on this upland soil took on different characteristics, having a more delicate leaf, a sweeter flavor and a brighter color. At this period all tobacco was air-cured, and there were two standard varieties in cultivation, the Sweet Scented and the Orinoco.


The greatest problem facing the tobacco grower of Pittsylvania was the transportation of his crop to James River, some 150 miles distant over rough roads. As you know, it was to England alone that the American colonists could sell their products, and to ensure the best quality of leaf, the London Board of Trade enacted very strict laws regarding the sale of tobacco. Places of inspection and warehouses for storage were located along the Tidewater rivers, to which the planter must carry his tobacco to be weighed, inspected and stored while awaiting shipment. To these warehouses came the British vessels, filling their holds with hogsheads of fragrant leaf. It has been truly said that Virginia's tobacco was a greater treasure to the Mother Country than all the mines of Peru, for she resold the bulk of the crop to European countries with rich returns for herself.

Roads and Rivers

There were three ways by which the Pittsylvania planter conveyed his tobacco to market. First, it was hauled in stout wagons, two hogsheads being considered a load. The London Board fixed the weight of a hogshead, which varied from 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. The wagoning of goods between the James River wharves and southern Piedmont Virginia became a well established business which continued until the coming of the railroads. The hauling charge was so much per pound weight. The charge for carrying one hogshead to Richmond was approximately fifteen and one half dollars.

Secondly, the tobacco was rolled in its own hogshead. This was done by fastening shafts to the heads of the hogsheads, to which one or two horses were hitched, one in front of the other. The shafts extended beyond the rear of the hogshead and were tied together with white oak thongs, to hold them in place. There were contract tobacco rollers, who with their own horses or mules, made a business of delivering tobacco to market.

Thirdly, tobacco was carried down the James River in flat boats called batteaux. In order to send by boat it was first necessary to get the tobacco to Lynch's Ferry where Lynchburg now stands. Much of Pittsylvania's tobacco reached market by this river route.

The contract tobacco carriers, the rivermen, wagoners, and rollers were a hardy lot, living in the open. Some of their songs are still remembered, such as:

"I'm goin' down to Richmond town

I'm goin' down to Richmond town

I'm goin' down to Richmond town

To carry my tobacco down."

One of the last of the Wagoners was a man named Fletcher who lived between Chatham and Davis' Old Mill. He owned and kept two teams on the road. On John Donelson's map of the Pittsylvania dividing line with Halifax, drawn in 1767, there is marked "the roaling road," leading north to Ward's Ferry over Staunton River, and Ward's Road on the Lynch's Ferry (Clement's History of Pittsylvania, page 98).

Amount Grown

Turning to the business papers of Mr. John Smith, who lived on the Pocket plantation in northern Pittsylvania, we gain some idea of the amount of tobacco grown in the county in the colonial era. In December 1767, the Scotch merchant, Alexander Stewart of James River, with whom Mr. Smith dealt, wrote to him:

"Only two hogsheads of your tobacco received, the other was left forty miles above on account of the roads being so hard frozen the casks were like to give way, wagons will have to come down to bring them in. This worthless taylor of ours has never got your clothes done. Wishing you a merry Christmas."

In 1774 John Smith paid Joseph Cabell $150.00 for the carriage of 27 hogsheads of tobacco from Lynch's Ferry to Westham (Richmond). At another time he wrote Chenault, a river man, "I have sent five hogsheads to the river, will send five more next Tuesday, six more will go next week, and six the week following. Shall keep rolling as fast as I can till I get all my tobacco there whilst the weather permits."

Tobacco From 1800 to 1860

The farmers of Piedmont Virginia began experimenting as early as 1800 with the curing of tobacco by fire instead of air, in order to dry the plant more rapidly. Charcoal fires were used in an effort to do away with the smoke which gave to the leaf a bitter taste. A crude type of flue was tried out by planters in different counties. In 1828 Dr. David Tuck of Halifax County invented a very successful method. He built rock flues such as are used today, opening into sheet iron pipes which extended around both halves of the barn, and emptied into a chimney. It was found that flue curing improved the flavor and brightened the color of the leaf.

In 1829, Mr. Nat Robinson, whose plantation was on White Oak Mountain, sold bright yellow tobacco in Danville, having developed his own system of curing. From this time on White Oak tobacco stood in a class to itself. In 1903 the Tobacconist Record stated, “White Oak tobacco is still far famed.” The gentle rise which is called White Oak Mountain extends diagonally across southern Pittsylvania. It has a light grey soil peculiarly suited to tobacco culture.

