Md. tobacco barns nearing extinction

Heritage: The decline of tobacco farming in Southern Maryland has put the structures once used to dry the crop on a list of endangered places.

May 25, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

In the past four years, the state of Maryland has worked to ease itself out of the cigarette business by buying out nearly all of the farmers who grow tobacco. But the success of the program has endangered more than the brown leaf grown in the southern part of the state since the 17th century.

The buyout, along with suburban sprawl into farmland, has endangered the wood-framed tobacco barns used to dry the crop, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Yesterday, the trust included tobacco barns of Southern Maryland on this year's list of America's Most Endangered Historic Places.

"These barns are well-worn icons of Maryland's history and culture," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust. "They are defining symbols of the region, and are considered vital to telling the story of Southern Maryland's rich heritage, which covers more than four centuries. It is critical that we preserve these historic barns and their agricultural landscapes by helping to keep the barns and land in productive agricultural use."

The trust's designation seeks to draw attention and resources to places deemed important to the social fabric of the nation. More than 160 sites have been named since 1988.

Others on this year's list include Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s sprawling, shuttered factory in Bethlehem, Pa., the Madison-Lenox Hotel in Detroit, and 2 Columbus Circle in New York.

In Maryland, a group of preservationists in a five-county region decided not to let the barns be neglected or bulldozed without a fight. They nominated the estimated 5,000 barns to the trust's endangered list.

Teresa Wilson, a preservation planner for St. Mary's County, and Kirsti Uunila, a historic preservation specialist for Calvert County, are two who have been seeking resources and expertise on how to convert the barns to new uses. They are working with state and national historical groups to lobby politicians and the public for aid.

Many barns started to deteriorate after their owners, former tobacco farmers, took advantage of the state buyout. Farmers would like to save them, they say, but the costs are too high for buildings they can no longer use.

Farmers in the buyout program are required to switch to new crops for at least 10 years to continue collecting payments, but only some other crops, such as hay and cut flowers, need space in a barn. The barns come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and some farmers use them for storage.

Franklin Wood, who is among the 15 percent of the state's tobacco farmers who did not take the buyout, said he uses his barn for drying tobacco and two of his parents' barns next door for equipment storage. He plans to continue growing the leaf for foreign cigarette-makers on about 8 acres in Huntingtown as long as he can. His son and grandson plan to continue tobacco farming, which is now dominated by Amish farmers in Maryland who declined the government money to stop.

He said many of his fellow tobacco farmers, who numbered more than 1,000 before the buyout, tore down their barns when they agreed to stop growing tobacco. Others let them rot. Still others have been lost to rapid development changing the face of Southern Maryland.

"It would be a shame to see them go," Wood said. "They are a part of our landscape, our culture and our heritage. And so many are sitting there abandoned."

Endangered places

The National Trust for Historic Preservation's new list of America's Most Endangered Historic Places:

2 Columbus Circle building, New York City

Ridgewood Ranch, home of Seabiscuit, Willits, Calif.

Bethlehem Steel Plant, Bethlehem, Pa.

Elkmont Historic District, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn.

Gullah/Geechee Coast, S.C. and Ga.

Tobacco barns of Southern Maryland

Madison-Lenox Hotel, Detroit.

Historic Cook County Hospital, Chicago

George Kraigher House, Brownsville, Texas

Nine Mile Canyon, Carbon and Duchesne counties, Utah

The state of Vermont

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