Tobacco Barns: Stately Relics of a Bygone Era The tobacco crop is quickly disappearing from the farm fields of Kentucky. But tobacco barns, in various states of repair, stand proudly on the landscape as icons of family farming.
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Tobacco Barns: Stately Relics of a Bygone Era

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Tobacco Barns: Stately Relics of a Bygone Era

Tobacco Barns: Stately Relics of a Bygone Era

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

For Kentucky, November once meant tobacco money - burley tobacco for cigarettes, cash money for the farm. But now, many of the old warehouses are dark and cold. If you want to hear an auctioneer's chant, find a tape like this one from 20 year ago.

(Soundbite of auctioneer's chants)

YDSTIE: And what happened to all those tobacco barns that once stood proudly on almost every farm? NPR's Noah Adams drove through Central Kentucky to find out.

NOAH ADAMS: Go around a curve in the road and there's another tobacco barn. Many of them are like old gentlemen, still handsome but kind of falling in on themselves. Tobacco barns have lots of open spaces, and you can tell many are empty. But some have racks of golden crisp leaves hanging inside. It is my intention, on this trip, to find out what happened after the decline. In the early 1990s in Kentucky, 60,000 farmers grew tobacco. Last year? Maybe 10,000.

ADAMS: I start by looking for a barn that's still active. At a farm in Henry County, alongside the Kentucky River, there was smoke in the air, and trucks and wagons, and a couple of dogs. And I was welcomed into the stripping room.

Ms. REGINA SHARP(ph)(Resident, Kentucky): You've seen the tobacco stripped?

ADAMS: I've never seen tobacco stripped. Never.

The tobacco stalks are ready on the stripping table. The leaves, and they look like giant Romaine lettuce, will be pulled off - but at the moment there's too much smoke in the air.

Ms. SHARP: Oh, because they're fixing the stovepipe.

ADAMS: Oh.

Ms. SHARP: They've been having a time with it.

ADAMS: This is Regina Sharp. She'll be stripping and hauling to market, tobacco from several farms. Her daughters, 6 and 8, help out sometimes. Their real contribution is laughter. The adult crew will be at this until maybe the middle of January.

Ms. SHARP: We have about 52,000 pounds left to strip, with three people, that's, you know, a long time.

ADAMS: You said something about a way the air was after a long day in the stripping rooms - it burns your nose? Tell me about that.

Ms. SHARP: Oh, yeah. Well, it's just from the tobacco, you know, like if it's real dry and you got the stove going. It's like your nose is on fire. You know, that's - most people they get sick in the stripping rooms, they have some kind of upper respiratory infection, which is usually bronchitis.

ADAMS: You get to looking at the tobacco barns and realize they mostly all look alike. And I heard about an antique store over in Nicholas County that had for sale what they called a pattern barn. It's a wooden scale model, 3-feet high. It would have fit in the back of a salesman's wagon. Take it right out to show the farmer. The antique dealer, Harold Driden(ph), believes this model is very old, and he's only seen this one.

Mr. HAROLD DRIDEN (Antique Dealer): I couldn't dream it ever existed. I just thought they went out there and built a barn. I didn't know they built a sample.

ADAMS: The tobacco barns are meant for tobacco, as special as a red dairy barn is for cows. Tobacco hangs from wooden rails - one rail above the other, rising ever higher and higher. Mr. Driden likes the accuracy and charm of his model, and has it priced accordingly.

Mr. DRIDEN: One thousand dollars, firm.

Unidentified Man #1: Thank you.

Ms. BETTY KING(ph)(Resident, Northern Garrett County): My name is Betty King, and I live in Northern Garrett County, which is just south of Lexington.

ADAMS: Betty King - at the Saturday morning Farmer's Market in downtown Lexington. She sells herbal teas and lives in a tobacco barn, bought the land and thought, why not fix up an apartment right in here?

Ms. KING: Barns are so beautiful. I hate to see those disappear from the landscape.

ADAMS: What is the aroma like inside?

Ms. KING: I don't get the tobacco smell, but I do look up at some of the rafters and see strays of tobacco from years past, hanging down. You know, I feel good because it is part of history, and I left as much as I could of the original tobacco barn, with the beams showing. People said - oh, paint those (unintelligible). I'd say - no, because I think they're beautiful. I'm not a smoker and don't promote smoking, but I think there's a part of that culture that I'm pleased, you know, to have it preserved right now as a place to live, and talk to people about the culture and the history of tobacco.

ADAMS: Then Betty King, who sells the herbal tea, said, you've got to meet the garlic people a few stalls down. And so I did, and got an invitation. And the next day, I went to Madison County, and drove eight miles out Poosey Ridge.

Ms. JEAN PECHIS KING(ph) (Barn Owner, Kentucky): I love all the tobacco barns on Poosey.

ADAMS: And Jean Pechis King especially loves her barn, which is in the summertime filled with garlic. Jean and Leo King(ph) raise more than 30 varieties of garlic, and use the barn for drying. For a few months, it's garlic to the roof.

Mr. LEO KING (Garlic Farmer): We harvest pretty much full time, from the third week of May up until through June, if we need to, into July. But hopefully, we're out of the ground by the end of June. It all comes to the tobacco barn.

ADAMS: And Jean, where do you put it?

Ms. KING: It gets sorted first on this table here, and then it gets tied up into hands, which are about 10 or 12, or 15 garlics all tied up real tight. And then it gets hung over a tobacco stick, just like tobacco would and goes up, hangs on the rails, just like tobacco.

ADAMS: Our final tobacco barn visit is to southern Ohio, not far from the river. It's John Rutban's(ph) farm, and the buildings date back to 1830.

Mr. JOHN RUTBAN (Painter; Barn Owner, Ohio): Come on inside. I'll show you what some of the timbers look like. Do you even know what I'm talking about? Come on.

(Soundbite of sliding door)

You really get the feel of how open it is, so that the air can come through and dry the tobacco.

ADAMS: John Rutban has had a long career as a wildlife artist. He is well-known for his paintings of birds in natural settings. And to his eye, this black tobacco barn is art.

What is it that appeals to you as a painter?

Mr. RUTBAN: I love to open the doors just as we did then, and get this feeling of light piercing through here. And I've done a lot of paintings of different bird situations, of light coming through here. And also, I'm steeped in the lore of the history of what made this country, and this is one of the things -to hand build a barn like this and have the knowledge that something they did that long ago is still solid and strong.

ADAMS: For years and years, it was the tobacco money that made family farming possible in this part of Ohio and much of Kentucky. Cigarette smoking in the U.S. is now down 35 percent from 10 years ago. Imported tobacco comes in, especially from Brazil. No more price-support programs. And so, many farmers will grow vegetables for the markets, use the barn for garlic, or a restaurant, an art gallery, even as a place to live.

(Soundbite of music)

Noah Adams, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: This is NPR News.

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