Tobacco Barn Preservation Project
*2015 Mini-Grants Applications are Now Available*
In 2012, Preservation Virginia began a multifaceted project to help raise awareness and protect tobacco barns- distinct reminders of Virginia’s rich tobacco and agricultural heritage.
While many tobacco barns are still standing, countless are at risk from neglect and disrepair. As these barns disappear, so does the story of tobacco and a testament to a way of life, a culture, and an economy that helped shape Virginia.
The impetus for the tobacco barns project came in 2009 when Preservation Virginia listed the tobacco barns of Pittsylvania County to our Endangered Sites List. This listing was met with an outpouring of interest and support and led to the creation of a full project to protect Virginia’s tobacco barns.
Preservation Virginia’s tobacco barns project is the first formal one of its kind in the state to promote the protection of barns and other rural historic resources and to raise awareness of the state’s rich agricultural heritage. The project has received recognition from the National Barn Alliance and numerous state and national news sources including American Farm and Virginia Living Magazines.
The project’s goals are to promote public awareness of the region’s agricultural heritage through the preservation of tobacco barns, to provide technical assistance to barn owners on how to correctly repair historic barns, to educate students on the state’s agricultural heritage, to provide a means to repair and rehabilitate tobacco barns in the southern region of Virginia where tobacco barns are prevalent and to create a model that can be used in other regions of the state to help protect Virginia’s rural and agricultural heritage .
The Tobacco Barns Preservation Project contains the following elements:
- Free public workshops on barn stabilization and maintenance;
- Preserve our Barns so they are more than a Memory poster contest for local middle school students;
- Tobacco barn architectural survey of Pittsylvania County;
- An oral history project, Tobacco Memories, to interview and publish tobacco farming families’ histories;
- A mini-grant project for the stabilization, repair and maintenance of selected tobacco barns in southern Virginia;
- A “Showcase Barn” project where a highly visible tobacco barn is repaired and a video made of the repair work to be distributed to the public
Preservation Virginia/JTI Mini-Grants Project
On October 1, 2013, the Tobacco Barn Project entered a new phase with the announcement of a joint partnership between Preservation Virginia and JTI (Japan Tobacco International). JTI agreed to fund a Mini-Grants Project to help repair tobacco barns in a three county region- Halifax and Pittsylvania County in Virginia and Caswell County in North Carolina. JTI has provided $100,000 for a one-year pilot program with the possibility of $200,000 over two more years.
The aim of the Mini-Grants Project is to give small grants to barn owners to repair barns. Hundreds of barn owners attended the initial grant information meetings and applications for almost 300 barns were received. Repair work is currently underway on six barns.
Barns Receiving Grants for 2014
The barns receiving grants in Pittsylvania County included William Pearson’s curing barn in the Climax community. The Pearson’s barn is one of a cluster of barns on Toshes Road across from Watson Level Church and has an unusual overhang that is not supported by posts. Mr. Pearson has been a tobacco farmer all of his life and plans to pass down his land and barns to his son. Mr. Pearson said that while inside his barns, “sometimes he could hear the choir singing from Watson Level Church,” and it was so beautiful that “he could listen to them sing all day.”
David and Deborah Hutcherson’s curing barn on Izaak Walton Road in Hurt was also chosen for a grant. This barn was once part of the East Family’s farm- a large tobacco farm in the northern end of Pittsylvania County. The barn is still used today to dry burley tobacco.
Katherine Blair’s pack house on Moorefield Bridge Road in the Tunstall area was also selected for a grant. Blair’s pack house sits very close to the road next to a historic carriage house and an old farmhouse that her grandfather bought in 1939 from the Astin family. The pack house was most likely built before the Civil War and was used as a pack house from the time it was built until the tobacco buy-out.
A second pack barn selected for a grant belongs to James Gosney, and is located off Kentuck Road. Locally known as the “red barn,” it was used to house tobacco by the Pilllow, Adams and Williams families for many years.
The fifth barn chosen for a grant belongs to A.J. Nuckols in the Mt. Airy community. Mr. Nuckols’ barn is one of the oldest tobacco barns in Pittsylvania County and dates to at least the 1820s. It is highly unusual in that it is not a log barn but was built of frame construction using mortise and tenon joints and wooden pegs. The barn was originally a curing barn but was also used as a pack house in later years.
In Halifax County, three curing barns were chosen for grants this year. The owners of these barns include Ronnie Waller of Nathalie, Joe Graves of Alton and Keister Blanks and Carolyn Blanks Slayton of Providence. Two pack houses were also chosen. One is owned by Luther Guill in the Scottsburg area and the other is owned by George Anderson in Clover.
