Articles

TOBACCO TOWN

Every time you buy a pack of cigarettes a few more cents jingle into Delhi, Canada’s fast-growing tobacco capital. Most of it goes into the pockets of immigrant farmers who, not long ago, couldn’t afford to smoke

BOB COLLINS September 15 1951
Articles

TOBACCO TOWN

Every time you buy a pack of cigarettes a few more cents jingle into Delhi, Canada’s fast-growing tobacco capital. Most of it goes into the pockets of immigrant farmers who, not long ago, couldn’t afford to smoke

BOB COLLINS September 15 1951

TOBACCO TOWN

Articles

Every time you buy a pack of cigarettes a few more cents jingle into Delhi, Canada’s fast-growing tobacco capital. Most of it goes into the pockets of immigrant farmers who, not long ago, couldn’t afford to smoke

BOB COLLINS

AT FIRST GLANCE down the main street you’d hardly call Delhi, Ont., a storybook town. Winding roads and unpretentious houses sprawl idly over a low plateau ninety miles southwest of Toronto. Citizens clomp along the cement sidewalks in overalls and dusty boots.

But underneath this humdrum surface Delhi has the spirit of adventure and discovery of a community straight out of fiction. Its story is the story of a town that leaped from arid obscurity to buoyant well-being, mainly on the strength of a single crop—tobacco.

Thirty years ago Delhi was a desolate community of seven hundred, withering away on acres of blow-sand. Then it was discovered the sand could grow some of the finest flue-cured tobacco in Canada. Today the town, with a population of twenty-five hundred and a gross assessment of four

million dollars, is the capital of Canada’s fiftymillion-dollar tobacco industry.

Seventy-five percent of the people are Europeans who fled Communism, Nazism or poverty at home and have found a second chance in Delhi. In return they have given the town an international atmosphere that led one farmer to describe it recently as “a Canadian Casablanca.”

In a half-hour stroll you may eat a bowl of goulash at Kelly’s Lunch, dance a polka in the Polish Hall with a bevy of pretty girls, gossip in one of eight languages with a farmer in blue jeans, meet a former Hungarian under-secretary of state or watch muscular young Belgian daredevils whirl around the only portable bicycle racetrack in Canada.

This melting pot simmers on tobacco, which is everything in Continued on page 48

Continued from page 21

Delhi. Last year Canada grew one hundred and twenty million pounds of tobacco. Twelve million pounds were burley, black, cigar-leaf or cigar-filler tobaccos, cured in air; the rest was flue-cured (cured by artificial heat). About fifty-five percent of this fluecured crop is grown within a twelvemile radius of Delhi on hundreds of tobacco farms, where tall red-and-green flues, or kilns, stand like sentinels beside fragile greenhouses.

The huge Imperial Tobacco Com; pany plant at Delhi was built in 1929 ; and later enlarged as the industry ! expanded and the farms increased their production. The town has no other major industries; this is probably ; caused in part by the fact that most ! employers can’t match tobacco wages. In harvest time a tobacco hand can earn up to one hundred dollars a week.

Tobacco has turned paupers int' prosperous businessmen. Young Mike De Vos came from Belgium in 1935, sweated in the tobacco fields for ten years. Today he owns his own farm and two hotels. One Delhi farmerbought his place twenty years ago for three thousand dollars; last winter he turned down an offer of fifty thousand for it.

Michel Demaiter, a Belgian, trudged into the Delhi district in 1928 with few belongings but a great capacity for work. Today he owns several hundred acres of tobacco land and is a director on the Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Marketing Association.

Menu: Four Hundred Chickens

Time and again this has happened in Delhi. It annoys some native Canadians but most Delhi folk admire the New Canadians’ success.

"Some of them come to Delhi without a penny,” says one citizen. "They hire out to a tobacco farmer and disappear for four or five years. No(w and then they drop into town for groceries—maybe some bread and boJ logna. And by the end of five years they drive into town with a new car and buy themselves a new house.”

"We’re a sort of United Nations,” grins A. (Zeke) Van Goethe, a native Hollander and grocer whose store windows bulge with imported gouda cheeses, spicy Kruidkoek cakes, De Beukelaere biscuits and Puddingpoeder met Suiker. Down the street Andrew Hertel, a Hungarian merchant, features paprika and poppy seed on his shelves. One Delhi restaurant is named Flanders and another specializes in hot-chili gulyas, Hungarian sausage and goulash.

Garden beds of Brussels sprouts snuggle against Delhi homes while odors of stuffed cabbage rolls and sauerkraut drift from the kitchens. And tobacco farming raises big appetites. When the Hungarians opened their national hall in 1949 guests sat down to a snack of four hundred chickens, six hundred pounds of pork chops and six hundred pounds of veal chops.

The national halls are part of the Delhi personality. No other Canadian community of comparable size has such an assortment. There’s a Hungarian hall, a German hall, a Belgian hall and a Ukrainian hall. Every night there’s a dance, social or wedding in one or more halls.

