Gardens to Gables

The Heart of the Burley Industry: Tobacco and the Lexington Landscape

The press in the past few days about the Lorillard Lofts building made me stop and think about tobacco. Not the tobacco barns or the fields I know well as the daughter of a farmer, but the impact that the burley tobacco industry had on Lexington in the 20th century. A few years ago I nominated a tobacco warehouse to the National Register of Historic Places. The research into that building forced me to confront the rapid removal of the tobacco landscape in this town (that, plus the fact that I work in a former tobacco warehouse – although I appreciate the historic built environment of the tobacco industry -our building is so not magical. I could do with some natural light).

Although this advertisement was true during the 20th century, now it is just as much a relic as tobacco warehouses.

The Liggett and Myers Harpring Storage Warehouse, built in 1930, is a steel frame, metal clad storage warehouse that held over 120,000 hogsheads of tobacco for storage and shipment across the country. These storage warehouses were almost the “Fort Knox” buildings of the tobacco industry, built to last one hundred years. As the first national re-handling facility in Lexington, the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Re-handling plant began a tide of national manufacturing interests locating in Lexington—an industry that would employ thousands, shape the character of blocks of city land, and pump millions of dollars into the regional economy.

It's not the prettiest of buildings - but that's not the point. Tobacco was THE player in Lexington in the first half of the 20th century.

It’s not the prettiest of buildings – but that’s not the point. Tobacco was THE player in Lexington in the first half of the 20th century.

The decline of the burley tobacco industry, which began in the 1970s, is reflected the changing landscape of Lexington. Warehouses that once teemed with activity during the winter sales season, or acted as very large vaults for a valuable product as it aged, are quickly disappearing. Demolition of warehouses has been occurring since the 1990s, and has increased in the last decade as the demand for off-campus student housing for the University of Kentucky has risen.

Often romanticized, the cash crop of tobacco changed not only our farmland, but also the layout and streetscape of Lexington.

Often romanticized, the cash crop of tobacco changed not only our farmland, but also the layout and streetscape of Lexington.

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. 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.

Buyers inspecting tobacco in a sales warehouse.

Buyers inspecting tobacco in a sales warehouse.

The increase in railroad construction following the Civil War, and the emergence of looseleaf tobacco auctions both supported Lexington’s bid to become a key player in the tobacco industry, but Lexington city leaders also actively pushed for the city to develop as a major tobacco market.  In 1883, a campaign began to promote Lexington as a “potential looseleaf market in state and regional publications.”[2]

World War I signaled the beginning of a substantial increase in the burley tobacco landscape in Lexington, and an overall surge in the market. Although 1920 marks the contraction of tobacco markets across Kentucky as a whole, the consolidation of markets thrust Lexington into a position as a market leader. Lexington was not the sole looseleaf market in the central part of the state, but prior to this time, the river cities of Louisville and Cincinnati dominated the market. After World War I, the four major looseleaf markets serving Central, Northern and Eastern Kentucky were Lexington, Mt. Sterling, Shelbyville and Maysville.[3]

A segment of the Sanborn map showing the Harpring Warehouse.

A segment of the Sanborn map showing the Harpring Warehouse.

Liggett and Myers entered the Lexington market in 1899, with the construction of their re-handling plant at 200 Bolivar Street. The company prospered in the 1920s. The company’s Bull Durham brand of chewing tobacco was exceedingly popular with service men. During World War I, the War Department bought the entire output of Bull Durham. By 1927, Lexington “gained its position as the world’s largest burley market.”[4] Two years later, the tobacco industry, like the rest of the nation, would fail due to the crash of the New York Stock Market.

The Harpring is a hybrid type of tobacco warehouse construction: a metal clad, steel support warehouse on a poured concrete floor, with each section divided by a brick firewall and a brick façade for each loading dock.

The Harpring is a hybrid type of tobacco warehouse construction: a metal clad, steel support warehouse on a poured concrete floor, with each section divided by a brick firewall and a brick façade for each loading dock.

A November 1930 article in the Lexington Leader touted the scope and scale of the Harpring Storage Warehouse. “One of the largest and finest roofing and sheet metal jobs ever done in this part of the country is now being completed by the James D. Harper firm, 724 West Short Street, on the new Liggett and Myers tobacco warehouse on the Old Frankfort Pike.”[5] The article detailed the amount of metal used, which given the size of the warehouse, is impressive: “1,200 squares of Bairds Specification roofing; 1,900 lineal feet of Bairds flashing; 1,200 lineal feet of moulded gutters; 600 feet of downspout; 300 feet of corrugated iron siding and 150 squares of screen wire.”[6]

The interior of the Harpring Warehouse.

The interior of the Harpring Warehouse.

The forces which allowed Lexington to rise to such heights within the burley tobacco industry contributed to the town’s gradual demise as a tobacco center in the late 1970s. During that decade and into the 1980s, tobacco companies nationally began “merging small tobacco facilities to form more modern facilities in central locations.”[7] Liggett and Myers was the first national tobacco company to leave Lexington in the late 1970s. Their prized storage warehouse went through a succession of owners, each encountering some of the issues faced by Lorillard Lofts – location, noise, and how to best reuse the space in an economically feasible manner.

Because of what I do, I notice landscape remnants. I think of what South Broadway and Angliana Avenue used to look like. The Sanborn maps show a city dotted with warehouses. In the 1960s, Lexington held parades to celebrate the role of burley tobacco in the local economy, and the sales warehouse was a busy and festive place to be from Thanksgiving through January. The population of Lexington jumped increased dramatically during the sales season and local businesses benefited from the influx of growers with ready cash, warehouse operators seeking to form new relationships, and buyers flocking to town to get the most leaf for the best price.

I wonder how many people still see the tobacco landscape of Lexington? And how much longer will there be any buildings associated with it left to notice?

A field of tobacco, pre-buyout, in Montgomery County, Kentucky.

A field of tobacco, pre-buyout, in Montgomery County, Kentucky.

 

[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.

[2] Rawe, 27.

[3] While looseleaf sales warehouses existed in other communities across Kentucky, these four markets each had multiple sales warehouses to not only serve local farmers but also farmers from surrounding counties. For example, Mt. Sterling was a major market for the eastern counties. Warehouse owners cultivated relationships with farmers in the mountain communities, and those relationships led to their tobacco selling at warehouses in Mt. Sterling. Like Lexington, these other markets were strategically located on rail lines and major roadways.

[4] Rawe, 34.

[5] “Harper Finishing Large Contract.” Lexington Leader, November 30, 1930.

[6] Ibid

[7] Jordan, Jim. “Lorillard Warehouse Will Close.” Lexington Herald Leader, July 13, 1983.

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2 Thoughts on “The Heart of the Burley Industry: Tobacco and the Lexington Landscape

  1. Janet Johnson on May 13, 2015 at 10:21 pm said:

    I miss the smell of fall and tobacco and the warmth in the stripping room on the farm. That era is gone, but I have pleasant memories of the tobacco housing process.

    • JR Brother on May 14, 2015 at 9:46 am said:

      I still smell hanging tobacco whenever I go into a barn that housed tobacco, even if there are no stray leaves around, or years have passed since tobacco was in that barn. And I remember how exciting it was to go with my father to the sales warehouse when I was little…

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