BLADENBORO — Entering the Farm Life Museum at the Bladenboro Historical Building on Wednesday with museum curator Elizabeth Pait, Bladenboro Historical Society member Henry Singletary asked, “Do you want to hear a love story, or a story of a man who lost everything?”
As it turns out, the two are interwoven.
In the latter part of the 19th century, young Willie Johnson, a native of Granville County, found himself an orphan living first in state care, then under the supervision of relatives. At the age of 20, Johnson moved to Nash County, where he was introduced to, and studied, tobacco, a relative newcomer to the Tar Heelstate. He became so proficient in his work, and so widely known for it, that he was affectionately called “Tobacco Johnson.”
Acting on a desire to see the Atlantic Ocean, the young horticulturalist hopped on a train, the route for which took him through Bladenboro. When the train broke down and Johnson found himself conversing with locals, the tobacco expert educated them on the new crop and its possibilities. At the urging of the residents, he returned to Bladen County later to teach the locals the trade — and soon met and married Ada Hester. The two enjoyed a long and happy union, while Bladen County began her long courtship with tobacco.
It was 1899.
Over the next 40 years, the industry would grow in Bladen County, and William Benjamin Dowless, an uneducated but clever farmer, found success in the new crop. Curing — heating tobacco to lower the chlorophyll level, dry it out so that it can be ignited, and change the color — had previously been accomplished by burning wood or, later, by kerosene. Dowless came up with a new method of tobacco curing involving a heating chamber, one-piece burner, and downdraft tube with a spacer bar. After patenting the invention, he established Dowless Tobacco Curers in Abbottsburg and set up a sizable, three-story home, complete with large rooms, indoor plumbing, and a spiral staircase. He also developed large tracts of property in White Lake, Elizabethtown, Bladenboro, and Lumberton.
“He made a multi-million dollar business, if such a thing existed, in Bladen County,” informed Singletary. “He was on top of the world. He was a very smart man, but he was uneducated, and he couldn’t do much more than sign his name.”
The lack of educated was eventually his downfall. Singletary said the blame lay with the family’s bookkeeper, who neglected to pay taxes for years.
“The government came and took everything, and he died almost penniless,” Singletary commented. “It’s a true ‘rags to riches, back to rags’ story.”
In the Farm Life Museum is a Dowless tobacco curer, along with photos of Dowless’ home and family. Also on site are various tobacco farming relics like planters, plows, mule harnesses, and tobacco sticks, along with cotton farming implements and hand-crank washing machines.
To learn more about the history of farming in Bladen County and the life of farmers, visit the Farm Life Museum in the Bladenboro Historical Society building or find them on the web at bladenborohistoricalsociety.org.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.