Preservation efforts are a boon for historic tobacco barns
Tobacco is an important part of Virginia’s history, and historic tobacco barns are an integral part of Southside Virginia’s landscape.
Despite their importance, these barns have been disappearing.
Preservation Virginia, a privately funded statewide organization founded more than 100 years ago, has been working since 2009 to preserve historic tobacco barns and educate the public about their significance.
Preservation Virginia launched the Tobacco Barn Preservation Project to raise awareness. Their research focused on two main types of barns: curing barns where tobacco was hung to dry; and pack barns where tobacco leaves were stored until they were taken to market.
The organization added tobacco barns to its “Most Endangered Historic Places” list, and the group received an outpouring of regional support.
“It struck a nerve with people,” said Sonja Ingram, Preservation Virginia’s field services manager. “And that’s how this turned into its own program. We are focused on raising awareness about historic tobacco barns and their heritage.”
Ingram said the group began creating awareness by hosting public workshops on barn repair, sponsoring a middle school poster contest, and creating an oral history project to record stories from tobacco farmers. “We received over 60 tobacco barn posters, and 12 farmers were interviewed through the oral history project.”
Partnership for preservation
In 2013 Preservation Virginia partnered with JTI Leaf Services LLC in Danville to provide mini-grants for repairing historic tobacco barns in Pittsylvania and Halifax counties and Caswell County, N.C. JTI buys and processes U.S. leaf tobacco.
“Preserving the barns has been a focus since 2013,” Ingram said. “JTI has provided us with the grants for the program to be really successful in these three counties.” JTI chose the three localities because that’s where most of its tobacco growers are located.
Ingram said 50 tobacco barns have been repaired so far, and by the end of the 2019 grant season Preservation Virginia will have repaired 63 barns.
“We’re hoping to continue to receive funds to preserve these barns. We’re also considering partnering with Halifax County Tourism to link the repaired tobacco barns to its barn quilt trail,” Ingram added. “We also hope this will be a step in the creation of a larger, multi-county tobacco heritage driving trail in the future.”
Joe Graves, Halifax County
Along state Route 119 in Alton is a 20th century log-built curing barn at Brandon-on-the-Dan farm, which has been owned by the family of Joe Graves and his brother, Clark, since 1915.
“It’s a modest log curing barn, built in the late 1950s,” Graves said. One hundred acres of tobacco are still grown on the farm in rotation with wheat and soybeans.
Graves heard an advertisement about Preservation Virginia’s project, attended a meeting about it and submitted his barn for consideration in 2014. It was one of five in Halifax County selected for repair.
Preservation Virginia’s program repaired the roof and restored the chinking and daubing between the logs on the barn. “The barn wasn’t completely restored, but it was preserved for future generations,” Graves explained.
A.J. Nuckols, Pittsylvania County
A.J. Nuckols’ family built the 19th century timber-framed curing and packing barn in Pittsylvania County. Preservation Virginia repaired it in 2014.
The barn, which was built in the 1820s, had a rotten wooden timber sill stabilized through the program, and cosmetic fixes were made as well.
“We use it mainly for storage and wanted to preserve it because it’s important to our family,” Nuckols said. “But it is also a very unique barn historically. Most barns have four or five vertical rooms—spaces where tobacco is hung—but this barn has six. It’s unlike others in the state.”
Want to know more?
The book Tobacco Barns, Preserving History in the Old Belt illustrates the JTI/Preservation Virginia Tobacco Barns Mini-Grants Project that has repaired more than 60 historic tobacco barns in a three-county region of Virginia and North Carolina.
To order the book, visit preservationvirginia.org/our-work/tobacco-barn-preservation.
Modern day tobacco barns
Most current tobacco growers use modern metal curing barns, called bulk barns, to cure tobacco. This type of barn was introduced in the 1970s and is more efficient than a log barn.