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Tobacco Farm Life Museum
Tobacco barns were essential to the culture and economy of North Carolina. They were once ubiquitous across great swaths of the state, but they are fast disappearing as they fall into disuse and disrepair with the country’s changing attitudes toward smoking as well as its agricultural policies. North Carolina’s flue-cure tobacco barns are distinctive, purpose-built structures whose form is entirely shaped by their function—the heat curing of bright leaf tobacco through carefully controlled temperatures, with no smoke touching the leaf. The architecture is best understood within the context of the history of tobacco cultivation and the evolution of a highly specialized curing procedure. This flue-cured tobacco barn in Kenly has been preserved and made accessible to the public as part of the Tobacco Farm Life Museum.
Various regions of the nation have grown and cured tobacco in myriad ways, using different types of tobacco and of curing. Tobacco barns were built for different methods of cure, including large ventilated barns for air curing of burley tobacco (and serving other functions at other times of the year) in Kentucky and western North Carolina. In North Carolina’s northern Piedmont and Coastal Plain, the prevailing type is the distinctive, single-purpose barn erected and fitted specifically for an exacting heat cure process called flue-curing to produce what was called “bright leaf” tobacco.
The region, drained largely by the Roanoke and Dan rivers and their tributaries in south-central Virginia and north-central North Carolina, has been a center of American tobacco production from colonial times to the present. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Caswell, Granville, and adjacent counties in North Carolina and Virginia produced large quantities of dark tobacco, often on rich alluvial soils beside streams. The leaf was cured in various ways, including air curing and with open fires placed on the dirt floors of the barns.
It was in Caswell County, North Carolina, in 1839, according to a well-accepted account, that a great advance in curing came about to produce “bright” or “yellow” tobacco, a highly sought after leaf. According to tobacco historian Nannie May Tilley, Stephen Slade, an enslaved blacksmith working for farmer Abisha Slade, fell asleep while tending a barn of fire-cure tobacco. Awaking to find the fire almost out, he ran to the charcoal pit of a nearby blacksmith shop, seized some charred logs, and put them on the dying embers, suddenly raising the heat and producing tobacco of a marvelous bright yellow hue. Thus was discovered a certain sequence of heating would produce a highly desirable leaf, to the profit of the grower.
In the same period, growers experimented with different types of seeds and soils to produce the finest leaf. They found that the relatively thin soils of the uplands in these counties were ideal for the purpose, and they developed specific methods of planting, tending, and harvesting for the best results. The antebellum prosperity of this region soared with the development of bright tobacco. Farmers and their enslaved or hired workers developed expertise in managing the process, and some claimed superiority for one technique or another.
After the Civil War, the process became standardized with use of metal flues extending around the barn floors and attached to stone or brick furnaces built into the foundations. These systems distributed heat evenly, enabled more precise control of temperatures, and exhausted all smoke outside the barn. Numerous manufacturers developed types of flues and furnaces they advertised widely. In 1881, a North Carolina tobacco expert predicted accurately that the flue-curing process would soon supersede all other methods. In the twentieth century, kerosene and propane burners were introduced that did not use flues, but all tobacco produced in the region continued to be called “flue-cure.” In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, flue-cure production spread from the “Old Belt” counties of origin into the “New Belt” and “Border Belt” of much of eastern North Carolina, there supplanting cotton as the major cash crop and mainstay of the economy. Men from the Old Belt counties helped the eastern Carolinians develop the new crop.
Although a great many such barns have been lost, representative flue-cure tobacco barns still stand on farms in many parts of Piedmont and Eastern North Carolina. Most of them probably date from the twentieth century, though a few survive from earlier decades. Their form changed little over the years, though the heat sources might have been updated. Their purpose is to support heavy loads of hanging tobacco and be tight enough to contain the heat for exacting regulation of temperatures. Most such barns are roughly square in plan, often measuring 16 feet on a side, though some are larger. Some are wood framed and covered with vertical boards, but many, especially in the Old Belt, are constructed of logs daubed with clay. Some log barns have shallow pents along the upper walls to divert rainwater away from the logs below. There is usually a low door on one side and operable vents in the gables to help control temperature and release the heat at completion of the cure. Sheds on the sides sometimes sheltered equipment or the work of men, women, and children tying the fresh tobacco leaves to sticks in preparation for the cure. Especially in some areas of Eastern North Carolina, broad sheds gave the barns a distinctive form, extending on struts on one, two, three, or four sides.
Each barn has horizontal poles running the length of the barn, from which sticks of tobacco are hung for curing. A cluster of three leaves, called a “hand,” is tied to a tobacco stick, about thirty hands per stick. The horizontal space between poles, usually about four feet, is called a “room,” and the vertical space is called a “tier.” A sixteen-foot-square barn was typically four rooms wide and five tiers high, plus two additional tiers in the gable. Workers hoisted the loaded sticks up into the barn until it was properly packed for curing. A typical barn might hold about 400 sticks per cure. Once the heating process began, a cure might take up to a week, depending on the weather. The temperature was raised in stages, reaching 175 degrees or higher at the final stage to drive the last bit of moisture from the stems. The farmer or his employees or family members stayed by the barn day and night to assure the proper fuel and temperatures. Once a given cure was complete and the tobacco removed, the barn was used again for another load of tobacco. The leaf was harvested at intervals as it ripened in the field between July and September.
When the leaves reached the right degree of dryness and color and the cure was considered complete, workers carefully removed the sticks of tobacco to another building where they hung for a time to regain moisture. The tobacco was allowed through various methods to regain suppleness. Then skilled workers removed it from the sticks, graded it by quality and size, and arranged it for transportation to market. In the early years the tobacco was packed into hogsheads; later it was tied into hands and carried in baskets; still later it was carried loose in burlap sacks.
Additional tobacco-related buildings were erected on farms for the processes of stripping, ordering (allowing the cured leaves to regain moisture), grading, and storing. Both black and white workers, men, women, and children, participated in the various processes as many documentary photographs depict.
The traditional curing barns have been rendered obsolete by newer methods. “Bulk curing,” which requires less labor and automatically regulates heat in manufactured barns that resemble small trailers, has predominated for years, leaving the old barns as picturesque and ever disappearing features of the agricultural landscape. In recent years, too, the government regulation of tobacco growing has changed radically, with the allotment and price support system having ended and many farmers operating with a “contract” system with tobacco companies.
The barn at the Tobacco Farm Life Museum offers an excellent example of the building type: typical log construction, vertical proportions, a gable roof, and perimeter shed roof. The museum has been open since 1983, and the tobacco barn was moved to this location from a nearby farm. The Duke Homestead State Historic Site also has a publicly accessible tobacco barn.
“Tobacco Barns.” North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office. Accessed March 19, 2019. http://www.hpo.ncdcr.gov/.
Robert, Joseph Clarke. The Tobacco Kingdom: Plantation, Market, and Factory in Virginia and North Carolina, 1800-1860. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1938.
Sumner, Jim, and Michael T. Southern. “North Carolina Tobacco Barns.” North Carolina Historic Preservation Office Newsletter,Summer 1989.
Tilley, Nannie May. The Bright-Tobacco Industry, 1860-1929. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1948.
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