Burning Down the Barn

One of the big things we had on the farm was tobacco barns. No real surprise as we were primarily tobacco farmers. We had beef cattle and lots of gardens, but when it came down to it, we raised tobacco.  As Caswell County, North Carolina is the home of a type of tobacco curing called “bright leaf” tobacco, we were proud of our beautiful golden leaves.


Bright leaf tobacco came about from a mistake in 1839 according to learnnc.org and a historical marker located about two miles from our farm. 

Bright leaf tobacco came about from a mistake in 1839 according to learnnc.org and a historical marker located about two miles from our farm.  The story goes as follows:

In 1839, a twist of fate led to one of the most significant breakthroughs in North Carolina agriculture history. Tobacco had always been a major crop for the region, but not until the accidental development of the “bright leaf” variety did the market for the product start booming.

Stephen was a slave on the farm of planter Abisha Slade near the Virginia border in Caswell County. He worked as a blacksmith on the Slade farm. Another of his jobs was overseeing the curing process of the tobacco crop. On one occasion, due to the warmth created by the fire, Stephen fell asleep during the process. A few hours later, he woke up to find the fire almost completely out. To try to keep the heat going, he rushed to his charcoal pit (part of his blacksmithing operation) and threw hot coals on the fire which created a sudden, immense heat. The heat from the charred logs cured the tobacco quickly, leaving it with a vivid yellow color.

The flue-cured tobacco became known as bright leaf tobacco, and the variety became popular with smokers. Other farmers learned of and used the new process as well. Although the discovery took place on a Piedmont plantation, farmers in the coastal plains soon adopted the process and constructed curing barns by the hundreds. By 1857, Abisha Slade was harvesting 20,000 pounds annually and making some of the highest profits ever. Bright leaf tobacco led North Carolina to a dominant position in the tobacco industry.

Our farm contained four tobacco barns and a pack house. These were very normal. You were starting a barn of tobacco once a week. It would take a good week to “cure” a barn. Then you had to move it out to the pack house at some point. As a result, you needed, at least, three barns to keep the crop moving.

In the August 2013 issue of the North Carolina based “Our State” magazine, they had an article titled “The Story of Tobacco Barns in North Carolina” by Susan S. Kelly. The article stated that in the 1950s there were half a million tobacco barns in North Carolina covering the five different tobacco belts in the state. Most barns, like ours, was made from hand hewn logs and mortar.

Each barn had a story. Why it was located there; when it was built and the strong smell of cured tobacco inside. They were located near the pack house. Each one had a shed on one or more sides to allow people to sleep nearby and tend the fires during the curing process. We had one larger shed where we would “string” the tobacco on wooden sticks by hand using twine. These would be hung on the “tier poles” inside the barn later in the day. Next began the curing process. This process took about a week, depending on the humidity. The goal was to generate a beautiful bright golden leaf that was still flexible but dry to the touch. Each farmer had a few special tricks up his sleeve to get a beautiful leaf.  As stated above, in our region of the state, the trick was to raise the heat at the end of the process to get the golden leaf effect.

The tobacco was cured with wood from the farm normally. It was a lot of work to cut the trees down over the winter and create stacks of wood that would be dry enough for the summer use.  These wood piles were located a few steps from the flues of the barn for ease of access.  With time and cost, barns moved to fuel oil next and finally to propane gas with time. Now most tobacco farms use propane in a metal prepurchased tin barn.

It is very obvious that there were many tobacco barn fires in those years.  Many fire departments in parts of the state were created in response to barn fires, I believe.

My first exposure to fire was from a tobacco barn fire on our farm. I was probably about eight years old, but the event is still fresh in my mind. We were cooking hamburgers in the yard about six p.m. and suddenly there was a big crash and smoke, and fire filled the air.  The Providence Volunteer Fire Department was called, and they showed up with three trucks and lots of people. Tankers were sent down to our pond repeatedly for water. I spend most of the evening watching the fire. Obviously, I was not as close as I wanted to be but I was amazed at the hard work and effort of the firefighters. Luckily, no one was hurt and at the end of the evening, the tobacco and the barn were gone. The shell survived, thanks to the fire department and we rebuilt the barn and converted it from wood to fuel oil.  The barn stands to this day.

So what is the lesson from this history lesson?  As of now there are only 50,000 tobacco barns still standing today. Time has taken a toll on them. Lack of use, weather, fires and Father Time has seen these structures fall and crumble into a pile of logs for the most part. A few are being reclaimed as historic sites, and some are moved and restored by people with a heart for history and the past.

The barns are a relic of the past. They represent our past and times of hard work and dedication to history.  We should honor our past but not live in it. The past is gone, and respect it. Today we live in a very different world. It is one of technology and fast-moving news and new threats. The late Sherman Pickard, former Fire Chief in Raleigh, North Carolina was quoted to say, “Knowledge of the past, breeds an appreciation for the future.” This will always remain true.

Ken Farmer is Section Chief, Leadership and Fire Risk Reduction at the National Fire Academy, United States Fire Administration in Maryland. Email him at ken.farmer@dhs.gov.

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