September 12, 2004
Tobacco Barns Becoming Endangered in Maryland
By GARY M. GATELY
HUNTINGTOWN, Md. - Inside the big red tobacco barn, John Prouty's mind meanders through the decades. He can almost see the canopy of stalks, almost smell their sweet scent as he fondly recalls how he stood about 25 feet up on a wooden tier as a child, hanging tobacco to cure.
Now, the tobacco is gone, and the fragrant aroma of fresh-cut flowers fills a room in the barn where workers once stripped leaves off tobacco stalks. Just outside, on a field where stalks once stood, a kaleidoscope of color - yellow, pink, purple, orange, white - bursts from the soil.
On the 160-acre farm, where Mr. Prouty also grows corn, soybeans and wheat, the barn took on a new purpose after he accepted a state buyout designed to discourage tobacco growing.
Mr. Prouty's success in his flower business - and his commitment to maintaining the five barns on his farm here - hearten preservationists who hope to save these distinctive wood-frame barns with vertical planks and sharply pitched tin roofs. In late May, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the Southern Maryland tobacco barns on its annual list of most endangered historic places.
With tobacco fast fading from the landscape after nearly four centuries of reigning as Southern Maryland's cash crop, the barns have become an endangered species. They have been torn down by owners who quit tobacco farming, bulldozed to make way for new houses or simply succumbed to nature and neglect, rotting after sitting dormant.
"It would be a tragedy to lose them, and unfortunately, we are losing some each year," said Richard Moe, president of the national trust. "They're fast disappearing because of development and because tobacco farming is on its way out. We could lose the story, the connection of 400 years of history."
Over the years, the antismoking movement, the declining demand for tobacco, the growing pressures of land development, the aging of tobacco farmers and a shortage of laborers have contributed to the decline of tobacco farms in Maryland.
But more than any other factor, the state program for buying out tobacco farmers speeded the shift away from the crop. When the payments began in 2001, more than 1,000 farmers grew tobacco in Maryland. Today, that number is about 150.
The state used part of the money from the settlement of states' lawsuits against the tobacco industry for medical expenses linked to smoking to finance the program. It guarantees former tobacco farmers income for a decade, based on their crop volume from 1996 to 1998. In exchange, the farmers agreed to continue using their land for agriculture for a decade and to never again grow tobacco for human consumption.
Mr. Prouty, whose farm sits along the expansive Patuxent River (named for an Indian word thought to mean "place where tobacco grows") takes pride in keeping his barns looking good and functioning. He uses other barns on his farm for storing hay and farm equipment and has added a greenhouse to one. But with tobacco farming fading so quickly, he worries about the fate of the old barns on other farms.
"Tobacco barns that aren't maintained almost like a house that's not maintained can deteriorate very rapidly" said Mr. Prouty, 49. "And if we wait 5 or 10 years and say, 'We really ought to do something to save some of these barns,' a lot of them would be at a point where it's already too late. In 15 or 20 years, maybe there'd be virtually nothing left to even remind you that tobacco-growing ever once was."
The airy barns with thin gaps between boards and long vertical slats that open to allow a cross breeze had been built for slowly air-curing tobacco. Unless their owners find alternative uses, many of the estimated 5,000 barns will very likely disappear. Thus, much of the preservation effort focuses on helping farmers find new uses for old farms, like growing flowers, nursery plants, Christmas trees, soy, produce, or grapes for wines.
Some former tobacco farmers, like Joseph Wood, have turned their farms into tourist destinations. Dozens of farmers have stopped by Mr. Wood's place in St. Mary's County to get a look at his fledgling agri-tourism business.
Mr. Wood strolled through a 19th-century barn with hand-hewn wooden supports where he and his father and his grandfather used to hang tobacco. He has converted the barn to a petting zoo. On one wall, farm tools like a sickle and a knife for cutting tobacco from stalks hang like a museum display beneath a sign that reads, "The Good Old Days." Not far away, a sign of the times reads, "No smoking."
Outside, on fields where tobacco used to grow, children frolic in the maze Mr. Wood carved from a cornfield, take hay rides through the farmlands, and, around Halloween, head for the pumpkin patch and screech in the haunted house, which is inside another old tobacco barn.
Nearby, a shop built to resemble an old barn sells apples, which Mr. Wood now grows, along with produce, gourmet pies and freshly cut mums.
"Everything you see out here in the fields used to be tobacco," Mr. Wood said. "We knew we had to do something different and do it quickly because the tobacco settlement payment would run out in 10 years."
Kirk E. Ranzetta, a historian who is writing a book about the architecture of St. Mary's County, views the barns as vital links to the past, replete with lessons plantation owners as well as sharecroppers and slaves who worked the fields.
"The tobacco barns have become an important statement about what that culture was all about," Mr. Ranzetta said. "They have a story to tell about the past, from the 17th century on, and provide a wonderful window into that lifestyle."
Preservationists and farmers from five counties in Southern Maryland plan a meeting in November to try to find ways to save the old barns.
The national trust's "Barn Again!" program provides technical and financial aid for adapting historic barns for agricultural use. And some federal lawmakers, including Senator Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, are pushing for $10 million in federal financing for a nationwide program to preserve historic barns. (Congress created the program two years ago but has yet to finance it.)
Not so long ago, the barns seemed a permanent part of the landscape, said Cathy Hardy, a historic preservation planner for Charles County.
"At first," Ms. Hardy said, "the thought of preserving them seemed a little funny. But now, at a time when things look more and more the same, you really cherish the things that make your area unique."
Tobacco barns are almost never red.
That's right. Damn city slickers must be looking at dairy barns, in Baltimore County, no doubt.
I grew up on a tobacco farm and they are typically "finshed" au natural.
Most of those old barns are falling down. We took ours down a couple years ago, I felt like I had lost a family member. Half of them are owned by widows or heirs that either cannot or will not bother. Who could afford to upkeep an unused barn when farming barely fed you anymore. Tobacco never was much of a cash crop when you think about what goes into it and how bad it burns out the soil. To make it work at all, you had to put soybeans in to restore the nitrogen every year, and soybeans were a loss for small scale farmers. Unless you had livestock too, chemical fertilizer costs will eat you alive. There was a time where the last generation of farmers took out more than they put back, and poor sand is abundant in tobacco country.
The barns aren't so much a tragedy as the fields. Around here (AA county), almost any farm can be sold for way more than you'd ever earn on it and it is almost impossible to compete with the big scale farming on the shore. My family is talking about selling the remaining part of the old farm, the only thing stopping them is the school system will not support another development right now.
There is a lot of good lumber in some of those old barns, not as much chestnut beams as the big dairy barns more north and west, but a lot of wide pine and oak planks you just don't see anymore. Many owners see them as a huge liability - risk of fire and the kids are always trespassing and playing in or around the barn. In today's litagation-driven society, you just cannot afford kids in your barn. I have friends that take them down for salvage and make a pretty good living at it.
One of Calvert's former commissioners lost a tobacco barn to a fire a few years back, only about a mile from my parents' house.
The fire fighters stayed far, far back from it as they were worried about nicotine posioning (the sucker was packed to the brim with drying tobacco and the roof was hit by lightning). I think everyone in the neighborhood got a buzz off it.