Arts & Culture

The Story of Tobacco Barns in North Carolina

  • By Susan Kelly
  • Photography by Jay Sinclair

Tobacco barns once numbered a half million and were fixtures on farms across the state. Today, only about 50,000 still stand, vestiges of the tobacco industry, deteriorating reminders of the leaves’ influence on our culture.

tobacco-barn

One Christmas, my Stokes County grandfather gave me two shares of R. J. Reynolds stock as a gift. I’d rather have had a Mattel Vac-U-Form. But then, four times a year, a check for $2.80 arrived with my name on it, for which I hadn’t had to feed the dog or pull weeds. Tobacco sent me free money.

I knew tobacco. On family car trips, we sang out the names of the crops we passed. Corn was the easiest, of course, and the most prevalent. Massed and low-growing dullards such as soybeans were a disappointment. But oh, tobacco, with its dramatically changing appearance: deep green in the summer with symmetrical broad, fleshy leaves; then crowned with yellow-white heads; and finally stripped and plucked in fall, with pathetically naked stalks. From the backseat I’d vainly try to fix my eyes upon a single row before it blurred and vanished, swallowed into its whole. In the middle of this vast nowhere stood a lone wooden structure — tall, gabled, unpainted, windowless, weathered, and as instantly recognizable as the crop itself: the tobacco barn.

•••

In the 1950s, half a million tobacco barns in North Carolina dotted their tobacco belts: Old Bright Belt, Middle Belt, Border Belt, New Bright Belt, and Burley Belt. Most barns were tall, plain, 20-feet-by-20-feet square buildings built of hewn logs and mortar, or sawn timber reinforced with tin. Or, “whatever the dollar would buy to get the job done,” says Bill Monk, an 86-year-old retired tobacco executive whose family business, A. C. Monk & Company, in Farmville, processed tobacco. Its evolution from family-owned to Monk-Austin to DIMON to its current incarnation as Alliance One mirrors the history of North Carolina tobacco, from family acreage to industrialized crop.

“Here in North Carolina, most tobacco barns were far and away for flue-cured tobacco,” Monk says. Flue-cured tobacco gets its name from the drying process: outside the barn, a narrow, inverted U-shaped furnace about two feet across and three feet high was fed pine logs to generate smoke. Furnace types varied depending on where the barn was located. “In the Piedmont,” Monk says, “the furnace would be built of stones. But here in the flat land, that raw material wasn’t readily available. Our furnaces were brick.”

Drawn by the chimney, indirect heat was distributed throughout the barn via ductwork that crisscrossed the dirt floor. Huge, hinged shutters on the sides or roof were opened and closed with ropes and pulleys to regulate the temperature within the barn. In just a few days, a leaf can lose 80 percent of its weight; in the first two weeks of the curing process, an acre of hanging tobacco sheds nearly five tons of water.

•••

When my children were in elementary school, they were duly indoctrinated regarding the evils of smoking. Righteous and confident, they chastised their grandmother, a smoker. Smoking is unhealthy — agreed. But no North Carolinian should be unaware of tobacco’s importance to our state’s history, culture, and economics; tobacco was the golden leaf that built cities and universities and sustained thousands upon thousands of Tar Heel families. A wee bit indignant, I took their education in hand, and we embarked on a literal field trip east to Pitt County, where family in the tobacco business arranged for us to visit working fields, inspect a migrant picker’s quarters, attend a tobacco auction, and watch enormous computerized processors gently remove less-than-perfect leaves from a conveyor belt.

We crossed a barren field, trudging through furrows — once wide enough to accommodate a mule’s plodding walk as it carried a long wooden “reservoir” to hold plucked leaves — to reach an abandoned tobacco barn. Barn locations may look random, but in fact were carefully considered for efficiency, namely proximity to human labor and mule-drawn carts when the “cropping,” or harvesting, was underway. The aroma of tobacco still clung to the barn’s interior, a scent at once acrid and comforting, deeply masculine, and of the earth. Amid dust motes lit by the daylight that slanted through chinks in the walls, I tried to paint a picture: of workers, often women, standing in the open-air tying shed adjacent to the barn, pulling cotton twine from a spool to skillfully string the three aligned stems, or “hands,” of leaves to a one-inch- square, six-foot-long tobacco stick. Workers loaded the sticks on a V-shaped structure, then passed it person to person inside the barn, where someone straddled a network of parallel, horizontal rafters, or “tiers,” strategically placed so the sticks would fit between them. Hence the tall, narrow shape of the barn. One by one, the laden sticks were positioned across the tiers, leaf stems tied to the stick, leaf tips pointing downward. “Whole families were involved, including children,” Monk says, eager to indicate not only the time-consuming, labor-intensive effort of harvesting tobacco, but also the camaraderie and fellowship. When the barn was full, loaded from the ceiling to the floor, the furnace was stoked with pine logs that had been cut from elsewhere on the farm during the winter in preparation for this season. Later, fuel oil was burned in heaters inside the barns, and still later, propane. “Fire was a perpetual threat,” Monk adds. “Smoke, ashes, and cinders were present round the clock. While often built close together, the barns were deliberately located far enough apart to reduce the risk of fire.” Monk remembers well the frequent wail of sirens during curing season when these wooden barns were in constant use.

