Gardens to Gables

Sentinels of Memory: Kentucky’s Tobacco Barns

I am child of frame tobacco barns, heavily laden with burley tobacco, dust and dry bits of leaves dancing together in the air. These barns, with their straightforward appearance, clad in vertical boards, spread out across the farms of my childhood. Located on hills, to take advantage of the wind, they balanced on stone piers, and offered only the barest respite from the chill in winter. What we called our “horse barn” was a tobacco barn with stalls built into the side aisles, and my oldest sister vigorously raked the dirt floors into tidy patterns, while I, standing in an open vent (or window, as I thought of them), sneezed. An old aluminum and fabric chaise lounge was located in one of the cross-ties, by the pump – my father’s escape and resting place. The barn still housed tobacco back when our farm still grew the crop – hung just high enough to be away from the horses.

 

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Tobacco barn in Casey County, Kentucky

 

Not all of our barns were built in the 20th century for tobacco – but this type of barn, angular and to some eyes, unprepossessing – is the common barn type on Kentucky farms. The history of tobacco in the Commonwealth is a story intertwined with that of our people, and not one I will delve into right now. The growth of the tobacco industry, however, in the first part of the twentieth century, greatly shaped our agricultural economy, and a building boom of barns resulted.

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Tobacco in field, Clark County, Kentucky

 

Barns might be the most highly recognizable outbuilding on the Kentucky landscape, both for their size and their distribution. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, Kentucky ranks fourth in the nation in the number of barns built before 1960. The state also has the most barns per square mile constructed before 1960.  Most of this construction, however, occurred between 1880 and 1960.

 

Tobacco barn, Jessamine County, Kentucky

Tobacco barn, Jessamine County, Kentucky

 

Prior to that, not many farmers were building barns as we think of them today – if they had any specialized outbuildings (structures designed to house specific tasks or built for a specific purpose, away from the main house), they would have what we call a “crib,” usually constructed of logs. These cribs would typically be used for grain storage, but might later evolve in to a larger structure with side shed extensions to shelter livestock. Just as log construction was supplanted by frame with dwellings, frame barns soon replaced log cribs.The growth of the mule industry in the two decades before the Civil War, and the livestock industry after the Civil War, combined with innovations in technology and a move toward a more commercially-focused farm operation, spurred barn construction. Draft animals, used to plow fields and harvest crops, needed to be sheltered and fed, as did their corn and hay.

 

Tobacco barn with additions, Franklin County, Kentucky

Tobacco barn with additions, Franklin County, Kentucky

 

During the Civil War, Kentucky’s production of tobacco surged due to the naval blockade of the New Orleans port and the dramatic drop in tobacco coming out of Virginia and the Carolinas due to war-related infrastructure damages in those southern states. Burley tobacco, introduced after the war, found favor with manufacturers because of its “better taste and ability to absorb more flavoring than other tobacco types.”[1] The introduction of burley tobacco heralded a new cash crop that suited the soil and climate of central Kentucky perfectly. This new tobacco worked ideally in the factory-produced cigarettes that were beginning to find consumers in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

Tobacco barns in Kentucky are typically built on what architectural historians call a “transverse frame plan.” These barns are longer than they are wide, with openings (usually hinged or sliding doors) on the gable ends. The long walls are built in “bents,” usually around 10 feet wide (this measurement ranges) – these are the partitions between the vertical posts that support the farming of the barn. Horizontal beams stretch across the barn from vertical post to vertical post and support the rails that will hold the sticks of tobacco. Each layer of rails is called a tier. The measurements of a tobacco barn are designed around the tobacco sticks, which are typically around four to four and a half feet long.

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Tobacco barn in Christian County, Kentucky

 

Standardized measurements, following the USDA’s publications and guidelines, began to show up in tobacco barns in Kentucky in the 1930s. Barns were from 25 to 48 feet wide, the side walls 16 to 24 feet high with four to six tiers spaced four to five feet apart. The length of the barn depended on how much the farmer wanted to spend, as well as the size of his tobacco base. Despite material produced by the Extension Service, tobacco barns in the state continued to be built in just about any way the farmer desired. When it became apparent that burley tobacco would become a staple for the agricultural economy, many existing stock barns were modified to accommodate the crop. It is rare to find a single purpose barn on most Kentucky farms, just as it is to find one that isn’t comprised of reused lumber and posts.

Framing inside a tobacco barn

Framing inside a tobacco barn

 

Tobacco hung in barn

Tobacco hung in barn

I’ve not been fortunate enough to work in each of Kentucky’s 120 counties, but I’ve seen a great many tobacco barns across the Bluegrass – and since the buyout, I’ve had a front row seat to the death of the Kentucky tobacco barn. On farm after farm, barns molder, decay, and slump into their hillsides, faded black boards melting into the ground. Farmers shrug their shoulders, and ask me “what can I do with it?” I don’t have an answer for them – I’m a farmer’s daughter, and I grew up knowing that you can’t spend money on something you can’t use. But oh! This time of year, how I miss that smell – the warmed air of the barn, dust motes spinning wildly, the gently whinny of a horse, and the tobacco hanging down.

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[1] Anthony Rawe. Architecture of the Kentucky Tobacco Sales Warehouse: Evolution and Development of a Unique Building Type. Unpublished master’s thesis, Department of Historic Preservation. (Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky, 1999), 17.

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One Thought on “Sentinels of Memory: Kentucky’s Tobacco Barns

  1. Janet Johnson on October 23, 2014 at 5:15 pm said:

    Oh, how I love this article. And I, like you, miss the smells, warmth of the stripping room, and watching my father’s hands tie the bundles of leaves. Such fond memories of November and Thsnksgiving and tobacco barns.

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