Harmon’s Histories: Early Montana tobacco farmers reported bountiful crops
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
In the time before European explorers wandered into the northwestern-most part of what is now the state of Montana, the Native people called the region the “Tobacco Valley.”
In the meadows along the Kootenai River near Eureka, tribes planted tobacco seeds in early spring before leaving to hunt buffalo on the eastern plains.
A few tribal members would be appointed to weed and hoe the crop during the growing season, then harvest it before the fall hunt.
The leaves would then be dried in the sun for ceremonial use through the coming year.
To this day, the area is still called the Tobacco Valley, though serious tobacco farming never happened there.
David Thompson, the first European to see the area in the early 1800s, described the “beautiful meadows,” and noted the land had potential for growing herbs, but did not initially mention tobacco.
On a subsequent trip, Thompson noted the local Kootenai Indians told him of their cultivation of the crop not only in the Tobacco Valley but in many spots ranging from British Columbia to Libby and into the northern Flathead region.
Commercial tobacco farming never materialized in Montana, but that’s not to say some didn’t try.
In 1923, the Treasure State News reported on a Worden-area farmer who claimed his tobacco crop was “equal, if not superior, in quality to that grown anywhere else.”
W. Tucker told the paper, “The tobacco plant grows larger here and matures more quickly than it does in other leading tobacco-growing sections of the United States.”
Tucker was an experienced tobacco farmer from Kentucky and Ohio, “who experimented with the crop for several years at Worden.” He had a field of “one-twelfth of an acre, in which the plants were fully four feet high and which he estimated would yield at the rate of 1,200 to 1,500 pounds an acre, with a market value of $31 a hundred pounds.”
“Another advantage of growing tobacco in the Yellowstone area was that “so far in his experience, there have been no worms or other Insect pests to bother it in the slightest.”
“Tobacco,” he said, “is definitely a potential industry in Montana.”
Tucker said his process was simple: “Set out the tobacco plants the first of June and irrigate once each week during June and July, but not in August. They will root within a few days.”
He described the leaves of the plants as “wide and with a rich color.” Each plant, he said, “would average about one-half pound of tobacco.”
“The land is made up of heavy soil containing a little gumbo, but seems admirably adapted to the tobacco. He says he has never seen tobacco anywhere grew so rapidly and so large and develop and mature so quickly.”
Tucker's neighbors on the Huntley irrigation project, he said, “have become interested in tobacco growing and what may easily become a potential industry for this section of the country is this year being given a try on a half dozen or more irrigated farms in that section of the Yellowstone Valley.”
Tobacco - as a crop - never materialized in Montana. But tobacco-related businesses flourished, including Wallace P. Mix and James M. Piquette’s cigar manufacturing shop in Missoula.
Alas, Tucker, it seems, was simply ahead of his time. Were he around today, he would likely be quite successful with his crop of … wait for it … cannabis. That’s right - “R. W. Tucker’s THC.” It has a nice ring to it.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.