Like a chef, each farmer had his own recipe, or regimen, for curing, or “cooking off,” the moisture. “Curing is a science, an art,” Monk says, “and a good tobacco farmer would learn all the tricks to produce the finest tobacco. He wanted his tobacco to be more sought-after than his neighbor’s, and therefore get a higher price.” During the three stages of curing, about six days total, temperatures in the barn would climb steadily upward, from 120 degrees to 135 to 160, finally topping out at 180 degrees — and in the hottest part of the summer. Mercury thermometers hung in the barn and outside it, as well. Every day, touch and appearance of the hanging leaves dictated the grower’s decision as to the interior temperature. Rain, or days with high humidity, slowed the curing, and the farmer would adjust the controlled temperatures accordingly. The leaves must be dry, but still pliable; too brittle and they would shatter.

At the end of the drying process, the sticks were brought down one by one from the tiers, just as they’d gone in, untied, and loaded onto carts to be hauled to the pack house — perhaps an unused home or building on the farm — to await sale at auction. The tobacco barns would stand empty and unused — and unlovely — until the next season. Or until bulk curing and mechanization eventually rendered them obsolete. Monk says slowly, “International clients would come to visit us, to view the process, and I remember so well driving around the area. It was a sad thing to ride through the tobacco belt and see these dilapidated, deteriorating barns in the fields. The mule barns were obsolete as well, and the tying sheds. It was shameful, those sights. Yet I understood. Why would a farmer take down a barn that he had no use for anymore? That money could be better spent elsewhere.”

Could they not be utilized in some other way? I wonder, picturing myself as a Southern E. B. White, who wrote Charlotte’s Web in a bare-bones barn overlooking his farm on the Maine coast. Monk is skeptical. “Some became storage areas, perhaps for lumber. But on a large farm, you might have a dozen tobacco barns, just too many to use, even for storage. And as far as anything else, well, they’re essentially flimsy structures, with little insulation.”

O Pioneers! author Willa Cather knew a little something about standing alone in a wide stretch of land. She wrote, “I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.” She might have included our tobacco barns in her admiration. Overgrown with kudzu, adorned with metal signs advertising Pennzoil or Esso or Nehi soda, the barns are, in essence, melancholy structures, as out of fashion as tobacco itself. One imagines them as the backdrop in a Southern Gothic tale of Flannery O’Connor’s. Lonely structures, yet possessed of an elegiac beauty, tobacco barns stand in testament to a bygone way of North Carolina life for generations. In time, they will disappear: sag, collapse, and vanish altogether. Today, a generous estimate puts the number of North Carolina tobacco barns still standing at 50,000.

•••

In the 1960s, my mother-in-law, who would become a fierce preservationist, moved a defunct tobacco barn across a country road and onto Harnett County family property still known simply as The Farm. The barn was retrofitted with windows, baseboard heat, and a crude staircase leading to a furnished loft under the high roof, perfect for a nap or a good book. Outside, the barn’s weathered elegance is unchanged, nearly matching the gray-brown tree trunks and pine needles in which it sits near the Upper Little River. Within, its walls have seen rowdy wedding barbecues and solitary weekend getaways, children’s birthday parties where plaster-of-Paris deer tracks hardened in milk carton molds, and flannel-shirted, fried-turkey Thanksgivings as redolent with fireplace woodsmoke as it once was with drying tobacco leaves. The barn’s prosaic yet timeless architecture is a silent witness not only to history and labor, but also to laughter and love. Long may they stand.

Reviving History

Many of the estimated 50,000 tobacco barns that remain in North Carolina stand decrepit among unused tobacco fields, remnants of the tobacco empire that built much of the state. But some barns are being reclaimed, and along with other relics of the tobacco-making process, they’re finding new life at the hands of craftspeople.

Broadleaf Timber & Masonry Reclaiming
(336) 264-8457
broadleafcabins.com
The Burlington-based company relocates, restores, and rebuilds rundown tobacco barns.