In 1839, a man named Slade in Caswell County, North Carolina, accidentally cured a barn of yellow tobacco by suddenly applying charcoal heat. This was greatly advertised. But the art of curing tobacco by heat to a bright yellow color and sweet flavor was developed through years of experiment in Virginia.

It is claimed that the production of a bright yellow tobacco was one of the most stupendous developments in agriculture that the world has ever known (United States census). And from the meager record, it would seen that it was first produced in Pittsylvania. The delicate texture of the leaf, its golden color, fragrance, and sweet flavor won instant approval and created a heavy demand both at home and abroad. Danville became the market for the leaf, and soon assumed a leading place in the tobacco world. This bright sweet tobacco became known as Virginia Leaf, whether it was grown in Pittsylvania or in far off China.

In 1840, Pittsylvania ranked first among Virginia counties in the production of tobacco, growing 6,439,000 pounds.

The Old Belt

The area in which the bright tobacco was grown extended 150 miles along the Virginia and North Carolina state line, including about five counties on either side. On the Virginia side the area included the counties of Pittsylvania, Halifax, Patrick, Henry, and Franklin. The title of the Old Belt was given to this section in which bright tobacco was first grown successfully, which “represents and achievement controlled by soil and curing.”

The Tobacco Factory

The rise of the plantation tobacco factory was another antebellum accomplishment of southern Piedmont Virginia. Before the War Between the States there were a great many plantation factories through out the country side of the Old Belt section. It was before the era of the cigarette, and the manufactured product was chewing and smoking tobacco.

Joseph Martin of Patrick County wrote in 1835: “Nearly ever planter who raises tobacco to any extent is a manufacturer; but there are some who make a business of it, and purchase leaf from their neighbors, at a very liberal price.” The country factory became a part of the plantation system. The country factory became a part of the plantation system. The area drained by the Dan and Staunton Rivers was the largest area for the plantation factory. In 1840 there were 20 factories in the southern part of Pittsylvania County, using 400 slaves (census). In 1850 there were 25 factories in the county. The most famous of these antebellum factories was that of the Graveleys at Leatherwood, Henry County, where today you can see the old brick buildings, vacant and idle, but once the scene of a busy life. The Leatherwood brands of chewing tobacco were world famous for their fine flavor, for the Graveleys used honey for the sweetening.

Tobacco the Last One Hundred Years: 1860-1950

The sale of loose leaf tobacco by auction on a warehouse floor originated in Danville just prior to the Civil War. The practice proved to be very popular and was quickly adopted everywhere, being known as the “Danville System.” Colonel Chiswell Langhorne, the father of Lady Nancy Astor, lived in Danville after the close of the war, and it is said that he set the pattern of the tobacco auctioneer's chant, which was also quickly adopted and followed everywhere. The auction market together with the production of the popular bright tobacco brought recovery to Pittsylvania and Danville from the devastation of war more quickly than was possible in some sections of the state. The census report of 1880 said hat flue cured tobacco in Pittsylvania averaged from $21 to $30 per hundred weight.

The large tobacco firms from the north and west now sent their own buyers to the Danville market in order to secure the golden tobacco, and built their re-drying and storage plants there to take care of their purchases. The demand for Virginia Leaf increased in foreign countries, and great export companies were organized to meet the demand.

Two of these great export companies were founded by Pittsylvania boys from Pittsylvania farms, John E. Hughes, and William T. Clark. There was little ready money in those first decades following Appomattox, and these two young men were penniless when they left home to enter the tobacco world though their fathers had been large slave and land owners. John E. Hughes (1871-1922) died at the early age of 51 years, and amassed an estate of over $3,000,000. By the terms of his will he established the Hughes Memorial Home and School at Design, and made large bequests to the Danville Memorial Hospital.

William T. Clark walked all the way to Lynchburg to find his first job in a tobacco factory. He founded the Clark Export Company of North Carolina.

