The man behind the tobacco festival

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By Martha Jacob

From 1972 until 2013, the Village of Ripley was the home of one of the biggest annual events in Southern Ohio. It was the home of ‘The Ohio Tobacco Festival.’

A gentleman by the name of Jim Wells is credited with starting the Tobacco Festival while he worked for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in the early 1980’s.

“I actually lived in Brown County for 66 years,” Mr. Wells said. “Today I’m 90 years old and living in Kentucky near my daughter Kimberly Wells Lundergan Routt.”

“I was a county agriculture agent in Kentucky for about three years before being transferred to Ohio where I became a 4H agent in Portsmouth. At that time George Pulliam was the Brown County agent for more than 20 years when he retired.

“So I joined the staff in Brown County as 4H agent and started on July 1, 1957.”

At that time in Ohio history, the Ohio State University had set up Extension Offices in every county in Ohio. It was an educational program that worked with farmers and homemakers and 4H kids.

“I became the agriculture agent at the office in Georgetown,” Wells said. “We offered programs in tobacco production, cattle production, corn, soy beans, etc., and it was my job to get educational and helpful information to all the farmers in Brown County.

“After serving in Brown County for 10 years I was promoted to an area job in agriculture where I covered all the tobacco growing counties in Southern Ohio.”

Wells said he ended up working at the Agriculture Research Farm in Ripley, where he eventually retired from. He said he continued to be involved in the production of burley tobacco.

“After retiring from the research farm, I took a job with the Ohio Farm Bureau,” Wells said. “I got involved in a tobacco program sponsored by the R.J. Reynolds Company. once in a while I got to travel with that company and went to Winston Salem, NC, the company’s home office.

“In about 1982, while with the R.J. Reynolds company, my wife Doris and I went to a big Tobacco Festival, sponsored by the Reynolds company, held in Danville, Virginia.

“We couldn’t believe all the tobacco industry events that took place at that festival. We watched events like the Budweiser Team of horses, tobacco cutting contests, tobacco spitting, you name it, they had it.”

Wells said he was so intrigued by the attendance of that tobacco festival that he took the opportunity to talk to the R.J. Reynolds people about the prospect of holding a Tobacco Festival in Ripley, the home of the three tobacco market warehouses in the state.

“Those Reynolds people told me to talk to other people in the county about having a Tobacco Festival in Ripley and form a committee of concerned citizens,” Wells said. “So that was the beginning of the Ohio Tobacco Festival.”

“I immediately called a lot of the people I knew who had the same passion as I had for burley tobacco. Burley tobacco actually started in the Village of Higginsport, something they are very proud of.”

Wells said he has vivid memories of some of the people involved in that first Ripley Ohio Tobacco Festival including Billy and Joann Fauth, Harry Joe Koehler, Greg Pfeffer, David and Dwayne Campbell and Jim and Marsha Arnold and organizer of the festival, C.O. Thomas, chairman of the committee. Wells said there were others, but he couldn’t recall their names.

“That first year we held the Ohio Tobacco Festival in Ripley we had well over 5,000 people, and it grew in popularity every year thereafter,” Wells said with a big smile. “It was held in the old tobacco warehouses in the village. It got huge and had carnival rides for kids, a parade, a queen of the festival competition, tobacco worm races, tobacco cutting, spitting and pipe smoking competitions.

“The whole purpose of the festival was to promote the history of burley tobacco,” Wells explained, it was never to encourage smoking in any way.

“We had some big-time country entertainers at the festival and even had Marge Schott and her dog Schottzie as grand marshal one year. Several governors and lots of congressmen attended the festival.”

Wells said that by the mid 2000’s, with growing concerns of the effects of smoking, the Ohio Tobacco Festival had pretty much run its course. It was moved out of the tobacco warehouse into the downtown Ripley area and had somehow lost its luster and appeal.

“The village tried to revitalize the festival by re-naming it the Ohio Farmer’s Festival,” Wells said, “but it never really came back after being taken out of the warehouses.”

Wells said many people wanted to preserve the rich burley tobacco history in Ripley and in 1990 with the help of the Ohio Tourism Committee, State Senator Cooper Snyder and State Representative Harry Malott, a building was purchased and the Ohio Tobacco Museum was opened.

“One of my good friends and co-worker Don Chandler was instrumental in getting the tobacco museum up and running,” Wells said. “I am proud in my years of service in helping preserve the burley tobacco history.”

Jim Wells can be reached by writing to James Wells, Thompson Hood Veterans Center, 100 Veterans Drive, Room 122A, Wilmore, KY, 40390. To schedule at trip to the Ohio Tobacco Museum. 703 S. 2nd Street in Ripley, (937) 392-9410.

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