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APSU partners with Arts and Heritage Council for series on tobacco’s role in this community

Lee Fairrow

The Clarksville Arts and Heritage Council and College of Arts & Letters at Austin Peay State University are partnering to offer a series of programs on Montgomery County’s history with tobacco.

Hailed as the “Dark-fired Tobacco Capital of the World,” Clarksville owes its growth and emergence as a vital manufacturing city to the plant that came over the mountains from Virginia and North Carolina.

This series will not glorify smoking. Organizers acknowledge the dangers cigarettes offer smokers.  According to the Centers for Disease Control website, it remains the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States, accounting for more than 480,000 deaths every year, or about 1 in 5 deaths.

The programs will look, however, at how the plant has added so much to Clarksville’s economy that members of Trinity Episcopal Church included an image of a tobacco plant in their stained-glass windows. The Customs House was originally constructed as a Federal Post Office and Customs House to handle the large volume of foreign mail created by the city’s international trade in tobacco. Tobacco money has put many a Clarksvillian through college, graduate programs and law and medical school.

Carolyn Ferrell, a fourth generation Clarksvillian and author of ten books on Clarksville’s history, will kick off the series at 4 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 13, at the APSU Trahern Theatre, with an in-depth look at “The Importance of Tobacco on Clarksville’s Development.”

Ferrell will introduce those engaged in the tobacco trade, including the foreign businessmen who gave Clarksville its “cosmopolitan feel.” She will also explain the uses of some of the many tobacco artifacts she has collected over the years.

On Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 4 p.m., Juilliard-trained writer, actor, director and teacher, David Alford, will present “Smoke: Abridged,” a condensed version of his popular play, “Smoke: A Ballad of the Night Riders,” which played to sold-out audiences this fall during the Bell Witch Festival in Adams. Alford will perform a one-man singer-songwriter-storytelling version of his bluegrass-inspired musical.

This performance will be in the APSU Trahern Theatre. It is free, but seating is limited and audience members must make reservations through Eventbrite.

“Smoke” tells the story of the early 19th century tobacco wars through the story of one fictional family. On March 28, professional storyteller, Dr. Rick Gregory, will follow up telling the equally dramatic events of “War in the Tobacco Black Patch.” In the first decade of the 20th century, tobacco farmers in the Black Patch rose in rebellion against the American Tobacco Company, setting in motion one of the most violent eras in U.S. history from the Civil War until the Civil Rights movement.

The next month on April 25, Austin Peay Professor of English, Dr. Linda Crenshaw, will discuss “Tobacco Tales: How Tobacco Appears in the Works of Local Writers.” Dr. Crenshaw will investigate how tobacco and the culture of tobacco farming appear in some of the literature produced by local writers, most notably Robert Penn Warren and Thomas Mabry.

The next program will move to the Woodlawn farm of Lee and Doris Fairrow. Lee Fairrow successfully achieved his goal to produce beautiful, high quality tobacco plants during his 63 years of farming. Along the way, the Fairrows collected an excellent array of tobacco artifacts, which participants will be able to view as they listen to a panel of long-time tobacco growers tell their stories of growing and marketing crop in Montgomery County. This program will start at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, May 30.

The final program in the series will be a look at “The Future of Tobacco Growing in Montgomery County.” Dr. Donald Sudbrink, professor and chair of the APSU Department of Agriculture, will look at what tobacco growing’s future may be as Montgomery County becomes more urbanized and at what might take its place as the number of smokers continues to decline. The date of this program has yet to be determined.

This series of programs is free and open to the public. Most will take place at 4 p.m. in the Austin Peay State University Trahern Building. Parking is directly across the street.

The collaboration between the council and the college provides Austin Peay faculty and students with opportunities to interact with the Clarksville community and learn more about the area's history and heritage.  The scheduled activities touch upon each department in the arts and humanities and help to strengthen the "town and gown" relationship between Austin Peay and the Clarksville community.

The series is sponsored in part by the Tennessee Arts Commission and by federal award number SLFRP5534 awarded to the State of Tennessee by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

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