Tobacco barns a vanishing part of agriculture

Rot and fire claim the tall, narrow structures in N.C. landscape

July 15, 2002|By Hannah Mitchell | Hannah Mitchell,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WESTFIELD, N.C. - Inside one of his grandfather's wooden tobacco barns, Stokes County farmer Thomas Gallant spent a chilly afternoon last fall hanging his tobacco harvest for curing.

Muscled and tan from years in tobacco fields, the spindly 53-year-old climbed horizontal wooden poles to the ceiling. "You almost have to be kin to a gray squirrel to do this," he said.

In the damp, dark barn, he balanced himself between two poles as a helper handed up sticks of green tobacco leaves. Gallant placed them on the poles as if he were hanging clothes to dry.

"Everybody in this country says I'm crazy," he said. "It's a lot of work in a stick barn."

Once, wooden tobacco barns sat along almost every country road in North Carolina, but today they're fading from the landscape like Gallant's last crop. Few farmers still cure tobacco the old way. Most long ago switched to modern metal curing barns for efficiency. Year by year, the old buildings disappear in rot or flame, taking with them an irreplaceable piece of the state's landscape and history.

Some are finding new uses for the old barns, and others are actively trying to save them. Losing them all would be tragic, say some historians and farmers.

"Tobacco has become a pariah, and some people may be uncomfortable with preserving tobacco barns," said historian Michael Southern of the Office of State Archaeology. "But they represent a way of life that many thousands of North Carolinians experienced for generations. In that regard they deserve a little respect."

Southern's grandfather raised tobacco, and he hopes some barns survive so future North Carolinians can learn about the crop that made their state the nation's tobacco king.

Southern set up a Web site encouraging people to reuse tobacco barns. The state once had 400,000 to 500,000 wooden flue-curing barns, he said. Today, an estimated 50,000 remain, but many vanish each year.

Some people burned their barns in the 1980s at the urging of the Eastern North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. The chamber encouraged landowners to restore or get rid of empty farm buildings in a campaign to make property more attractive to new industry.

Other farmers destroyed unused barns to avoid paying property taxes on them, said Mike Boyette, a North Carolina State University professor. "There was a spate 10 or 12 years ago where every night, a tobacco barn was being burned."

Finding new uses

For the barns that remain, people are finding surprising new uses.

Mike Windhom's Murfreesboro company makes floors out of wood from abandoned tobacco barns. Airedale Woodworks gives its customers a picture of the barn their floor came from. Windhom said he installed a floor and staircase last year in actress Michelle Pfeiffer's Los Angeles home.

The Pilot Knob Inn in Pilot Mountain rents century-old tobacco barns that its former owner moved from nearby farms and converted into cozy cabins. Jacuzzi bathtubs and queen-size beds sit where tobacco leaves once roasted. Honeymooners, retirees, couples and some former tobacco farmers vacation in them. "People say they look a lot better than the ones they used to work in," said inn co-owner Jennifer Banks.

In Randleman, south of Greensboro, computer specialist Fred Staley moved a tobacco barn, log by log, from his grandparents' farm to his home for a backyard sanctuary.

He makes pottery and stained glass inside, and his wife's cat, Ellie, sleeps there. Electricity and a cat door are the only breaks from tradition. "You sort of feel like you're slipping back in time," Staley said. "It still has the smell that came from tobacco."

Tobacco climbed to economic prominence in North Carolina in the 1850s, after the railroads came and farmers started curing tobacco using a new scientific process that produced a yellow leaf. The bright-leaf, as it's now called, became the principal tobacco used in cigarettes.

That controlled process, which cures tobacco over days in gradually intensified heat, led to the specialized design of barns seen today on old farms and in abandoned fields.

They stand apart from other farm buildings because of their uniformity - tall and narrow, usually 16 feet square, with a single door and window to keep in the heat. Sometimes they sported a lean-to shed or overhanging roof to protect workers from the sun during housing, or hanging, tobacco for curing. Farmers built them with timber from their property, frequently pine, hewing the logs by hand and chinking them with clay.

Inside, five or more horizontal tiers of poles hang for holding sticks strung with tobacco leaves. A furnace in the barn's foundation distributed heat and filtered smoke outside through metal flues. Most farmers used wood furnaces until the late 1940s, when most switched to oil to save time and labor.

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