The Old Wood Co.
99 Riverside Drive
Asheville, N.C. 28801
(866) 967-9663
theoldwoodco.com
Woodworkers, blacksmiths, and furniture makers at The Old Wood Co. reclaim materials from dilapidated barns to create the environmentally friendly tables, stools, and chairs sold in its Old Wood Market Place.

Carolina Walking Sticks
carolinawalkingstick.com
Salvaged hardwood sticks that once were used to dry tobacco from barn rafters are transformed into staffs for hikers. Like barns, each walking stick tells a distinct story more than half a century in the making.

— Jonathan Black & Leslie Ann Blake

Barnstorming

Duke Homestead State Historic Site
2828 Duke Homestead Road
Durham, N.C. 27705
(919) 477-5498
Homestead of Washington Duke, founder of what would become the American Tobacco Company.

Iredell Brown House Tobacco Farm Life Museum
U.S. Highway 301 North
Kenly, N.C. 27542
(919) 284-3431.
Commemorates life on small tobacco farms in eastern North Carolina in the early 20th century.

Northeast Park
3421 Northeast Park Drive
Gibsonville, N.C. 27249
The 374-acre park includes a restored wood-burning flue-cure barn located in the park’s Gerringer-King Farm Complex.

The influence tobacco barns had on author Susan Kelly can be seen in the Greensboro writer’s five novels set in North Carolina. Her most recent Our State story was “Camp Days” (June 2013).

This entry was posted in August 2013, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to The Story of Tobacco Barns in North Carolina

  1. Dustin P says:

    Growing up in Oregon, old deteriorating, beautiful, often abandoned barns were everywhere although they had a different purpose. I now live in NC, brought here for work and my neighborhood is built on an old tobacco farm. The only sign it was once a farm where the two tobacco barns spaced just enough apart that if one burned the other wouldn’t. One day they began tearing the barns down to make room for one last house. That evening I took my truck and loaded it up with as much wood as I could. That wood is beautiful and it scares me to think about how they probably threw it in a landfill. It all should have been reclaimed. I have built a beautiful mantle over my fireplace with it. I hope it will be a selling point when work takes me away from NC and I’m sure it will the the last evidence that this house stands on an old tobacco field…

  2. Ann F Beach says:

    I grew up in Greenville, NC. I was a “city girl” but my dad was a tobacco buyer and knew all of the tobacco farmers. Many summers, I made money by “working in tobacco”. First, handing, then as I got faster, tying. Then helping fill the barn, But only the strong boys and men climbed up in the rafter to hang a barn or take out tobacco. The worst days were when we “topped and suckered”- if you ever did it you know what that was. Hot, in the sun, pores clogged up by tobacco gum. I remember making $7.50 a barn, more on topping and suckering days. Hard work. But I learned to value of getting up early to get the work done before the sun got too hot. And I learned the value of money; how long it takes to earn it and how fast you can spend it. Lessons that have stood me in good stead.
    I remember how cool the dirt floor of a shady barn was on a hot day.
    I remember telling my Dad how bad tobacco was for him after we studied smoking in Health class. I remember his answer- “Honey, tobacco put food in your mouth and clothes on your back”. Prevailing attitude in the 60’s.

    • Every year, from 10 years-old until I graduated from high-school, I worked with various tobacco farmers. When I was 16 or 17 years-old, I worked for my Mom’s first cousin and so did a male cousin who was my age. I explained to our boss (Mom’s cousin) that it was easier to be on the bottom tier and swing the tobacco stick up to the person in the top tier than it was to pass the tobacco stick from the ground up to the bottom tier because it was so heavy; so to please let me (the female) be in the tier polls instead of my male cousin. I won and he was mad at me for a long time. I also took out cured tobacco from the top tier polls and passed it down to the bottom tier poll person. That was scary to me.

  3. Joy Freeman says:

    In Surry County, NC, we called the “v-shaped structure” a “buck”. My Kentucky in-laws often ask me about the planting, pulling, curing process of Bright Leaf tobacco that my Grandpa grew. They are more familiar with Burley tobacco. Thanks for the walk down memory lane – I want to go back to that old farm and see if any of the barns are still standing!

  4. Curtis says:

    I enjoyed your article. The ‘V’ shaped structure was called a looping horse.

  5. Ken Anderson says:

    I grew up in Sampson County in a small town by the name of Garland. I can still vividly remember all the years of working in the tobacco fields and “hanging up” at the end of the day in those hot tobacco barns. I still remember how we kids went through the process of poking up those heavy sticks of green tobacco to the person hanging the lower tier poles and thinking one day I’ll be big enough to get up on those tier poles and hang out each room in the barn. Well, as I grew, my chance arrived! First the lower tier poles, then finally the upper levels and the “crows nest.” Believe me straddling those poles all day was NOT all that I imagine when I was younger. Hanging out a couple of barns a day was hard work, but the one advantage was being in out of the hot sun, and not out in the fields in the humidity and heat. Each time I come home to North Carolina, I stop at a tobacco barn that still stands near my old home place, and I pause for a time, just to reflect back on those days and remember the good times! As with our old tobacco barns, we will never see those days again.

