Walter in the Weeds: Elizabeth, do you need a light?

A quirky sculpture of Sir Walter Raleigh made from an old tobacco case inspires a deeper look into his history with the crop.
by Katherine Snow Smith | photography by Bryan Regan

Several years ago, when I was living in St. Petersburg, Florida, some friends gave me a gift in honor of my native city: a quirky little sculpture of Sir Walter Raleigh that they found at an art show. Sir Walter has watched over me from above my desk ever since. Recently, I decided to figure out who made him — and look a little deeper into his namesake’s smoking habits, too.

Turns out, it’s quite fitting that folk artist Melissa Menzer uses a Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco tin for the body of this mixed media portrayal of him. History largely credits Sir Walter for introducing the New World “weed” to the folks back in England.

The explorer and adventurer is believed to have picked up an appreciation for tobacco when the leaf was brought back from the 1584 and 1585 expeditions he sponsored to Roanoke Island, years before the ill-fated 1587 Lost Colony settlement.

According to the National Park Service, “Early on, the medicinal properties of tobacco were of great interest to Europe. Over a dozen books published around the middle of the sixteenth century mention tobacco as a cure for everything from pains in the joints to epilepsy to plague.”

Critics, however, were early to question this gift from the New World. In 1617, Dr. William Vaughn wrote: Tobacco, that outlandish weed/ It spends the brain, and spoiles the seede/ It dulls the spirite, it dims the sight/ It robs a woman of her right.

Despite the critics, Sir Walter is “credited with the introduction of pipe smoking in court circles,” even though “it was at first perceived as a strange and even alarming habit,” says the Park Service. Legend even has it that Sir Walter even offered the herb to his sovereign (and rumored lover) Elizabeth I.

We all know how science eventually ruled on tobacco’s impacts on health. But Raleighites can still appreciate Menzer’s nod to North Carolina’s early output and Sir Walter’s experimental mentality.

The artist, who lives in Sanford, Florida, has made many renditions of our city’s namesake as well as other less famous characters. “I love the Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco because his face is on the tin,” she says. “I’m always looking for old tobacco tins. They make great bodies.”

Menzer’s proud of another Raleigh connection: Her son works for Advance Auto Parts. I find it ironic that a Floridian made this ode to Raleigh — and that had I not lived in the Sunshine State, I might have never met him.

When I face writer’s block, I sometimes look at my little officemate and lose myself examining his delicately sculpted accordion collar and bearded face. I ponder what he might think of the fabulous Tar Heel state he spearheaded. Then I shudder to think of that fine head landing in a basket on the other side of an axe outside the Tower of London.

Which makes me think of dead… then deadline… and I get my own head back to work.

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.