Photo exhibit tells story of tobacco grower

Photo by CHARLES MARTINNow at the West Baton Rouge Parish Museum in Port Allen is Charles Martin's photo exhibit 'Perique Mystique.'
Photo by CHARLES MARTINNow at the West Baton Rouge Parish Museum in Port Allen is Charles Martin's photo exhibit 'Perique Mystique.'

The beauty of this story is found in the old ways, how the same old steps lead to the same old results.

Results that produce some of the strongest and most flavorful tobacco in the world.

But it wouldn’t be the same tobacco if changes were made to a process that’s been in place since the 19th century, when French Acadian settlers made their home in St. James Parish and began growing and harvesting perique tobacco.

But for a long time Charles Martin, a descendant from those early settlers, wanted no part of it. Until he stepped back to get a better look.

Then he knew it had to be preserved, so he started snapping photographs, all of which are now part of the exhibit, “Perique Mystique: Photographs by Charles Martin,” which runs through Nov. 3 at the West Baton Rouge Museum.

The photos first were compiled into a book simply titled “Perique,” published in 2012 by The Historic New Orleans Collection, which also exhibited the photos.

Now the exhibit is traveling throughout the state, making its first stop in West Baton Rouge. Martin visited recently and explained through a presentation the Perique process.

Perique tobacco is named for Acadian Pierre “Perique” Chenet, often credited as the first farmer to begin selling “le tabac de perique” in 1824 on the east bank of St. James Parish. It’s said he learned the pressure fermenting process from the Choctaw and Chicasaw Indian tribes, who aged tobacco in stumps in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Chenet traded stumps for wine barrels, but changed little else.

The cultivation process is intensive, and its curing rituals have been handed down through generations of a handful of local families, including Martin’s.

Martin grew up on a tobacco farm when the tobacco business was booming. He left to explore other business opportunities and now owns a restaurant in Gramercy.

But the old ways drew Martin back to the Perique fields. Demand had decreased, and production was waning. A centuries-old way of doing things was fast becoming a lost art. Martin didn’t want to see it disappear.

So, he turned his camera to the tobacco fields of his youth. Suddenly, the harvest didn’t seem old-fashioned, it was something special.Martin explained that Perique is a strong tobacco, used as a blend in tobacco products. In recent years it has been under contract with the Santa Fe Tobacco Co. in New Mexico.

Business once again is booming. But it hasn’t changed the way business is done.

The Perique fields encompass a 30-mile tract of land in St. James Parish. It is the only tobacco grown and processed for the consumer by the farmer. It begins with the harvest of seeds from pods.

“The seeds are very small,” Martin says, referring to a photo of farmer Percy Martin’s calloused hands holding a small pile of tiny seeds.“But that thimble of seeds will plant an entire acre of tobacco,” Martin says.

The growth process goes from the planting of seeds in hot beds and then transferring them to the fields; breaking the stalks so the plants will fill out with leaves; breaking the leaves; removing the stems and hanging tobacco to dry in a specially built barn.

After that, leaves are stamped into whiskey barrels, which are sealed, and then the tobacco ferments for a year.

Most of it is done by hand, as it’s always been done.

And Martin has captured it in black and white images.

“I thought black and white would be the best way to capture an old process,” Martin says.