  6. Tommy Haynes says:

    My relatives has a tobacco farm in western NC.Because I was tall, , I always ended up hanging the tobacco sticks in the barn. The worst part was near the end when you had no room to move and could no longer escape the dew dripping off the leaves.

  7. Wanda Brooks says:

    My husband relocated two tobacco barns from Guilford County to Stanly County. They were placed side by side with an enclosed dog trot between. We now have a wonderful retreat cabin used for family and friend gatherings and quilting/ sewing retreats, as well as a guest house. It is a beautiful, peaceful place. We are thankful that we were able to save these barns.

    • Nannie says:

      Thank you Mrs. Brooks for saving NC history. My grandchildren probably will not know about this due to our ‘No Smoking’ health agenda now!

  8. I remember when we traveled from Cleveland, Ohio to Florida for summer vacations as a family to my aunt’s house to Bradenton, Florida. In 1961, there were no major freeways and highways like there are today. We traveled in a 1955 Ford that dad owned and it didn’t have air conditioning. We even stopped roadside to have a picnic for our lunches and snacks. They were packed in a cooler brought from home. We would buy melons, that were fresh picked and being delivered to the larger cities for resale at the larger markets. We would buy them right from the truck drivers. All along the way we would be traveling alongside these big trucks with tied down black tarps carrying the tobacco from the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky down into Georgia. All along the way we would see the tobacco barns. Many were open-air barns, with the tobacco hanging in the hot summer. The roofs of these barns had advertisements on them of “Mail Pouch Tobacco”.
    In those days, we, as kids would count them along our travels as a game to pass the time away. Often we would see the migrant workers still harvesting the tobacco in the growing fields. They were often in a hurry to beat the storms and rains to harvest. Those are the memories that I have from my growing up high school years, as a teenager with younger siblings. This is what we had for entertainment and our playing and pass times were of made up games or doing our summer reading for school. I and my class just celebrated our 50th Class Reunion, last July 2013. Class of 1963 at Mayfield High School. It was a great success and we have had a reunion every five years. I am so happy and glad for our reunions with my other classmates. We shared many of our old childhood memories like this also. That is what this article reminded me of today, as I was reading it. My thoughts and memories just wandered. Thanks, for the opportunity to share.

  9. Here at Pilot Mountain Christmas we have two old Tobacco Barns that we use to store Christmas Decorations in. The barns were falling down. My Husband and myself restored the barns so we could use them for our Christmas Decorations. My Dad, Mom and eight Brothers and Sisters grew up on this Tobacco Farm. I am very lucky to still be living here and we now have Pilot Mountain Christmas here. Lots of child hood memories.

  10. deb parker says:

    i was raised on a tobacco farm and enjoyed it very much.. i miss the old barns.. daddy always said when the last of us graduated he was gonna quit raising tobacco and thats what he did.. my fovorite memory is chasing one of my older sisters around the tobacco sleds with a tobacco sled with a tobacco worm.. now that was funny,,

  11. D. Kew says:

    My husband and I stayed in a restored tobacco barn in the pilot mountain area. Was a lovely weekend! I would love to go back and stay again! They had moved and restored several of them and did a really nice job. I wish I could remember the name of the place.

    • The cabins are Pilot Knob Inn Bed & Breakfast in Pilot Mountain, NC
      We are so glad you enjoyed your stay & would Love to have you visit us again!
      Thanks
      Jennifer

      • Bill & Janet Lennartz says:

        Jennifer, we enjoyed our stay there in 2010. Although we chose to stay in The Castle Room, you allowed us to view the restored barns during our stay. They were amazing, as was everything about your inn. I HIGHLY recommend it!

  12. Joy Parks Farland says:

    What a lovely article. I have always thought tobacco barns were lovely and wish we could keep them all.

  13. Penny Monk Page says:

    The author couldn’t have picked a better person to interview; I love you Uncle Bill!

  14. Great article ! My father and I have salvaged logs from old tobacco barns to build cabins since 1980 . Our State’s Tarheel People section featured a story about my work; ‘ The Log Whisperer’ in the Feb.09 issue .

  15. To learn more about the architectural heritage of tobacco barns in North Carolina, please check out the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office’s “Celebrate Tobacco Barns” website, developed by architectural historian Michael Southern and available at http://www.hpo.ncdcr.gov/ctb/ctb.htm. Thanks!

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