Historic tobacco barns being saved

newspaperLike many old rural buildings, tobacco curing barns often are left to collapse from old age. But unlike other old barns, tobacco barns also represent a business and a way of life that shaped Virginia for centuries.

Preservationists are working to prop up this important part of Virginia’s rural heritage.
“They really have become an integral part of the landscape in this part of Virginia,” said Sonja Ingram of Preservation Virginia. She compared them to the windmills of Holland, which are regarded as iconic symbols of that country.

An old barn on the family farm of A.J. Nuchols in Pittsylvania County is a good example of tobacco structures that are still standing. Built in the early 19th century, the barn is frame-built with mortise-and-tenon joints. Most barns were built from short leaf pine trees, which are common in the area.

“These barns were built for cut tobacco,” Nuchols said. “Back then they cut the whole stalk. It was only, I think, in the 1920s that they actually started harvesting it, or pulling it, by stalk position. My grandpa said they put 1,200 sticks of tobacco in this barn.”

Nearby, another surviving tobacco barn looks much like a traditional log cabin with notched log ends. Retired tobacco grower Billy Johnson said he remembers keeping a fire going all night there to cure bright leaf tobacco.

“We cut the logs off the place. We had what you call an old-fashioned barn-raising,” Johnson said. “That’s where everybody in the community came and helped put your logs up and notch the corners like you see it. That was quite a day, because most of the time the people that had the barn raising, the family, would furnish dinner. That barn right there would hold 440 sticks of tobacco, hand-strung.

“It’s a part of history that we have in this area, and we need to keep it.”

But as with other old buildings, preserving tobacco barns requires special skills and money. For a second year, Preservation Virginia is offering mini-grants and free workshops on barn stabilization and maintenance. The organization also is surveying the locations of all known tobacco barns in Pittsylvania and has undertaken an oral history project to collect stories from tobacco farm families.

The grants come from a joint partnership between Preservation Virginia and Japan Tobacco International. A total of $100,000 was made available in 2014, and another $200,000 may be available in 2015 and 2016. More information about the tobacco barn preservation grant program is available at preservationvirginia.org.

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