Barn Saving

The Tobacco Barn Preservation Project honors a way of life that has all but disappeared.

If you’ve ever cruised a Southside Virginia back road, no doubt you’ve noticed them: The grayed or blackened shells of old tobacco barns, some standing for more than 100 years, overrun by vines and brush, their wooden frames so distorted with age they appear to be falling in slow motion, toppling toward the earth. 

Hoping to reclaim some portion of extant Dan River region barns before it’s too late, in 2013, private Richmond-based non-profit Preservation Virginia partnered with Danville’s JTI Leaf Company to institute the Tobacco Barn Preservation Project. “In Southside Virginia, tobacco farming shaped the culture, people and landscape for many, many generations,” says Preservation Virginia’s Danville field representative Sonja Ingram, who is leading the project. “And in the rural areas the only sign that remains of that history is these barns.”

At the height of the tobacco industry there were probably 5,000-6,000 barns in this area, says Ingram, a former archaeologist. The project’s mission is two-fold: restore and save the most significant and picturesque barns in Pittsylvania and Halifax counties in Virginia, and Caswell County in North Carolina, and compile a book about their history. To accomplish these goals, the organization has partnered with volunteers from local historical societies and others to survey the barns—most of which were built between the 1860s and 1940s—photograph their condition and architecture, and interview families to acquire historical information and heirloom photographs. Meanwhile, with JTI Leaf contributing $100,000 in funding each year, and other private sources pitching in as well, to date Ingram and nine other TBPS employees have successfully revitalized more than 45 barns. 

“You grew up seeing them all over the place and kind of taking them for granted,” says 40-year-old Scott County agricultural extension agent Scott Jerrell who, as a kid, worked on his grandfather’s tobacco farm. “You know they’re getting old and in pretty bad shape, but it’s not something you really think about. Then one day one of them collapses and you realize that barn was an important part of your life—it was part of who you are.” PreservationVirginia.org


Bright Leaf Legacy

Methods for curing tobacco may have modernized, but family recipes remain fiercely guarded. Click here to discover more about these secret methods, passed down for generations. And for the complete legacy of tobacco in Virginia, click here to read more about the industry’s past, present and future and here for a look at vintage tobacco tools and products from the Tobacco Farm Life Museum.

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