It was the smoking barns that first drew me down the rabbit hole of learning about the tobacco plant, Nicotiana. I had no idea the billows of smoke that hovered around these barns came from a curing process that has been used to preserve tobacco leaves for hundreds of years.
In retrospect, I’m so glad I didn’t call the fire department! My friends who grew up on farms with smoking tobacco barns said strangers were always coming to their door to inform them their barns were on fire.
These alluring barns with their hovering fog-like smoke are everywhere in the agriculturally rich fields of Kentucky.
It wasn’t until I opened the door of this historical barn that I became enamored with the mottled leaves hanging on racks that rested on a series of ever-rising rafters and the low-burning fire beneath.
The architecture of the barns, the tantalizing smell of the drying leaves, and the agricultural history associated with the growth and harvest of tobacco have captivated my attention ever since.
The Tobacco Barns
There are two types of barns built for curing tobacco in Kentucky: those specifically constructed for air-curing and those built for wood-firing. Which barn one uses depends on how the tobacco will ultimately be finished. Flavored tobaccos like those used in pipe blends, snuff and tobacco chew, are smoke or fire-cured in barns that are tightly sealed and have smokestacks. Cigarette and cigar blends, which use a higher grade tobacco known locally as Burley, are simply air-cured in barns that allow for a cross breeze.
Tobacco that is to be air-cured goes into barns built for air-circulation with small open spaces between the wall slats that allow air to blow through.
They do not have smokestacks.
Here is another one. This air-curing style barn is my favorite.
Notice the light coming in through the open spaces in the walls. And the rafters. Notice the rafters. So beautiful! When I am standing in this barn, I feel like I am standing in a church.
Here is a photo of the same barn filled to the ceiling with tobacco. There are seven levels of rafters to hang the tobacco.
When the wind is blowing, the sound of the leaves rustling is lovely. Add to that the smell of the tobacco and the whole thing is intoxicating. Take a look at this video.
There are a few telltale signs that a roadside barn is built for wood-firing. Besides the smokestacks, there is always a stack of wood,
and a hill of sawdust near the barn, which are used to build and keep a low-burning fire smoldering on the floor of the barn for weeks.
Here is the interior of a historic wood-burning barn at The Land Between the Lakes Homeplace. The smoldering fire is built in ditches on the ground.
Compare that to the interior of a commercial wood-burning barn. Same concept, but in this barn, there is about six inches of firewood covered by a full 18 inches of sawdust.
To create the low-burning fire, the farmer makes a series of evenly spaced holes in each row of sawdust for the entire length of the barn. He then stuffs straw in each hole and pours a little diesel fuel into the holes. Once he ignites the straw, it burns and connects with the wood stack underneath. The fire gently smolders for about a week. At this particular barn, the entire process is repeated later for another week to finish off the dehydration and smoke-curing process. I’ve read that the goal of curing tobacco is to get the moisture count of the leaves down to twenty percent so they can be transported for finishing without crumbling.
I haven’t witnessed how the seeds are started, but a farmer told me they are started in seed trays and planted in the ground in May.
In July, the farmers “top” the plants, removing the flowering seed heads to encourage more robust leaf production. Any new leaves that try to grow are individually suckered off by farmers, or they are sprayed to halt new growth.
That brings us to late August. The plants turn yellow indicating they have ripened and are ready for harvest.
You can read up on the different varieties of light and dark tobacco leaves, and the sugar content of the leaves here.
The farmers begin the harvest process in late August or early September depending on the weather and ripeness of the tobacco leaves.
Here are the tools of the trade for harvest: a tobacco knife, a tobacco spear and a rack of tobacco sticks.
First, the stalks are chopped down at ground level with a tobacco knife. Meanwhile, someone goes up and down the rows of tobacco plants and places a tobacco harvesting stick on the ground about every six feet.
Next, a farmer comes through, picks up a stalk and pierces it with a black tobacco spear placed over a tobacco stick. The farmer threads up to six stalks onto each stick and then moves onto another stick. This process is called “sticking.”
This farmer kindly allowed me to take a video of him sticking. It follows.
The many speared piles look like a row of small haystacks when seen in a field.
Next, the stalk-laden sticks are gathered and laid across the top bars of a metal tobacco transporter.
The transporters are pulled by a tractor to the curing barn where the racks of stalks (on the sticks) are hauled up into the rafters of a barn for drying.
I thought for sure the farmers had some sort of lifting machine to do the job of raising the sticks up to the ceiling, however, they do not. It is all done by hand.
Another farmer named Ernesto graciously showed me how he and his team of men passed the sticks, loaded with stalks, up to the top row of rafters, bucket-brigade style. I love this video. It shows the hard work that goes into climbing up the rafters, passing the sticks up, and ultimately hanging the tobacco stalks to dry.
I am so grateful to the migrant farmers who allowed me to film them at what is a very hard job done in very hot weather.
Related Posts on Commercial Farming in the Area
Raising Sorghum Cane
How Canola Oil is Made (from plants grown locally)
How Local Canola Crops are Grown
Farming Equipment 101: Harvesting Winter Wheat
I have enjoyed learning about the harvest and curing of tobacco. I would love to hear your stories, so please feel free to include a comment if you ever worked or lived on a tobacco farm and can shed more light on the practice of raising and harvesting tobacco.
