The counties of the Dan River State Crossings grew up as tobacco powerhouses. That legacy has largely faded but is still visible in the region’s beautiful tobacco barns.
Farmers used the barns to cure tobacco, mostly with flues—furnaces about two feet across and three feet high that burnt wood to produce heat and generate smoke. Flues evolved over the years but remained important to the tobacco industry until the 1970s. Bulk-curing barns made flues a thing of the past.
History of flue-curing
The process of flue-curing has its roots in 1839, according to a survey of Pittsylvania County tobacco farms. Stephen Slade, an enslaved person owed by Abisha Slade near the Virginia border in Caswell County, North Carolina, used charcoal to restart a fire in a tobacco barn. The surge of heat turned the leaves bright yellow. Stephen Slade had accidentally produced the first true “bright” tobacco. Abisha Slade used the discovery to develop a system for producing “bright” tobacco by heat curing tobacco grown in thin soils.
The development turned the otherwise fairly infertile, sandy soils of the Piedmont into a profitable bed for tobacco. Because of flue-curing, Piedmont farms reached 20–35 times their previous worth, and by 1855, the region led Virginia’s tobacco market.
Legacy of tobacco barns
Here’s how a historical marker in Pittsylvania County describes the function of tobacco barns:
“By the latter decades of the 19th century, bright-leaf tobacco harvested across Southside Virginia was typically cured in hand-hewn log barns outfitted with wood-burning stoves. Inside these barns, tobacco leaves were hung from sticks that rested on horizontal tier-poles. Flues (or ducts) distributed heat, which cured the leaves while protecting them from smoke. The leaves were then stored in pack barns, graded for quality, and sent to auction. Flue-cure tobacco barns were retrofitted with oil and gas burners after World War II and fell into disuse with the introduction of bulk-curing barns in the 1970s.”
Documentation and preservation
Tobacco barns grew up throughout the landscape in southern Virginia and Piedmont North Carolina. In the 21st century, historical groups have invested in the preservation of tobacco barns on both sides of the state line.
Preservation Virginia began its work with tobacco barns after they appeared on its 2009 Most Endangered Historic Places list. The group conducted an architectural survey of tobacco barns, held public workshops on barn repair and recorded oral histories by tobacco farmers. It also partnered with JTI Leaf Services in Danville to provide mini-grants for historic tobacco barns in Pittsylvania and Halifax Counties in Virginia and Caswell County, North Carolina.
Preservation and JTI Leaf Services also collaborated to publish “Tobacco Barns, Preserving History in the Old Belt,” which showcases more than 60 historic tobacco barns that have benefitted from the program.
Kinds of tobacco barns
In the backroads of the Dan River State Crossings, you’ll find two categories of tobacco farms: curing barns and pack barns.
Curing barns are used to cure tobacco leaves after they are harvested. They’re constructed in a variety of ways, but their interiors usually contain tier poles in which tobacco leaves were hung on sticks to cure.
Pack barns are used to store, humidify, strip, grade and tie tobacco before it’s taken to market. As with curing barns, pack barns exhibit a variety of styles. Most have at least a ground floor, a storage loft and an ordering pit. Ordering pits were basements where cured tobacco leaves were hung so moisture would make them pliable for grading and tying.
Tobacco barns in the Dan River region
The Reynolds Homestead in Patrick County, Virginia, includes a reconstructed tobacco barn as part of its exhibits. You can also see an original brick kitchen, a brick milk house, a log icehouse and a log granary at the historic site.
You can find hundreds if not thousands of tobacco barns through Southside Virginia and Piedmont North Carolina. They often pop out of the landscape where least expected. They’re another part of the history and heritage of the Dan River State Crossings. What else will you discover?