Saturday, July 4, 2015

Barns and Tobacco

Barns and Tobacco

To farmers, barns were as essential as houses. Tall hay stacks were stored at the side of the plank or log barn and also in the hayloft, which had doors that opened on both ends.  Wagons could drive through and hay could be pitched up through a set of overhead hay doors, from either end, into the hay loft. Rooms were built to hold tack, equipment, and grain bins for oats and corn.  Stalls that sheltered the animals were built with feed boxes where several cows were milked twice a day, morning and evening, without fail.  Most of the time, the boys did the milking unless they had to get out to the fields early.  When that happened, the girls pitched in and did the milking.  Milk was kept for family use to be used for cooking and making butter and the rest was either poured into the hog troughs or large buckets to sour.  The hogs, chickens and geese liked the curdled milk and whey.

The barn was a great place for farm kids to play, especially on a rainy day when the hay was dry and sweet and the rain could be heard peppering down on the roof.  Barns provided a good place to play hide and seek, and it was fun to climb up the ladder into the hayloft and hide and play in the straw stacks.  The barn was also a place where a lot of work was turned out in all seasons, like shelling corn, rubbing linseed oil on the shovel, axe, rake and hoe handles to make them last longer, oiling the leather harnesses, bridles, and saddles to soften and preserve them, or straightening out a keg of bent nails.


If a farmer raised tobacco to bring in a little cash to help make ends meet every year, then he also needed a tobacco barn.  In Ohio County, they raised burley tobacco.  To make a tobacco crop required an enormous amount of back-breaking work and it was pretty much a year around job.  Everyone in the family who was old enough was expected to help with tobacco work.  It constantly had to be manipulated, hoed, handled, and every leaf examined to oversee its development, from the time the seeds were first planted in the “burn beds” until it was delivered and weighed for sale at market, usually in the months of November or December. 

To begin the laborious process, the farmer burned the previous year’s old plant bed site.  Plant beds were usually about 9 feet wide and about 100 feet long or so, depending on the number of tobacco acres he planned to cultivate. The farmer piled wood on the old plant bed and set it on fire to kill and get rid of the weeds and grass seeds.  Burning was usually done near dusk and the farmer raked the fire and spread the ashes to make sure every inch was covered. 

Then he planted the seeds and kept the plant bed weeded until the little plants grew large enough to set out in the field.  Next he transplanted the tobacco sets to newly plowed, fertilized fields, and later as it grew, walked up and down the rows, picking off the big horned, speckled green tobacco worms.  Fields were plowed and grass and weeds chopped several times, then the tobacco was primed, stripped and cut.  Finally it was time to take the cut tobacco leaves, load them onto wagons, and take them to the barns to be fire-cured for ten days or so. 

“Firing” (fire-curing) tobacco took a lot of close attention and work.  Sawdust was used in low-smoldering trenches or pits.  The farmer had to manage and control the heat, humidity, and air circulation in his barn, extremely necessary to market good yields of high quality tobacco.  

Occasionally, a few tobacco barns burned down every year, in spite of all the care the farmers took to keep their fires at a low smolder.  One newspaper article in the Hartford Herald reported a barn that burned in September, 1905, for example:

            “The large tobacco barn of Mr. Jeff Smith was burned Tuesday night,
            with about 175,000 pounds of tobacco in it.  The loss was covered by

Another news item reported in the Centertown Record on January 6, 1915:   

            “A tobacco barn burned in Centertown.  It belonged to Sam Smith
of Rochester, was worth $2,000, and was not insured.”

Burned barns of any kind were a major loss for farmers.  If it contained both tobacco and hay, it burned fast and hot.  Not only did they lose their tobacco (their livelihood), but they may have also lost the feed for their animals and their farm equipment, not to mention losing their wagon or perhaps a horse-drawn buggy parked there, and perhaps a bushel or two of walnuts that had been picked up in the fall. 
"After the curing process, the tobacco was ready to move and had to be packed up in a pile with all the tips turned one way, then pinned with all the sticks to the outside for ventilation purposes, then graded, by sorting into three or four grades, depending on the color. 

Lastly, the farmer bundled the cured tobacco into bales, before it was sent off to market or warehouse auction, where he prayed for a good price when it was auctioned off to the highest bidder.

In Ohio County, old weathered tobacco barns, some as old as eighty to a hundred years, could be seen with practically every curve of a country road.

On a farm there was always something for everybody to do – every minute of every day - sunup to sunset.  All said and done, most farm work was a matter of survival.

Submitted by Janice Brown

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Note:  The following comments are from Billy Morris, a long-time resident of Ohio County:

           "My father raised tobacco. We burned tobacco beds but I don’t remember using the same location twice.  This was early in the year. I know logs outlined the bed and canvas was stretched over the bed. We usually put tomato and cabbage seen in one corner of the bed.         
          I know the tobacco seed was real small black seeds. They usually mixed corn meal with them so you could see where you had put the seed and not sew it twice. I never liked working in tobacco as it was hot and sticky job. The green sap would get all over you some of the meanest looking worms you can find. Most people grew burley but some raised dark. Ours was always air cured; the old barn had so many holes in it the air blew through. The amount you could grow was controlled by the government. All we had was 1/2 acre."

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Map showing major growing area for burley tobacco:

Typical Burley Tobacco

                    The origin of White Burley tobacco was credited to George Webb and Joseph Fore in 1864, who grew it on the farm of Captain Frederick Kautz near Higginsport, Ohio, from seed from Bracken County, Kentucky . He noticed it yielded a different type of light leaf shaded from white to yellow, and cured differently. By 1866, he harvested 20,000 pounds of Burley tobacco and sold it in 1867 at the St. Louis Fair for $58 per hundred pounds (Note: I think this price is totally inaccurate). By 1883, the principal market for this tobacco was Cincinnati, but it was grown throughout central Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. In 1880 Kentucky produced 36 percent of the total national tobacco production, and was first in the country, with nearly twice as much tobacco produced as by Virginia, then the second-place state. Later the type became referred to as burley tobacco, which is air-cured.  Source: Wikipedia

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