The tobacco legacy

Summit examines importance of saving barns

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

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Staff photos by DARWIN WEIGEL
Peggy and Art Cochran of St. Leonard look over a display of various tobacco barns April 30 at the Southern Maryland 2010 Tobacco Barn Summit.

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Former Maryland Agriculture Secretary Hagner Mister and Caroline Trossbach of St. Mary's County look over a display for tobacco barns at the Southern Maryland 2010 Tobacco Barn Summit. Mister has restored and strengthened an old tobacco barn at his Barstow farm through a state restoration program and Trossbach is hoping to do the same on her family's farm.

Southern Maryland was once a working agricultural region. Tobacco was the principal crop and the basis of the area's economy for almost 400 years.

But tobacco, as a significant part of the local economy, has been in steady decline for the past 25 years. As the tobacco production waned, Southern Maryland went suburban and became part of metropolitan Washington, D.C. Much of the acreage formerly in agricultural production has been developed as residential subdivisions and commercial businesses.

There are still working tobacco farms in Southern Maryland, but their number is decreasing year by year. Some growers simply have stopped farming and let their fields go fallow. Many of the region's tobacco farmers took the tobacco buyout, which provided farmers with an alternative cash income for several years while they developed other agricultural crops to replace tobacco as their cash crop. A farmer who signed up for the buyout funds could not raise tobacco during that buyout period.

So, many of the tobacco barns, built specifically for storing and curing Maryland tobacco, sit unused. It's still common to see old tobacco barns standing in uncultivated, weedy fields on the back roads in the four Southern Maryland counties. Some of these barns are in fair condition, others are barely there; 20 years or more of disuse and neglect have reduced them to lopsided wrecks, ghosts of their former sturdy selves.

In 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Southern Maryland tobacco barns as the 11th most endangered historical properties in the nation. The Maryland preservation community held a tobacco barns summit meeting in 2004 to study the situation and develop an action plan. A Southern Maryland Tobacco Barns coalition was formed at that 2004 summit specifically to work on barn preservation issues.

On the last Friday in April, the Tom Wisner Hall at King's Landing Park hosted Maryland's preservation elite at the second Southern Maryland Tobacco Barn Summit. Staff from state agencies, Preservation Maryland, the Maryland Historical Trust, members of the local county historical commissions, county and state politicians and interested members of the general public met to hear what actions must be taken to preserve tobacco barns in Calvert, St. Mary's, Charles and Prince George's counties.

Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, gave an overview and history of the 2004 summit, the work that has been completed to date and plans for the future. This plan, Gearhart noted, included nominating four of the most historically significant tobacco barns for National Trust for Historic Preservation designation.

But National Trust designation alone won't keep those barns in good shape; like any other building, particularly wooden buildings, they require regular maintenance as they continue to age, which takes money, research and specialized carpentry know-how. Many of the people who knew how to maintain and repair the barns are no longer with us.

"Unfortunately, there's no ‘silver bullet'— no one easy answer," Gearhart said.

J. Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust and the State Historic Preservation officer, agreed.

"This event [summit] is the next step in ‘what to do,'" Little said. "The disappearing barns represent the tobacco culture that has been the basis of Maryland's economy since the 17th century. We have some barns that are from the late 18th and 19th century.

"Barns are utilitarian, — working structures — they weren't built to last," Little said. "The barns weren't built for esthetics, as were many historic residences. It's not an easy task to preserve these barns. There's the pressure of development coming from Washington, D.C. The traditional character of Southern Maryland is disappearing. Most of these [surviving] barns are owned by working farmers, and won't be saved when they're no longer of use to the farmers."

Little applauded the work of the Tobacco Barns coalition and the other preservation groups and agencies. An important component of this preservation effort is to develop strategies for raising funds to preserve these barns. National recognition of the importance of Southern Maryland tobacco barns would help to leverage grant support from federal programs as well as grants and gifts from corporate and private donors.

A detailed historical and architectural structural survey of Southern Maryland tobacco barns, funded by a 2007 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust, has been completed. Lori O. Thursby, senior architectural historian of the firm of TEC Inc., reported the findings of the survey of tobacco barns from the oldest surviving — a barn from the 1790s — to the 1960s.

Thursby noted that the barns were often hard to categorize as typical of particular eras, because the barns often were modified over generations for the changing needs of the farmer's crops. Sheds of various kinds and sizes often were added for other types of crops, or other storage needs.

"Tobacco barns weren't built to impress, they were built for use, so seldom stay as originally built," Thursby said.

One survey project goal was to identify barns that would be eligible for National Register status. The survey also demonstrated how these local tobacco barns were unique compared to barns in other parts of the country.

If the barns are to be saved, they must work for their keep. This, in many cases, means adaptive reuse. Recent expansion of the zoning ordinance permits wider use of adaptation of the barns. Barn owners who want to adapt their barns to other uses need this help.

"Tobacco barn construction is very specialized. There are very few other uses possible without redesign," said Kirsti Uunila, Calvert County historic preservation specialist and one of the organizers of the summit.

Why work so hard and commit resources for something that clearly has outlived its original use? Well, not only because the Southern Maryland tobacco barns are unique and picturesque, that's for sure. They not only represent, "a way of life — barns are important because they're not only part of what was, but what has to be. The preservationists and the farmers need to work together to find ways to make agriculture sustainable after the tobacco buyout is over," Uunila said. "They [barns] have a role to play in regional agricultural in the future. They're not important only for historical and cultural issues."

The website of the Maryland Historical Trust has further information, at