Pomp Fenity's receipt from Shelton's Warehouse
Gretna, Virginia 1917

Sometimes you won't immediately recognize the significance of what you're seeing when you're scanning documents at someone else's house. It took me until about a month ago to understand what these are.

Tobacco farming has a reputation for being the signature crop of wealth in the American South. I had no concept of how simplistic that understanding was until I saw the way my ancestors went about selling tobacco from their farm. Not to mention some of the meager profits they took home.

If you had a large plantation that could bring a large yield, certainly it was booming business. But for the more humble farmer, it was a very different story.

Tobacco was auctioned off in warehouses. You could only get what someone was willing to pay for the amount of crop you had. Whereas the market among the wealthy plantations was all about monopoly, the poor man's game was about being first and haggling a price. Warehouses could also charge auction fees, commissions, working fees--all sorts of ways to skim profits off the top of someone's paycheck.

There was no guarantee that the average farmer would make a decent profit on his crop. And once it was sold for a given price, there was no do-over. No second chances at a different warehouse offering a better price. It was just gone.

Pomp Fenity kept all of his receipts from what he made at auction. I have 19 of these receipts, ranging in time from 1902 to 1928. They come from nine different warehouses, so you can see how they shopped around. Once I looked over them carefully, I could begin to see that each one told a story about more than just a business transaction.

This one from Acree's Warehouse in 1918 is one of my favorites.

Callie Fenity on receipt from Acree's Warehouse
Danville, VA 1918

Note the giant red tribute to the liberty bonds and home front support of World War I. Pomp Fenity served his country during WWI, so caring for the farm fell to the other members of his family. The home and their family of 6 children would largely fall to Annie. She had lost a son in July the previous year, and another in May of 1918. With her husband engaged in supporting the war, her struggle must have born upon her with an unimaginable weight.

Surely this left a large responsibility of the farm to fall upon the children to support. In 1918, the two oldest children were John W. Fenity, 13 and Callie May Fenity, 11. The remaining children range in age from 3 to 9 years old.

I had always been told that Callie couldn't read or write especially well because she dropped out of school to "work the farm." But I never understood what that meant until I saw an 11 year old little girl selling tobacco on her father's behalf during World War I.

I treasure these insights into my ancestors' lives. Their struggle becomes palpable the moment you truly understand the fact behind the figures. The truth is found in some pretty surprising places, so be sure you don't miss a golden opportunity because something looks too ordinary to be interesting.