With the growth and development of the great tobacco companies such as Liggett and Myers of St. Louis, R. J. Reynolds of Winston-Salem, P. Lorillard of New York, and the Dukes of Durham, the whole structure of the tobacco industry changed. The small country factory passed away. The census of 1881 listed 12 factories in Pittsylvania, 3 in Chatham, 4 in the Whitmell neighborhood namely: F. A. Swanson, S. A. Moorman, J. M. McGhee, and H. F. More; five in Bachelor's Hall community namely: B. Barksdale, J. W. Burton, G. W. Martin, the Millner Brother, and J. H. Trotter. The Times Dispatch of 1906 wrote of the country factories “They have passed out of existence, and some of their famous old tobacco makers have moved to the towns and cities. The Spencers and Browns have gone to Martinsville, the Graveleys to Martinsville and Danville, and the Peens to Danville. The closing of the B. B. Graveley factory at Leatherwood closed the history of off-railroad factories.” These plantation firms established wide reputations for their brands of chewing tobacco bearing their names, such as Graveley's Honey Dew among the costly items.

Cigarette Industry

The introduction of the modern cigarette by R. J. Reynolds in 1913, which he named the Camel, has further revolutionized the tobacco industry. The Virginia Leaf with its fine texture and flavor was also in demand by the cigarette manufacturers.

The Pittsylvania planters continue to find a steady demand for their tobacco at home on the Danville market. And Pittsylvania boys have been able to win a place for themselves in the great tobacco companies of today. Lloyd Belt, son of Dr. Singleton Belt of Whitmell, became president of P. Lorillard and Harley Jefferson a vice president. Garnett Cousins, son of Mr. William Cousins of Callands, is today vice president of the British-American Tobacco Company of China.

First Tobacco Test Farm

In 1906 there was established near Chatham the first experiment station where tobacco diseases and fertilizers were studied. The State of Virginia and the Federal Government each gave $5000.00 towards establishing the station, and E. H. Matheson was the first superintendent. The station has proved of untold value in the advice and assistance given to the tobacco growers of this section.

In 1930 there were grown in the United States 750,000,000 pounds of bright yellow tobacco, and of this amount 429,000,000 pounds were exported to foreign countries. Hampton Roads, Virginia has become the chief point in the United States for the export of tobacco. Danville remains the center of bright tobacco. Dibrell Brothers of Danville is one of the oldest and strongest of the export firms.

When government control of tobacco production went into effect in 1929, again tobacco culture changed to meet new conditions.

In 1950 Pittsylvania ranked 9th in tobacco harvested on farms. The following figures are taken from a preliminary census of agriculture for 1950, by United States Department of Commerce.

In 4,690 farms in pittsylvania, 23,014 acres were planted in tobacco, yielding a crop of 33,864,622 pounds. This gave an average yield of 1457 pounds per acre, and an average crop value of $785.00 per acre.

General Agriculture

The county is listed as having 202,000 acres of crop land for agricultural use, planted as follows:

The value of the milk, cream, and butter produced in the county is $580,853.

The value of the chickens and eggs produced is $150,000.

The total value of farm production in Pittsylvania County is over $15,000,000; and yet a very small percent of her farm lands are being utilized.

Cattle and Dairy

With the limiting of tobacco acreage the farmers have turned to other activities, and the cattle business and dairying have proven successful. Fine strains of stock have been introduced and the yield of milk greatly increased. The raising of cattle calls for the growing of grasses and other forage crops, and in 1950 some forty thousand acres were sown in grass.


Many of the high schools have installed canneries where the meats, fruits, and vegetables of summer are processed for winter's use. These canneries are subsidized by funds obtained from the Local School Board and from the State Department of Education. The canneries are supervised by the teachers of Vocational Agriculture and Vocational Home Economics in the various high school centers. Citizens are able to conserve their meats and vegetables for a very nominal fee.


Danville Warehouses

We have seen the transportation difficulties of the tobacco growers of Pittsylvania in the earlier years. In an effort to improve conditions twelve leading planters of the county in 1793 petitioned the Legislature for a place of tobacco inspection to be located on Dan River at Wynn's Falls. A charter for a town was granted at the same time which was named Danville. The Dan River Warehouse was built and in operation in 1795, with John Sutherlin and John Dix as inspectors. The first year 200 hogsheads of tobacco were handled.


The duty of the inspectors was to break open the prized hogshead and examine the tobacco. If the leaf proved to be “sound, merchantable, well conditioned and clean of trash,” it was so marked, with its weight, and passed. It was probably due to the opening of the Roanoke River for navigation, providing a new route to market, that brought a demand for more warehouses. In 1818 Pannill's warehouse opened, with a set of inspectors; and in 1819 Claiborne's warehouse went into operation. The Pittsylvania Court of September 1819 allowed Leonard Claiborne and Daniel Sullivan $241.94 for the weights and scales for Claiborne's Warehouse.

