Author Retraces Life In Tobacco, Cotton

Cornell Cox has chronicled not only his own life and that of his family, but of tobacco in the 20th Century. His book, Promise of Better Days takes readers through the historic and personal aspects of Mr. Cox’s life. Story and photo courtesy The Daily Record

There’s no doubt that North Carolina sits in the heart of the tobacco industry. For Johnston County native Cornell Cox, the farm he and his brother and sister grew up on made it a way of life.

Mr. Cox’s book, “Promise of Better Days, A Farm Boy’s Odyssey Through North Carolina’s Tobacco Way of Life,” uses 250 pictures intertwined with just over 300 pages to give readers a perspective that is both historic and personal.

“It’s about the hardship of cotton and flue-cured tobacco farming in the early part of the 20th century,” Mr. Cox explained. “It connects with my family. It’s my own personal story, going back to my family when three Cox brothers came down from Pennsylvania.”

In a recommendation of the book, former Gov. Jim Hunt wrote,  “During my FFA days and a term as state president, I got to know Cornell Cox and our friendship has continued for 60 years. He is a man of great character and among the biggest champions of FFA in America. … Thank you for this book, Cornell, which I’ve read with great interest and enjoyment.”

The book, which took about two and a half years to write and involved between 50 and 60 interviews, was inspired by a challenge the author received from a former Sampson County journalist during a Smithfield Rotary Club meeting. Mr. Cox is former president of the club.

“She came to a Rotary meeting one night and she talked and said everybody has a story to tell, everybody has a story,” Mr. Cox said. “I thought to myself, maybe I have a story tell. That was about 12 years ago.”

Mr. Cox finally got serious about writing the book after a visit to a modern farm in 2013, combined with the discovery of a plethora of family photos,  the two combined to fully rekindle his desire to bring his memoirs to life on the written page.

“It was about two weeks later I went to my granddaddy’s old living place, nobody was even living there,” Mr. Cox said. “But I found this old treasure trove of pictures in there. And I found pictures of my family putting in tobacco in 1947 and that is what really clinched it. I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to tell the story.’”

The book paints a picture of a family that, despite having religious objections to the crop, used tobacco farming as a means to survive.

One of the Cox brothers boated up the Neuse River and established the settlement of Quakerneck — the family were members of the Religious Society of Friends, aka Quakers — in Wayne County before deciding earning a living ultimately overrode moral objections.

“They were opposed to raising tobacco on moral grounds,” Mr. Cox said. “But the farms in that time with the large families were required to produce for survival.”

With the influx of new arrivals to the area, the farms were slowly trimmed down forcing the family to seek out a way to produce enough crops to stay afloat.

“It became the only thing they could make a living and survive on with a small tract of land,” Mr. Cox said. “The only thing was a little piece (of land) with flue-cured tobacco.”

The book chronicles his journey through life and his connections to Johnston County through various facets.

It gives a description of the roots the Cox clan developed in the area and how they moved forward as the tobacco boom of the 1970s in North Carolina offered a better life.

Mr. Cox uses the book to take readers from the family’s first farm through how modernization has taken hold. It gives readers a look at the changes that have shaped the industry and how tobacco eventually surpassed cotton as the major crop in Johnston County.

“It covers the progression of tobacco right on up to the 21st century,” Mr. Cox said. “It brings it right up to the modern day farming.”

Mr. Cox takes things a step further making his writing efforts a charitable act. Mr. Cox describes the book as both charitable and educational.

In addition to telling the story of his family, life in farming and the history with it, he also is donating tnet proceeds from the book to the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation, designated for the North Carolina FFA Foundation.

The book retails for $19.95 and is available on the internet at It’s also available at the Johnston County Heritage Center in Smithfield.