Somehow these various segments of population manage to blend. "We have our differences,” admits Cornell Ebersz, a young Hungarian with a law degree who sells underwear and rubbers behind the Varnai and Ebersz dry'

goods counter. “But we are joined by one thing—a chance to build a new life.”

Europeans like Ebersz are a recent acquisition, flocking to Delhi only in the last twenty-five years. The original community of a hundred years ago was a straggling lumber centre called Fredericksburg. Late in the 19th century the name was changed to Delhi, to the delight of postal authorities who had always been bothered by the strange spellings applied to cumbersome Fredericksburg. Then last year some photos of Mahatma Gandhi, somehow sidetracked from Delhi, India, to Delhi, Ont., showed up in the town mail. The post-office people rerouted them and wistfully recalled that nothing like that ever happened in Fredericksburg.

From lumbering, Delhi turned to fruit growing and canning, but without much success. The sandy soil produced poor crops until 1922, when E. C. Jones, now a Delhi lawyer, grew ten acres of tobacco for the Dominion Experimental Farm Service. In 1923 Jones, with Henry Freeman, produced one of the first successful commercial tobacco crops in the district. Others followed and by 1929 most of the land was being converted to tobacco and outsiders were arriving to get in on the new big-money crop. In the late Thirties the town fathers recognized tobacco’s influence on Delhi’s fortunes and added two tobacco leaves to the town’s crest.

Among the first Europeans to arrive was Frank Banabes, a dark lean Hungarian from Europe’s tobacco belt, who planted his first crop in Delhi in 1928. Three years later he went back to Hungary to teach his countrymen how to grow Virginia tobacco. By 1947 he was under-secretary of state for the Hungarian treasury and general manager of the government-controlled tobacco industry. When the Communists took over the country he refused to join the party. Sent to North America on a government tobacco mission, he seized the chance to resign and return to Delhi.

Now, on a seventy-thousand-dollar farm just outside Delhi, he has a large modern home and an expensive library. “But I’m just another guy who grows tobacco,” he says, his new-world slang comfortably ad justed to his old-country accent.

Other Europeans brought similarly rich personal histories to Delhi. In 1948 a thirty-year-old Hungarian named Leslie Meszaros came in from one of the tobacco farms to try out for the Delhi hockey team. He had played on the 1938 Hungarian Olympic team and the local boys were happy to welcome him. Later they learned he was also an accomplished painter and a graduate lawyer.

Harvest Is Headache Time

Last year two young Europeans named George Leiteh and Stanley Pietszak launched Delhi’s first tanning business. Before the Second World War they had been travelers for tanning firms on the Continent and had met frequently on their tours. During the war Pietszak, a Pole, wound up in a Nazi concentration camp. Leiteh, a German, learned of his plight and after VE-Day helped speed his liberation. Later Pietszak came to Canada and last year he helped bring Leiteh from Germany.

Tobacco farmers from the southern United States also have settled quietly in the Delhi district, and Virginia and Carolina drawls are familiar among the town’s many accents. Delhi has found the southerners quiet amiable citizens except when they’re provoked. Once

during the late-July early-August harvest season a group of unruly laborers went to town looking for trouble. In a street scuffle one fixed his teeth into the arm of a hefty Virginian, an exmarine. The Virginian knocked him out with one punch. “Anybody eats mah meat has to pay fo’ it,” he said.

Most of the headaches, excitement and rewards of tobacco growing culminate in the harvest season when Delhi attracts transients from all over Canada. The population swells to four or five thousand almost overnight. Bums, prostitutes and confidence men drift into town, along with legitimate workers—high-school and college students and seasonal laborers—lured by high tobacco wages. They block the streets, camp in parks, sleep on private lawns and beg at the doors.

“They’d sleep in your car if you didn’t, lock it,” said one citizen. Delhi men travel in pairs for protection against rowdies and Delhi girls stay indoors.

Only once, however, was there serious trouble. In 1949 police and firemen broke up a street riot with night sticks and fire hoses and arrested sixteen transients. There was no recurrence last year. At nearby Simcoe a citizens’ committee on transient labor turned a fairground building into a shelter to ease the problem of accommodation for workers. With that settled, farmers figured their policy of inviting reliable workers back year after year would keep things quiet.

A New Wife and Razor

Before the Second World War the situation was more acute. In 1939 ten thousand ragged wanderers plodded, hitch-hiked or rode the rods into Delhi. Mild-mannered Father John Uyen, the priest of Delhi’s Roman Catholic church, conducted a breadline from his front door, doling out bread and bologna to as many as eight hundred hungry transients a day.

Some of his “guests” are prosperous farmers today. When the feverish rush of tobacco-picking time is over, many transients stay on to work and eventually buy farms of their own.

