As a child coming to Lexington, I was always fascinated by the buildings I saw in the distance, even more so then the lovely historic homes that lined the roadway. North Broadway/Paris Pike was our main route into town most days, and back on Loudon Avenue was a large, brick angled structure with signs painted on the walls and bricked up openings. All of this exuded an air of mysteriousness and I would press my forehead to the window whenever we passed to take in every small detail.
Known as the Blue Grass Tobacco Company Warehouse or the E.B. Drake Tobacco Factory, the five-story building dates from 1904-1907. This was a contentious time in the Kentucky tobacco industry, and Drake (and this building) were connected to the struggle most people know as the Black Patch Wars or the Night-Riders.
Built at a highly-intricate crossroads of streets, railroad lines, and trolley lines, the building began as a three-story brick structure in 1904, constructed by E.B. Drake, a “pioneer large-scale tobacco distributor in Lexington.” (The original portion was not present on the 1901 Sanborn map.) Drake, a farmer, ran an agricultural implements business in Lexington while encouraging, during the late-19th century, the movement for local warehousing. He was pretty successful, and ads for his “tobacco-worm destroyer” can be found in dozens of trade publications and newspapers in the 1880s and 1890s.
When the first part of the Blue Grass Tobacco Company was built, it was described by the Lexington Herald as the “only enterprise of its kind in Central Kentucky. Too many millions of pounds of tobacco grown in this section are shipped to distant cities for manufacture. The Blue Grass Company is a home industry giving employment to local labor….” This wasn’t just a new building – it was part of a contentious and violent chapter in Kentucky history – as independent tobacco growers and manufacturers were fighting back against the tobacco monopolies likes the American Tobacco Company.
The Blue Grass Tobacco Company Warehouse, as an independent operation, intent on making Lexington a major manufacturing and distribution center for Kentucky – may not have figured directly into the tobacco wars, but was part of the movement toward more local control, a decent price for the crop, and the eventual breakup of the tobacco trusts.
The new (1907) section of the building was lauded at its opening as a “modern, completely-equipped building” and as a “well-lighted, airy, a healthful place to work in.” In the 1930s, the building was home to the Union Transfer and Storage Company and the General Storage and Company Warehouse. Numerous segmental arched windows would have provided abundant natural light, and though I am so glad the building is in use (the Wood Energy Warehouse has been headquartered there since 1978, and an Army surplus store opened in 2007), I would love to see some use that would result in the windows being opened back up.
Exploring the landscapes most people pass by without a second thought always reveals more story than I presumed. And when that story connects back to the cash crop of Kentucky in the 20th century, even better. The best part, though, is tracking down the buildings seen at a distance from both the perspective of memory and through the back window of my parent’s car – that is pure delight.