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28 thoughts on “The Tobacco Barns of Trigg County, Kentucky”
This is very interesting, and a lot more information than I ever knew about tobacco curing! But I think I have a surprising tidbit for you, since you didn’t mention it:
Did you know that there is a tobacco-growing region right here in Massachusetts? Yep. In the Connecticut River Valley. For years I used to pass tobacco barns when I rode at the UMass Amherst barn. And there is a little tobacco museum in CT; I once enjoyed an unplanned visit on my way to Bradley airport. I don’t know if there is any smoke-curing done on these farms, but the walls of the barns were built in a clever way such that every other upright board can be removed for ventilation – I guess as a panel, not as individual boards, but I never had the chance to go through one and find out. I bet if you were here, you would have investigated! 🙂
Quinn, funny you should mention that. A friend of mine from CT just sent me a message this morning telling me about these CT barns. I had no idea. She mentioned something about louvered walls on the barns which might be the same thing you are talking about. I’m going to try and find the website for this tobacco museum you mentioned, too. I’m so glad you shared this information. And you are right on, I would have definitely asked my hubby to drive down the gravel road to that barn.
Judy, thanks for writing about this. My mother grew up in Stewart County (Tennessee), just across the state line from Trigg County. Her father was a tobacco farmer, and Mom used to tell me about watching him and her brothers climbing into the rafters of their tobacco barn. I don’t know if their barn was built for air curing or wood firing, and now I wish I could ask her!
We’ll just add that question to all the others we didn’t ask our Moms, right Gloria? I think I would have enjoyed climbing rafters as a kid, although gosh, the work must have been hard. Meanwhile, I LOVE hearing stories about people’s histories with growing tobacco. I’ve been surprised to find out this morning about people growing tobacco in MA and CT, where I hail from.
What a great detailed history about tobacco! Thanks!
I saw my first smoking tobacco barns while visiting a friend in Robertson County, Tn a couple of weeks ago. I had know idea. I grew up in Putnam County, Tn with lots of tobacco farms around but we must have had the air cured barns. I remember many of my high school friends harvesting tobacco back in the 80’s before migrant workers were doing the work.
My dad grew up on a tobacco farm in Casey County, KY, and they heat-cured the tobacco. His dad had a barn with big coal-burning cast iron stoves in it. He said he remembered the worms falling out of the tobacco leaves and hitting those stoves and sizzling like crazy.
Becca, I LOVE this story! As a vegetable gardener, I’d love to watch those leaf-eating worms burn. This is the first I have heard about a coal-burning method of curing. So interesting. Thank you!
I really learned all about tobacco and enjoyed your post!
Thanks, Teri! I’ve learned a lot this morning about the tobacco barns in New England. Had no idea, or maybe just didn’t care about such things when I was young and growing up.
Interesting….mom used to ask them same thing coming out of our house shed 😬
Samuel A Culotta Jr. President, Broker – Owner Platinum Group Companies, LLC
Funny, Charles just posted something similar on my Facebook page. We all have our memories of the shed and Mom.
Judy, This was a really interesting post. Love the images, the information and the commentary. Fascinating.
Thanks for showing me what an air-curing barn looks like! I always thought those were just crappily built. “Well this barn looks nice, but that one looks like crap! Look- you can see light between the slats of wood! That can’t be good.” Now I know. Most of them are for air-curing tobacco. The rest ARE just crappily built barns. 🙂
Wonderful article!! You have photos of so many barns!
On Fri, Sep 23, 2016 at 6:51 AM, @judyschickens wrote:
> Judy’s Chickens posted: “It was the smoking barns that first drew me down > the rabbit hole of learning about the tobacco plant, Nicotiana. I had no > idea the billows of smoke that hovered around these barns came from a > curing process that has been used to preserve tobacco leaves fo” >
Thanks, Mary. We enjoy visiting farms.
I live on a farm in Robertson county. We used to raise tobacco. Years ago when one of our sons was around twelve we “gave him about an acre to raise his own tobacco. The whole family pitched in to help plant. I rode on the tobacco setter which is a large machine that has a kind of rotating wheel with slots which you put the tobacco plants in and then the machine plants them in the soil. It is much harder than it sounds. Not only is it rhythmic and you have to stay in sync with the rotation but you have to put the plant in the slot correctly. If you don’t, the plant gets planted upside down, with the roots sticking up in the air!
Varina, thank you for taking the time to explain this process. I’m wondering if the machine is like the one I have photos of in my post about planting slips of sweet potatoes. If you get a chance, take a look at that post and let me know.
Also, I like the idea of the family getting involved in planting your son’s acre. A friend of mine wrote to tell me about the hanging process and how hard the work was, but how she had fond memories because the family did the work together.
My first job out of college was in the lower part of our state, where tobacco was the big thing. I worked in the agricultural extension service office and occasionally would tag along with one of the ag agents to take the soil temperature. (Still have no clue why they did that.) They laughed when the first time I wore sandals only to find out that walking out through a field was like walking through a bed of coals! The SC vocabulary was slightly different. They “cropped” tobacco to remove the tops. Stringing tobacco for hanging was a huge deal. About the time I was there, the change was being made to bulk curing. So glad I got to see those rickety (that’s what they looked like to me) old barns. The bulk barns just lacked the charm. The one thing I didn’t see while I was there was a tobacco auction. There was a huge one in our county. A few years later, all of that was gone. I was only in the lowcountry county for one year, but it’s a year I remember fondly.
I loved reading this. So your first job was with the local county ag office? Fantastic! And in sandals! I won’t go near a field now without long pants and boots, but I probably would have showed up in sandals, too. So young! Growing tobacco is hard very work, and as you know, most of it has to be done by hand. Most of the tobacco farmers I saw in KY were migrant workers from Mexico here for five months. When I shot the photos, it was 97 degrees, but they seem unfazed and continued to work at a good clip under the hot sun. Thanks for writing.