During and immediately after the harvest the important curing process comes. Tobacco is highly temperamental. Once the leaves are picked they are rushed into the kilns and hung from wall-to-wall sticks. The whole kiln must be filled in one day’s operation, because once the oil, coal or wood stoves are lit for the curing heat, the kiln cannot be opened again. The bright green leaves turn yellow under the watchful eye of experts from the southern U. S. A mistake of a few degrees heat can ruin the whole kiln.

The twenty-three-member Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Marketing Association, representing growers and buyers, regulates tobacco acreage on each farm and sets growing regulations and tobacco prices each year. Farmers don’t have to join the association but most of them do. It practically guarantees that buyers will purchase their crop. Free-lance farmers run the risk of being by-passed by the tobacco buyers, particularly if the demand for tobacco is low.

To encourage crop rotation and control production the association doesn’t permit more than forty-five percent of any member’s farm to he sown to tobacco in a year, although this was relaxed this year to meet a heavier demand.

The average Delhi farm has about forty acres in tobacco and, barring the many misfortunes which can befall a crop, it may produce forty-eight thousand pounds of tobacco, which will sell for about forty-four cents a pound

(some buyers may bid fifty cents for choice tobacco). This means a gross revenue of roughly twenty-one thousand dollars, but it’s not all profit. The farmer’s costs, which cover his own labor and other help, upkeep of home and garden, depreciation on kilns and greenhouse, run between thirty-three and thirty-five cents a pound. Thus the average tobacco man stands to clear about five thousand dollars on a year’s operations.

Some, of course, do considerably better than that. Max Watters, one of Delhi’s three bankers, says: “I know a man who came here in 1928 with a brand-new wife, a safety razor and that’s all. Today he is worth two hundred thousand dollars.”

Quite a few of Delhi’s farmers slip off to Florida when their harvest is cured and sold; some visit their old hometowns in Europe. But they have to be back well before spring to steam up their greenhouses, plant seeds and have the best seedlings in the ground by May. Each year a thousand pounds : of fertilizer is worked into every acre.

After transplanting, the farmer then ! has to worry about frost, hail, drought,

I mold, half-a-dozen types of insect i pest, the price of tobacco and keeping , his crop cultivated until harvest time.

Most Have Switched to English

But the summer is not all work and worry in Delhi. Crowds pack the cycle arena Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons to watch riders spin at forty-five miles an hour around a portable track ~ the first of its kind in North America. The track was invented by thirty-twoyear-old Albert Schelstraete, a former Belgian professional rider. Delhi’s Belgians are the town’s most ardent hike fans.

A three-day Ukrainian wedding in i one of the national halls sometimes is more grueling than a bike marathon. Merrymakers eat, drink, dance, rest I and then start all over again. The halls also are usually busy with banquets, socials, masquerades, concerts and dances. Canadian-Ameriean sports such as baseball, hockey and lacrosse aren’t popular with sports fans of foreign extraction in Delhi.

Each of the national halls costs about eighty thousand dollars. They are built by the various groups of New Canadians by forming companies and selling shares, borrowing from a bank and conducting fund drives. The German hall has bowling alleys, billiard tables, a vast main hall, even a room for infants and baby-sitters.

Bilingual ability is common in Delhi and almost essential in business. Leslie Basko started an electrical-appliance shop with a couple of washing machines and a knowledge of Hungarian and English. He now has a flourishing showroom. Recently a customer who spoke only Hungarian placed an order with the English-language Delhi NewsRecord to print an ad in both French and Belgian.

The Delhi phone book abounds with names like Bouckhuyt, Degrieck, Godelie, Plancke, Rotsaert, Szorenyi, Vazdepoele, Verschoore and Vanwynsberghe. But chief operator Iva Kelner, who’s been coping with language difficulties for thirty years, says, “They are very patient and we are too.”

Most Delhi newcomers have learned English, although few have gone as far as Edmund Verhaeghe, a Belgian who hired out to a farmer and sat down each evening with the farmer’s children when they did their homework. He soon learned to speak, read and write English and today he’s chairman of the Delhi Separate School Board.

Rita Kleinberg came from Latvia two years ago and entered grade seven in Delhi public school. Now sixteenyear-old Rita is in high school, her few words of broken English have grown into a wide vocabulary and her marks average in the high eighties.

Teachers and inspectors in the Delhi district say most of the foreign-born youngsters are good students. They also do their share of work in the field during the tobacco season, helping their parents to improve the land with money which would otherwise be spent on outside labor. Few families have large bank accountstoo often they saw their currency melt away in Europe’s economic and military crises. So now their constantly improved farms are their investments.

“Our money goes into things a war won’t destroy in a day,” said one farmer. “Land, homes, automobiles.”

Their faith in Delhi appears justified. Bankers in the district agree that the tobacco economy is sound. Conservation is practiced conscientiously by most farmers, government research is improving tobacco strains, the area is naturally suitable to the crop and the farmers are industrious.

This year Ontario planted one hundred and six thousand acres of tobacco for flue curing eight thousand more than ever before. To Delhi that means more hard cash but nobody’s likely to get giddy about it. Delhi’s roots are planted firmly. -A