The Guill family has been farming in Halifax County since the late 18th century. The family has been so prominent near Scottsburg that the area was named “Guill Town.” Luther Guill’s pack house is at least 80 years old and sits within a cluster of barns on Green Level Road.
George Anderson’s pack house is a frame building covered in weatherboarding with a pit basement. It is about 90 years old and is a great example of a pack house built in the early 20th century.
The curing barn in Nathalie selected for a grant is owned by Ronnie Waller. The barn is part of a Century Farm that has been in operation by the same family for 6 generations. The barn is 114 years old and was built during the time when the entire stalk of tobacco was cut, rather than the individual leaves being pulled off the stalk. At one time this barn had an attached pack house that has since deteriorated and was torn down. A small door remains on one side of the barn that was the entrance to the pack house from the curing barn.
The curing barn owned by Joe Graves is located on Calvary Road in Alton on the Brandon on the Dan Farm. The barn was built 58 years ago and has been viewed by hundreds of people driving to the Virginia International Raceway in Alton. Graves’ barn is also set within a Virginia Outdoors Foundation conservation easement. The curing barn owned by Keister Blanks and Carolyn Blanks Slayton sits in a cluster of curing barns on the way to Noland Village and Conner Lake in Providence. Noland Village is an early crossroads community near Clover that is being returned to its former glory during the 19th century.
Barns that made the list from Caswell County this year include one pack house, three curing barns and one pack house/ curing barn. The pack house/ curing barn belongs to Judith Pointer Kracke in Semora. This is a beautiful example of a frame pack house with an attached log curing barn. It sits near the Foster/Pointer homeplace. The Pointer family has been tobacco farmers since the mid- 1700s, first establishing themselves in Halifax County, Virginia before moving to Caswell County.
The other pack house is owned by Kim Steffan of Mebane and sits off Corbett Ridge Road. This pack house was once owned by Bartlett Yancey Malone in the mid-to-late 1800s. Malone wrote the Civil War memoir Whipt ‘Em Every Time.
One of the three curing barns that received grants this year belongs to Rebecca Page and is located just outside of Yanceyville. The barn was built by Ludolphous Brown Page in 1910 on his farm that was once owned by Philip Hodnett. Hodnett was an abolitionist who served in the North Carolina House during Reconstruction. The barn still retains many of its early wooden shingles.
Doris and Richard White’s curing barn in Yanceyville is part of a large farm that, aside from tobacco, had a peach orchard, a trucking company and a small country store. The White’s barn was stuccoed sometime in the early 20th century to help preserve the logs. This addition of stucco over logs exists in North Carolina but is relatively unusual in Virginia.
Preservation Virginia anticipates that the Mini-Grants Project will continue into 2015 and 2016. We will begin accepting applications for the 2015 grant cycle this fall. The 2015 application will be available soon. Applications will be due on January 15, 2015. If you applied for a mini-grant in this first cycle, did not receive a grant this year, and wish to be considered for next year, you do not need to resubmit images, any previously submitted images, or historical information, but you will need to resubmit a 2015 application form. Simply notify us by letter or email that you would like your 2014 application to be reconsidered. For more information, please see Detailed Information on Mini-Grants Project or contact Sonja Ingram at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Showcase Barn Project
Also in 2014, Preservation Virginia is working on a grant project funded by the Danville Regional Foundation, to repair a very visible tobacco barn on State Route 29 in Pittsylvania County, north of Danville.
The project will entail the repair and stabilization of the barn, the creation of a video of the repair work that will be distributed to the public and the installation of a Virginia highway marker at the site that describes the importance of tobacco barns to the region. Work on this began in April and will end in June 2014.
Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History Tobacco Exhibit
The Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History held an exhibit on tobacco farming from April-May 2014. The exhibit featured tobacco-themed artwork from local artists, tobacco-related farming implements and photographs of tobacco workers from the 1930s-1940s. As a contrast to the older photographs, the exhibit also featured current images from Preservation Virginia’s architectural survey of tobacco barns.
Tobacco Barns Survey in Pittsylvania County
As part of Preservation Virginia’s Tobacco Barns Preservation Project, Preservation Virginia staff, with the assistance of volunteers, surveyed 250 of the approximately 2,000 tobacco barns that exist in Pittsylvania County, from December 2012-June 2013. The survey was made possible through a Virginia Department of Historic Resources Cost Share Grant. The final report will be ready fall 2014.
Some Common Characteristics of the Barns
Most, probably 75%, of the tobacco barns surveyed were made of hand hewn logs with clay daubing. The majority of the log barns have V-shaped notching at the corners. Most have field stone foundations and tin roofs and most were converted from the older wood- burning fireboxes to gas or oil heating systems. Most also are square and measure about 18 feet x 18 feet.
