For nearly 25 years, from 1944 to 1968, hundreds of teenage girls from Florida cities like Sarasota, Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando, and Miami—came to Camp Manitook in Granby to stay for two months and worked the shade-grown tobacco fields in the Farmington Valley.
The girls were bussed from Florida straight to Granby, a 24-hour drive. Imperial Tobacco Company owned 10 acres on the west shore of Lake Manitook and built a large dining hall, large dock, and two-story cabins to accommodate the girls. Each room had two bunk beds for four girls, with a total of 150 girls staying for the summer. There were two other camps nearby, one in West Granby, which housed girls from Pennsylvania, and another in Tariffville, which also hosted young women from Florida.
The work was not complex , but it was repetitive, tedious, dirty, and often dangerous. Most of the young women worked in the tobacco barns, sewing the tobacco leaves to wooden laths. In addition to the young women from Florida, boys from Georgia, Florida and West Virginia came up for the summer to labor in the fields where they were responsible for taking the leaves off the plant stalks and stacking them in totes for transport to the barn being filled that day.
There, the girls worked in teams of two, sewing the leaves onto long wooden laths with heavy needles. When the laths were full, they were hoisted up into the rafters of the tobacco barn to be cured. The girls had to be careful not to injure their fingers or puncture their palms with the large needle used for sewing. The boys hoisting the laths of leaves up into the rafters had to watch their step, so they wouldn’t fall anywhere from 10 to 30 feet. The heat was brutal as well. Whether under the tent or in the barn, temperatures were in the 90s and often higher and extremely humid.
The typical workday for the girls began at 5 a.m. with breakfast by 6 a.m. A bus took them to the tobacco field and they started work by 7:30 a.m. Lunch was at noon, each girl receiving a bagged lunch consisting of a sandwich, piece of fruit, and a carton of milk. After lunch, they worked until 3:30 p.m. with 15-minute breaks in the morning and the afternoon. Returning from camp at the end of the workday, the girls would see if they got mail from home and shower before supper. This was the routine Monday through Friday for two months. After supper and on weekends, there was no work. However, the “Manitook girls” were kept busy and they enjoyed the lake and relaxing on the large sunny dock.
Granby was the first town to create activities for the young workers, so they stayed busy, had fun, and would not be homesick. Mrs. Storrs Brigham was the chairman of the Activity Committee, which included: Mrs. Ernest Pendleton, Mrs. Theodore Case, Mrs. Phillip Denvew, Mrs. Arnold Storrs from Simsbury, and Reverend Henry Wright of West Granby.
This committee came up with activities for the young women at Camp Manitook, as well as the West Granby and Tariffville camps. They had a marching band (picture shown, taken in 1949), swimming in Manitook Lake, softball, volleyball, and boating. Some weekends, they took trips to Hartford or Boston or visited sites in Connecticut. On some Sunday mornings, the girls went to church and sang with the choir. On Saturdays, the girls may have visited the boys’ camps or gone to dances.
Each of the three camps had directors and counselors from Florida who were faculty members of local Florida high schools or from Florida Southern University.
The camps were regularly inspected by the State Health Commissioner, and the tobacco fields were inspected by the State Labor Commission. On July 19, 1944, Governor Raymond Baldwin, the State Police Commissioner, and the State Labor Commissioner toured Camp Manitook, the West Granby Camp, and Tariffville Camp, giving them high marks for their labor conditions and rereaassuring Florida parents that their daughters were well cared for.
By the first of September, the girls headed home to Florida to get ready for high school, which started two weeks later. On the way back, they toured New York City for two days, saw Radio City Music Hall and the Rockettes, or attractions like the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State building.
“It was the greatest adventure of my life. I wish I could do it again, mostly for the camaraderie,” stated Ann Gainey-Tucker of Orlando, Florida, who worked the summers of 1966 and 1967. “I made so many new friends from all over the United States.”
Camp Manitook existed into the 70s, but its popularity slowed. In the summers of 1986 and 1987, only 50 girls from Florida and Pennsylvania stayed at Camp Manitook and worked for the Culbro Corporation and, over time, the program ended as the tobacco industry declined in the Valley.
Want to learn more about Camp Manitook, tobacco, and agriculture in Granby? Join the Salmon Brook Historical Society by calling 860-653-9506 or go online at salmonbrookhistoricalsociety.com