Farmers seek grants to help restore barns

Preservation Maryland aims to help save symbols of once-booming tobacco industry


Driving in his red pickup truck, Larry Wilson points to a housing development along Route 263 in Calvert County.

"I remember that being an open field, and where these houses are, I used to plant tobacco," said Wilson, 54. "When I was a young teenager, I helped my father, and I helped other farmers, and that's how I made money to buy my school clothes and my first car."

Wilson's family grew tobacco for four generations, beginning with his grandfather and ending with his 30-year-old son. Remnants of those tobacco days lie inside the dusty gray barn behind Wilson's three-story house in Huntingtown.

The barn that his grandfather built in 1928 hasn't been used to hang and dry tobacco since Wilson stopped growing the crop three years ago when it became unprofitable. Today, the barn holds the machines and tools he once used for planting and harvesting.

Tobacco farming is a dying way of life in Southern Maryland. But thousands of abandoned or deteriorating barns stand as proof of a once-booming business. Now two groups are aiming to save those vestiges as reminders of bygone days.

Save America's Treasures, a national nonprofit that preserves historic sites, is providing $200,000 to Maryland barn owners to help save them. The Maryland Historical Trust added $30,000 to restore barns owned by nonprofits.

Preservation Maryland, a nonprofit historic preservation group, will administer both grants. The funds are expected to be dispered over three years, with more than $75,000 awarded this year, spokeswoman said Connie Anderton said.

The money was earmarked after the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Southern Maryland's tobacco barns on its 2004 list of 11 Most Endangered Places.

Fifty-five barn owners from five counties - Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, St. Mary's and Prince George's - applied for grants of up to $10,000 each for renovations.

Five nonprofit tourist sites, including Greenwell State Park and Summerseat Farm in St. Mary's County, applied for money to restore barns. Winners must match grants with their own money.

A nine-member selection committee expects to announce soon the 10 to 15 Maryland barns that will receive funds, said Teresa Wilson, a historic preservation planner in St. Mary's County who is on the selection committee.

"The tobacco barns are really the most evocative representation of the agricultural heritage in Southern Maryland and certainly represented the tobacco industry - which was dominant in Maryland for centuries," said Joshua Phillips, director of preservation services at Preservation Maryland.

Greenwell State Park along the Patuxent River applied for $10,000 to restore the oldest barn in St. Mary's County, said Kendall Sorenson-Clark, executive director of the park. "It's a pretty unusual structure," Clark said. The initial structure was built around 1785, but three additions were built around it, all in different time periods, she said.

Wilson said he hopes to restore the siding and frame on his Calvert County barn if he gets the $2,100 grant he applied for. The barn, which is in good condition, serves mostly as a storage space.

"Old tobacco barns, I think, are an integral part of the scenery in Southern Maryland, especially in Calvert County," he said. "What Calvert County and all of Maryland was built on was the production of tobacco."

For more than 300 years, Southern Maryland farmers have been commercially growing tobacco. But production of the crop has sharply declined since the state initiated a buyout program in 1999 that paid farmers to replace tobacco with other crops.

"A lot of people just aren't willing to, just don't want to work for themselves, which is what a farmer does, and just don't see the value of putting in the sweat and labor of your own hands," Larry Wilson said. Still a farmer, he now grows pumpkins, tomatoes, corn and various produce and sells them at a stand outside his home.

On a drive through any of the five counties, tobacco barns can be spotted from the roadside. Teresa Wilson said that the effort to preserve them goes hand in hand with the movement to protect farmland.

"It's pretty key that to save agricultural buildings you have to save agricultural land," she said.

Politicians have joined the movement to preserve Maryland barns. The General Assembly passed a bill this session that would establish a $300,000 Maryland Barn Preservation Fund to save historic agricultural buildings, said Del. Paul S. Stull, a Republican from Frederick, who was lead sponsor of the measure. The bill is waiting to be signed by the governor.

Jennifer Fu writes for the Capital News Service.

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