However, all of the log barns were built locally by farmers, friends, and family members; so while there was a prototype used to build the barns, many also exhibit unique characteristics.
These log barns were not bought or ordered from somewhere else. They are truly individual and distinct creations made out of local materials by local people. There are few heritage resources that are as unique and original to Pittsylvania County other than tobacco barns
Some of the differences noticed included features such as the hewing of the logs. Some of the logs are hewn on all sides; some just on two sides and some were not hewn at all. Some logs still have tree bark on them.
Variations in corner notching techniques were also recorded. The notching techniques represent how quickly the barns were built and the workmanship of the builders.
The square, V and dovetail notched barns were usually very well built; while the saddle, diamond and rough cut notches appeared to be barns built more hastily
Types of Siding
Most of the barns surveyed were log barns with no additional siding. However, some of the log barns were sided with wood using a board and batten technique and some barns had other siding materials over the logs such as tin sheeting and tar paper. One barn surveyed had one side completely covered in old license plates.
New Uses for Barns
Most of the tobacco barns surveyed were being used for storage but some have been converted into stables, hunting cabins, small bed and breakfasts, catering offices, wineries, and one was being used as a blacksmith’s shop.
Some of the most interesting barns surveyed were pack barns or pack houses. Pack houses were used to store tobacco after it was cured. All of the pack houses were wood framed buildings, as opposed to the log constructed curing barns. Many had two or three floors to store tobacco and almost all had pit basements where the tobacco was placed to “put it in order” or to rehydrate the leaves so they would be more pliable and easier to handle before it was graded and packed to take to the market.
Pack houses were ingeniuosly constructed. Some were placed directly adjacent to the curing barn; others were separate buildings with two or three distinct rooms that served specific purposes.
Examples of pack houses surveyed
The Oldest Barns
The majority of barns surveyed were built in the early 20th century; however several barns dated to the 19thcentury.
Two of the oldest barns surveyed are owned by the same family. One of the barns is a wood-framed barn joined together with mortise and tenon joints − the only tobacco barn surveyed with this type of early construction. This barn is also much larger than typical tobacco barns and has six “rooms” while most tobacco barns have either 4 or 5 rooms.
The other early barn on this property was constructed of hand-hewn logs and appeared to have been built slightly later than the wood-framed barn. It is also very large and also has six rooms. The logs are massive with most measuring over a foot in width.
“Rooms” are the spaces between the tier poles where tobacco was hung on sticks to be cured. The owner recalled that his grandfather referred to this barn as the “prize barn.” Prizing is a term used to describe packing cured tobacco into hogsheads or other containers for transport. A prize was a huge wooden screw used to tightly compress the tobacco.
While the exact dates of construction of these two tobacco barns are difficult to determine; given their unusual characteristics (6 rooms, large size, square cut nails, mortise and tenon joints) and a nearby 1830s house, they most likely date to the early 19th century.
Conditions of the barns
Although some of the barns are in great shape, most of them could use repairs, especially roof repairs. Once the roof is damaged, rain seeps into the logs and starts the decaying process. Tobacco barns are extremely sturdy, and if their roofs are maintained they will hold up well for many years.
“Tobacco Memories” Oral History Project
In 2013, Preservation Virginia received a grant from the Community Foundation of the Dan River Region for an oral history project to interview tobacco farmers in southern Virginia and have a public presentation of the interviews. Since the focus of Preservation Virginia’s overall project is tobacco barns, the focus of the oral history project was on the barns and how the barns were used and the integral role they played during tobacco production.
Sixteen people who had deep ties to tobacco farming were interviewed and ten movies were created of the video footage. A public presentation of the movies was held in April 2014. To view some of the oral history interviews please visit Preservation Virginia’s YouTube site here.
Preservation Virginia has held two public workshops during the tobacco barns project. The presentations had speakers from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources as well as builders who specialize in repairing log structures.
“Preserve our Barns so they are more than a Memory” Middle School Poster Contest
Sixty-three middle school students from Pittsylvania County participated in the “Preserve our Barns so they are more than a Memory” poster contest. Winners were given recognition in the local newspapers.
The first place winner was Casey Sparks of Dan River Middle School. Second place went to Cayla Keen, also from Dan River Middle School and the third-place winner was Autumn Womack from Gretna Middle School. Jordan Paquette, Kaitlyn Carter and Kaden Lewis from Chatham Middle School received honorable mentions.
To see more of the posters submitted to the contest, please see Preservation Virginia's YouTube channel.