Vestiges of earlier America, tobacco barns hold allure for preservationists

McClatchy Washington BureauJanuary 29, 2014 

— The quaint village of Port Tobacco in the rolling hills of southern Maryland, an hour from Washington, has a few pre-Revolutionary War homes on a square and a rebuilt courthouse that only hint at what was a once-important river port and a colony built on the export of tobacco.

The tributary that connected the town to the Potomac River and the seas beyond is mostly silted over now. But from the 17th century, when local Indians taught colonists about tobacco, to the 19th century, ships took the crop to eager buyers in England.

A few hundred feet away from the square, perilously close to a busy two-lane road, is an iconic symbol of that era: a weathered tobacco barn, 20 feet by 40 feet. Once used to cure tobacco leaves, it’s now falling down . But an effort is underway to restore it, along with others like it.

Areas in tobacco-growing states – Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia and Maryland – are dotted with the wooden barns, some that date to the Revolutionary War, others to the boom years after the Civil War, when the Union soldiers discovered the sweet tobacco of the South. Many more were built in the 20th century.

Tobacco use has declined sharply because of health concerns; 18 percent of U.S. adults smoke now, down from 42 percent in 1965, according to government figures. Even the image of tobacco has suffered. Eric Lawson, who portrayed the iconic Marlboro Man in print ads from 1978 to 1981, died this month at age 72 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a smoking-related lung illness.

With the buyout of tobacco-growing farmers in the 2000s after a settlement with cigarette makers, it’s the barns, many in disrepair, that remain. And now they’ve drawn the interest of historic preservationists.

“It’s a very important part of our history here, our culture, in the tobacco regions,” said Eldred “Wink” Prince, a history professor and expert in tobacco culture at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C. “These barns are good things, and they deserve to be remembered and preserved.”

A Japanese tobacco company is launching a $100,000 pilot grant program this month through Preservation Virginia, a nonprofit group, to help restore tobacco barns. Preservation groups also are promoting private and local government restorations, such as the Port Tobacco barn work, which is under the supervision of the local county government.

For Jeff Thompson, a contractor who’s restored dozens of tobacco barns in southern Maryland since the National Park Service gave the state a $200,000 grant in 2006, the movement brings a special satisfaction.

“It is an icon, especially of southern Maryland,” he said.

On a tour of barns Thompson has rebuilt in the region, he pointed out a Port Tobacco barn’s wooden pegs, instead of nails, holding the boards together. The barn dates to 1835.

Inside several of the barns are the remains of a once-thriving industry: an array of scattered wooden slats, once laid out in neat rows where the leaves would hang until they were cured.

In North Carolina, where the barns are a different style from Maryland’s, recognition is growing that time is running out.

“There were a few hundred thousand of them at one time, and now there’s maybe a thousand,” said Michael Southern, senior architectural historian at the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office. “They disappear every day. These are a neglected type of historic icons. It’s hard to overstate the importance of tobacco in the North Carolina economy.”

Caswell County, a northern North Carolina county that still produces tobacco, was the choice of JTI – Japan Tobacco International – to be one of three tobacco-region counties, along with Halifax and Pittsylvania counties in Virginia, in its pilot program, phase one of a $300,000 project.

“Some of the barns that will be restored are almost 150 years old and have been in the families of area tobacco growers for generations,” said Ward Anderson, a spokesman for JTI Leaf Services, the company’s U.S. arm, located in the Virginia tobacco region.

Farmers will be eligible to receive up to $4,500 to fix their barns, according to Betsy Edwards, the development director of Preservation Virginia, the nonprofit agency that’s running the program. She said the company “felt that it was a very tangible way to preserve the history of tobacco.”

The Virginia and North Carolina barns, often made from logs, are smaller than their Maryland counterparts because the tobacco there is “flue-cured,” meaning it was cured from a heat source, such as a fireplace, that ran a flue through the interior so that the heat would dry the leaves. In Maryland, with a different type of tobacco, the barns are referred to as “air-cured,” meaning they allow ventilation through the boards.

“They became a major part of the rural landscape, so much so that they’re a symbol of rural Virginia that we don’t want to lose,” said Sonja Ingram, a Danville, Va.-based official with Preservation Virginia.

Preservation North Carolina has been focusing on another aspect of tobacco heritage: the large factories and warehouses left empty after the shift away from tobacco. The group promoted the use o f federal and state historic tax credits for the conversion of R.J. Reynolds’ old factory in Winston-Salem to a biotech center.

In Durham, a tobacco warehouse-factory complex that’s now the American Tobacco Historic District – combining offices, shops and residences – has transformed the downtown.

“There’s not been a really direct effort to save the barns,” said Myrick Howard, the president of Preservation North Carolina, who supports the idea.

Tobacco barn owners might be eligible for state and federal historic tax credits help finance restorations, but the requirements are pretty strict.

In South Carolina, tobacco took off as a cash crop in the 1890s in the eastern part of the state.

“I think they’re a tangible reminder of the agricultural history of the state, which is pretty much gone now,” said Eric Emerson, the director of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. “It’s important that physical reminders of our history exist.”

Farther south, in the coastal plain of Georgia, tobacco was also an important cash crop, after cotton. Tobacco barns were part of the landscape in southern Georgia, near the Florida border.

“There was one down every dirt road,” said Brian Brown, a photographer who’s taken pictures of more than 100 tobacco barns for his blog, Vanishing South Georgia.

Though he said many older residents remembered the hard work of spearing tobacco plants and putting them in the barns, “people like to look at them down here.”

Still, there are few programs to save the barns. Georgia’s state Historic Preservation Division has a Centennial Farms awards program that pays tribute to farms run by families for at least 100 years, program manager Stephanie Cherry-Farmer said, adding that several “have tobacco barns on them.”

But there are no funds to restore them.

Kentucky has a unique twist on conservation, with a Quilt Trail Project that encourages barn owners to paint or place 8-foot by 8-foot boards with colorful quilt patterns that tourists then drive around to look at.

“It started as a combined effort to save the barns and celebrate quilting,” said Judy Sizemore, an independent arts consultant who formerly worked with the Kentucky Arts Council. “It’s largely tobacco barns, because that’s what we have.”

Combining quilts and tobacco made sense, she said, because “that’s part of Kentucky’s heritage.”

Tobacco is celebrated as part of southern Maryland’s traditions, too. Dorothy Duffield, who came out in curlers to greet visitors to her farm, The Napping, paid for half the restoration – the rest came from federal funds – of the 1835 tobacco barn on her family’s longtime property.

“This has always been a part of my life,” she said.

It’s a connection to tobacco that many people here still feel. This year’s Charles County Fair will crown its 79th “Queen Nicotina.”

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