Home Manufacture

The Roanoke River route proved to be both expensive and troublesome, for after reaching Weldon, there was the overland haul to Petersburg and Richmond, the chief market towns. In their dilemma the planters turned to home manufacture, for it was easier to transport the small oaken boxes of manufactured plug than the bulky hogshead. The needed loose leaf was purchased from neighbors, and there was small need for the warehouses and inspectors. They were used so little that after 1837 warehouses and inspection were abolished in Danville. If a farmer wished to dispose of a load he drove into town and it was sold on the streets to the manufacturers.

Auction Sales

One day three Danville citizens stood and watched a load of North Carolina tobacco pass through Danville and disappear over the hill on the way Lynchburg to market. For when Danville abolished her market Lynchburg came to the fore. These men decided something must be done, and Neal's Warehouse was opened. A new system of auction sales was inaugurated. The loose tobacco was placed in piles on the warehouse floor, and the buyer could examine the whole pile, and not be limited to a sample leaf from a prized hogshead. The system soon became popular.

With the ending of the War Between the States the tobacco trade again got under way, and warehouses multiplied rapidly. Holland's opened in 1867, Graves in 1868, Planter's in 1869, the Star in 1873, and Cabell's and Public in 1877. With the European demand for our home grown tobacco, (the “Virginia Leaf”) the Danville market turned more and more to the export business. Danville was the earliest and long remained the largest bright loose leaf market in the world. The great tobacco firms bought their choicest stocks there.

Tobacco Sales Today

There is no transportation problem today for the Pittsylvania tobacco grower. He conveys his tobacco to market in a trailer attached to his car, driving comfortably over hard surfaced roads the few miles to Danville. There 16 great warehouses await the arrival of his crop, with four simultaneous sales in as many warehouses, requiring four sets of buyers to clear the floor for next day's sale. In 1948, 62,158,244 pounds of tobacco were sold on the Danville at an average price of $39.00 per hundred weight.


Cotton Mills

The great Schoolfield Cotton Mills were located in the county prior to July 1, 1951. The village of Schoolfield has grown up around the mills for the accommodation of the workers. The Schoolfield Mills consolidated with the Riverside Mills in Danville, and today are known as the Dan River Mills. In 1947 the sales of the two mills amounted to $92,000,000 with 12,500 employees. Two textile schools are maintained for the training of mill workers. In 1949 1,479 employees were enrolled in 122 courses of study. Since the annexation decree went into effect on July 1, 1951 these mills are wholly within the city limits of Danville. It is estimated, however, that one third of their employees are residents of Pittsylvania County.


The lumber business is an active industry in the county today. There are four large planer mills located in the vicinity of Chatham, the Saunders Company, the Steed and Daniels Company, the Burrus Land and Lumber Company, and the Gibson Company. These four mills have around 55 supporting saw mills, a yearly payroll of nearly a million dollars, and shipped about 32,000,0000 feet of lumber from Chatham in 1950. In addition to the above listed mills there are 75 more saw mills operating in the county. Poplar lumber does not pass through the planer mills, but is carried directly to the furniture factories of Martinsville and Basset. Oak lumber is used for flooring and is shipped out to hardwood firms. A box factory has been established by the Saunders Company at Whittles, employing 50 men.

Flour Mills

Every neighborhood has its local mill for grinding flour and corn. But there are two large milling plants in the county, the Galveston Mills at Gretna and the Jones Milling Company of Dry Fork. Each maintains a number of vans which serve a large trade in neighboring counties and also North Carolina.


This is one of the oldest industries in the county. The Bloomery Iron mines on Pigg River were successfully operated by Colonel John Donelson before the Revolutionary War. In 1779 the mines were purchased by James Calloway, renamed the Washington Iron Works, and in active operation in early 1800. Iron, barytes, and manganese deposits are found in the northwestern part of the county, especially in the Pittsville community. From time to time the ores have been mined. Mr. Ralph D. Mitchell of Cleveland, Ohio has recently acquired mineral rights in the county, and expects to begin mining operations in the near future.

Pittsylvania's newest industry is the large rayon finishing plant recently erected by the Burlington Mills of North Carolina, situated in the northern part of the county along the Staunton River.

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Related Book

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Maud Carter Clement: History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia (1929)

This website is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia. (See also guides to Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville.)