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RVA’s old tobacco smell is gone, but the big manufacturing plants remain

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RICHMOND, Va. -- Who remembers the old smells of Richmond ?

Freshly baked bread at the Wonder plant downtown.

The smell of cookies at FFV in midtown!

The fragrance of Sauer's spices being milled. (You can still savor that one at Broad and Meadow streets.)

The amazing annual chimney fires at Todd's Hams that would make the whole town smell like barbecue.

And, of course, that heavy/sweet aroma of tobacco wafting from the city's many curing sheds.

"It was a smell you could not get rid of that easy," Sandra Fox recalled. "You could go on the other side of town and still have it in your nose."

Fox works in a strap-making plant (I.M. Manufacturing) on the second floor of the old Model Tobacco manufacturing plant on Jefferson Davis Highway in South Richmond.

It is perhaps the most iconic monument to Richmond's long and lingering era as king of the tobacco towns.

The sleek and distinctive Art Deco plant was designed by a Chicago architectural firm and was built in the late 1930s as the industry (and smoking) exploded in popularity.

Tobacco had long been Virginia's cash crop. It saved the colonies here and totally transformed our area after John Rolfe (of Pocahontas fame) first grew his version of the Caribbean weed near Richmond in 1612.

It was literally the coin of the realm. (A tobacco leaf adorns the ceiling in our State Capitol Building.)

For a long time, slaves did much of the dirty work and even helped refine the curing process. But after the Civil War came the machines and then the modern plants.

Before the big fall in the mid-80s, Richmond's plants employed 10,000 and more, many of them living in blocks and blocks of small mill cottages just north of the South Richmond plants.

Now only Philip Morris/Altria mass-produces butts in Tobacco Town, but the mammoth monuments to manufacture linger on Jefferson Davis, adding a rundown flavor to a strip of south Richmond that has long fought its reputation for prostitutes and seedy hotels.

The vast American Manufacturing plant two blocks away from Model is slowly being transformed into nearly 300 apartments, along with some artisan spaces planned for some of the old drying sheds.

It is hoped Model Tobacco will follow suit to reinvigorate the area, as has happened in some of the other old tobacco districts in Manchester and Shockoe.

Yes, there were a lot of tobacco plants - one estimate lists 70-plus - during Richmond's heyday as Tobacco Town.